For many in Alabama’s Jewish community, controversial exclusionary comments made by newly-inaugurated Governor Robert Bentley on Jan. 17 are only half the story, though it is the story that made its way around the world. The other half of the story is that within 48 hours, he met with an interfaith delegation to discuss the ramifications of his remarks and to give him an opportunity to clarify his views.
The controversy began at a speech he gave at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, in a King Day ceremony just hours after he was sworn in.
Bentley, who is a deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, stated: “There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister…
“Now I will have to say, that if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today 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.”
The comments drew immediate criticism from far and wide. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El wrote Bentley a letter saying the comments “were troubling to me and my congregation” and led to a “disenfranchised” feeling.
“We hope that you would reconsider the sentiments you shared at the historic Dexter Avenue Church, and be a Governor that respects us all and treats us all as brothers and sisters,” he continued.
Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, said religious rhetoric in politics should be “toned down… I don’t deny his right to believe the way he believes and I hope he does not deny me the right to believe the way that I believe.”
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center said the comments “ill conceived and divisive.” His statement also referred to recent comments by Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, Tenn., who compared opposition to President Obama’s health care reform law to the Nazi propaganda machine under Joseph Goebbels. “Gov. Bentley and Rep. Cohen’s comments, though different in context and word, erode the atmosphere of civility and open-mindedness that is indispensable to the health of our democracy.”
Many other Jewish groups issued statements or commented on the controversy.
Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the comments were “shocking” and “raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor.”
Even Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, one of the most reviled figures by those on the political left, criticized Bentley, saying a Christian must consider every person a brother or sister.
In the immediate aftermath, Bentley said “we’re not trying to insult anybody.”
His communications director, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, issued a statement on Jan. 18 saying ““Gov. Bentley clearly explained in his inaugural address his belief that he is the governor of all of Alabama. The governor clearly stated that he will be the governor of all Alabamians- Democrat, Republican and independent, young, old, black and white, rich and poor.”
Many political analysts attributed the remarks to Bentley’s service as a deacon and relative lack of political experience and savvy.
According to Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, the comments — which were detailed in the Federation’s daily Update email, generated more comments and feedback than any other item in the 10-year history of Update.
He said the responses generally fell into two categories: “Those who commend the governor for his apology and the BJF for our role in resolving this situation positively, and those who are downright skeptical of the governor’s apology, feel it didn’t go far enough and that we are being naive.”
Bentley apologized to an interfaith delegation on Jan. 19. The meeting was held with Miller and his colleague, Rabbi Elliot Stevens of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery; Rev. Steve Jones of Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham; Joyce Spielberger, BJF Director of Community Relations; Birmingham Jewish community member Hope Mehlman; and Lenora Pate, a Baptist who is a former gubernatorial candidate and a member of the BJF Board of Directors.
Bentley told the group, “Should anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised, I want to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If you’re not a person who can say you are sorry, you’re not a very good leader.”
He further explained that in his remarks at Dexter Avenue, he considered himself speaking as an evangelical Christian to fellow Baptists.
Rep. Alvin Holmes, who was at the Dexter Avenue speech, said he did not hear anything that was derogatory to other religions. He told the Montgomery Advertiser that he wouldn’t let Bentley insult Jews because of Jewish support for King and the civil rights movement. “If he had said something to offend them in any kind of way, I would have been very offended by it, but he didn’t.”
Rev. Jones said Bentley did not realize that his remarks would be offensive, and “his apology was sincere.”
Jones added, “The good thing coming out of this is that we feel like the governor, right away, is going to be very sensitive to interfaith issues, and we will have a voice with him because of this situation. So, out of a very bad thing something good has happened.”
Spielberger said “Gov. Bentley was responsive, we got to know him and he got to know us, and it gave us the chance to affirm to him that we want to be partners in building a better Alabama.”
Reflecting on the meeting and the week of controversy, Miller said on Jan. 21 that he believes the governor was speaking “church talk” without “thinking of the ramifications of what he was saying.”
He said the rapid response by the governor and his staff to the situation shows that “the heat generated by his words were unwelcome and unwanted.”
For now, for himself, Miller said, Bentley’s apology is accepted, and “what is important is how a person speaks or behaves after the apology is rendered.”
Not everyone was mollified, though. A national atheist group complained the Bentley apologized only to those of other faiths, not to those without religious beliefs.
And another controversy emerged at the end of the week. On Conan O’Brien’s new show, Conan, the Jan. 20 episode included a spoof commercial purportedy produced by the Alabama Tourist Board, touting how much Alabama loves its Jews, and with such amenities as great hunting, high school football and barbecue, the state is a “Jewtopia.” The tagline was “Alabama: A little slice of heaven before an eternity in Hell.”
While many in the community enjoyed the parody, the BJF sent the show a note saying the spot “besmirched us as a state and Jewish community.”
The Alabama Faith Council, which includes Temples Beth-El and Emanu-El in Birmingham, and Ahavas Chesed and Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, urged Bentley to continue his work and “take the next step to ‘not so much be understood but to understand’,” quoting St. Francis.