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Alabama Governor's Comment -- and Our Response -- Was Wrong

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Who is included in your spiritual or ideological family? Who are your "brothers and sisters"? What is your relationship to those who are not?

Events this week in Alabama evoke all these questions, and how we answer those questions matters. Just ask Gov. Robert Bentley.
Alabama's newly sworn-in governor declared that "Anybody here today [Monday, in the pews at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor] who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

Although claiming to have apologized for his comments, Gov. Bentley did not really do so. Bentley offered the all too typical and entirely unsatisfactory "if/then" apology, i.e. if his comments offended anybody, then he is sorry. Bentley's official response to the controversy was as follows: "If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry if I offended anyone in any way."

The problem here, and with all "if/then" apologies, is that while the governor expresses regret for the hurt experienced by others as a result of his comments, he places the responsibility upon them and doesn't even admit that he in fact did cause offense to many citizens of his state. He failed to unequivocally embrace the fact that people were, in fact, offended by his words. He also failed to demonstrate the slightest understanding of why that is and how he might avoid such missteps in the future.

While I have no reason to doubt Gov. Bentley's sincerity, ending the cycle of hurt caused by religious triumphalism in general and the especially toxic effects of introducing such approaches into the political life of the nation demands that when politicians cross the line, they do better than the "if/then" formulations that pass for real apologies.

To be fair to Gov. Bentley though, his comments were an interesting mix of triumphalist exclusionism and genuine inclusivity. While it is true that he reserved the status of "brothers and sisters" for like-minded Christians, he also told his audience at the historic church that he believed it was important for Alabamians ''that we love and care for each other."

''I was elected as a Republican candidate. But once I became governor ... I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that." Why were those words not noticed and praised as much as Bentley's theological musings noticed and condemned? That too has to be addressed if we want more responsible government.

The hurt caused by the governor's remarks is at least partly a function of people looking for reasons to be hurt -- looking for nuggets of nuisance which they can mine out of otherwise responsible comments. In other words, to the extent that this is a big deal, it is not only because of Bentley's comments, but because of people who make more out of things than they really are. That is at least as problematic as apologies which make less of them than they really are.

Ultimately, Gov. Bentley got caught between the legitimate desires to express particular solidarity with those whose faith is closest to his own and to express his commitment to those whose faith he does not share. He got caught, at least partially, because we have limited capacity in our culture for simultaneously embracing particularism and universalism. Too often, we assume that they are diametrically opposed impulses, when in fact they are complimentary impulses in each of us.

It is natural to feel a special affinity to those with whom we most closely identify, whether religiously, politically, familiarly, etc. It is also necessary that our affinities extend beyond those immediate impulses. A close reading of Gov. Bentley's comments reveal that he was trying to strike that balance. I think he failed, and I don't think his subsequent apology did much better.

I also think that those who went berserk about the governor's comments are as guilty as the governor -- they perpetuate a situation which forces us to choose between affection for the particular and commitment to the universal. As long as we fail to integrate those two impulses, neither our faiths nor our politics will be as healthy as they must be in order to meet the challenges we face.

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