Alabama Governor: "Only Christians are my Brothers." Is this Correct?

From CBS News comes the following story related to the question of Christian brotherhood. These are only excerpts the full story is HERE. In these excerpts, the original text is in black, bold, italics and my comments are in normal text red.

 Alabama Republican Governor Robert Bentley said….that he does not consider Americans who do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior to be his brothers and sisters.

Technically, and in the strict religious sense of the term, “brother,”  he is right. It is Baptism, incorporation into Christ, that makes us brethren. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” “Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn (CCC # 1271) 

However, Gov. Bentley is likely ill-advised to talk of this sort of thing in a civic setting where the term “brother” is not used in the strict religious sense. It is true that he spoke in a Baptist Church, (Dexter Ave Baptist) but the gathering was a civic gathering to Honor Dr. Martin Luther King for his Civil Rights legacy. In civil discourse, terms like “brothers and sisters” are more reflective of a common humanity and, to some extent, the notion of a shared citizenship. In the common expression “My fellow Americans” it will be noted that “fellow” is a synonym for “brother” or “common family member.”  It is important to understand how words are used and understood in different settings. Failing to do this can cause misunderstanding and give offense, as the Governor has done.

“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said shortly after taking the oath of office….But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have….It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.” Yes, perhaps in the strict religious sense the term that is true, but, as stated, there are other notions of brotherhood that are used and accepted outside religious circles that the Governor does not seem to recognize. While the unbaptized present may not be his religious brethren, they can be said to be brethren in the wider and more common, civic, and general  use of the term.

”Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters,” he continued. “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.” Here too, some distinctions are in order. We can use the term “Father” for God in at least two senses.

In one sense he is Father, for He is the origin of all things. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, In Israel, God is called “Father” inasmuch as he is Creator of the world. Even more, God is Father because of the covenant and the gift of the law to Israel, “his first-born son”. God is also called the Father of the king of Israel. Most especially he is “the Father of the poor”, of the orphaned and the widowed, who are under his loving protection. By calling God “Father”, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority(CCC # 238-239). From this point of view we DO share a common “daddy” and all are made in the image and likeness of God.

In a second and religious sense however, no one knows the Father except the Son. Hence only Jesus is the Son of the Father in the truest and strictest sense. We therefore can only expereince God as Father  fully by being incorporated into Christ by baptism. Then, as members of Christ’s body, we share in Christ’s perfect sonship and experience God as Father in the truest and fullest sense. In this sense the Catechism states plainly, We can invoke God as “Father” because the Son of God made man has revealed him to us. In this Son, through Baptism, we are incorporated and adopted as sons of God (CCC # 2798). While this gives a certain gift, enjoyed only the baptized, the Catechism also reminds us: The baptized cannot pray to “our” Father without bringing before him all those for whom he gave his beloved Son. God’s love has no bounds, neither should our prayer….. [We pray] with and for all who do not yet know him, so that Christ may “gather into one the children of God.” (Jn 11:52)  God’s care for all men and for the whole of creation…should extend our prayer to the full breadth of love whenever we dare to say “our” Father. (CCC # 2793)  Hence the Governor’s final sentiment is a good one, in desiring all to be his brethren. But in failing to make proper distinctions and understand common from strict usage he unecessisarily offends.

American Atheists President David Silverman told Hotsheet that the comments were “bigoted” and show that Bentley “puts his Bible above the Constitution of the United States……Being the governor of all people means that you are a representative of all people. It certainly does not mean that you abuse your position to push your religion on people who differ from your faith.” It doesn’t seem fair to say he is pushing his religion on people. It was probably wrong for the Governor to make such acute religious remarks in a civic setting, but it does not mean he is pushing his religion.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish rights group, also condemned the comments. “It is shocking that Governor Bentley would suggest that non-Christians are not worthy of the same love and respect he professes to have for the Christian community,”….His comments…. also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor.” Here too it doesn’t seem fair to interpret the Governor’s remarks as to “suggest that non-Christians are not worthy of the same love and respect he professes to have for the Christian community.” Even if his notions are flawed by being improperly distinguished, it does not follow that he considers others are not worthy etc. And while, the ADL leader is not wrong to have concerns about equal treatment under the Law, this is monitored through the political process and the balance of power. It is unlikely that any human being is wholly exempt from experiencing a special closeness to certain members of his constituency who share similar backgrounds. For example, a Jewish Governor would likely experience a special closeness to fellow Jews. However, whatever special affinity a Governor might feel, he must be judicious and even handed in his decisions. This is clear.  Frankly Governor Bentley was not very smart to voice his special affinity with Christians, even though it is likely and understandably there. There are just some things you shouldn’t say.

Nigut added: “Governor Bentley’s remarks suggest that he is determined to use his new position to proselytize for Christian conversion. If he does so, he is dancing dangerously close to a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from promoting the establishment of any religion.” This is fair enough. The Governor was acting in an official capacity at a swearing in,  and should not have engaged in this sort of sectarian reflection, articulated religious divisions  or expressed wishes for conversions. As a private citizen he is free to do so, but not as the Governor at a public and civic function. General expressions of prayer and support, commending the state to the care of God are all fine, and part of the American tradition. But extended comments about the theology of faith and baptism and the use of terms in their strict religious sense,  is going too far.

Bentley’s….communications director, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, told the Birmingham News, “He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike.” While Bentley, a deacon at a Baptist church, drew a distinction between Christians and non-Christians in his comments, he also said he was “color blind” and would represent all the people in his state.OK, fine. But the bottom line is that a lot of unnecssary things were said that ultimately required reassurances that would have been unnecessary had the Governor used a bit more prudence. His remarks were appropriate at a Catechism class, but not a swearing in where he was bound to be misunderstood.

Most of you who read this blog regularly know that I am a big believer in evangelization and think that all of us need to witness to Christ more than we currently do. That said, prudence is also necessary and the evangelizer will do well to know a bit of his audience and acknowledge the setting. Words and expressions, that may be properly understood in the Church setting, are not always the first way we speak to the secular world.  Further, beginning with what divides us is not always the best way to begin. Seeking common ground and building trust is often a more fruitful approach. Beginning by saying “Well you’re not really my brother and God really isn’t your Father” is not likely going to move the conversation very far. People tend to shut down or react upon this sort of talk. There are times to discuss our differences frankly, but not in this sort of setting.

Finally, there are some legitimate limits that civil officials should observe when acting in their official capacity. These days there are clearly too many limits imposed. But Governor Bentley went too far in his reflections and provoked more than he prophesied.

And now some pointers from the great evangelizer, Fr. Barron

34 Replies to “Alabama Governor: "Only Christians are my Brothers." Is this Correct?”

  1. Sounds like the beginning of the old “pro multis” / “pro omnes” argument for the good people of Alabama.

  2. It seems appropriate to quote Gandhi here: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    In order to attract people to the faith, we must make the faith attractive – we must be the kind of people others want to emulate. We have a long way to go …

    1. Fair enough. Although I would add, that to some extent the faith can never be made attractive enough for the world to love us. The Lord promised us that the world would hate us. However, your point I suppose would correspnd to the notion that we ought not lead with what divides or can be easily misunderstood as the Governor has done in this case. Further that we need to be better at understanding our listeners and their concerns as well as how they both use and understand some of the words and concepts we seek to proclaim.

    2. There are two things which I’ve read in Gandhi quotes which go along with what you say; that the crucifixion was a perfect act and that if Christians lived up to our Christian principles then, India would now be a Christian country.
      Mr Gandhi was from a specific culture in a diverse country but, he probably had an exceptional understanding of the many different viewpoints. The first comment I like but, the second seems to be somewhat misled. If the followers of many other sets of spiritual values offer better examples of conforming to their values than we, as Christians, do – then, wouldn’t that indicate what a great challenge Christ has given to us in the two which are reflected in His mission and His teachings?
      A great challenge that so many of us continue to pursue.

  3. Two thumbs up for the Governor. Yes – I said it. I know we can all agree that his remarks could have erred on the side of prudence but Personally I am so tired of being politically correct. I think it took a lot of courage and convicction. And look at what hisremarks generated DIALOGUE. i don’t know if that was the intent but his comments have given us all pause to think. If he had kept silent we would not be talking about what is really important to us all. Thank you Governor for opening this conversation. God is always in the midst of it all.

    1. I understand your frustration with the PC part of this. My point is a little more specific however in that we ought to be careful to observe the “in-school” “out of school” distinction. It’s better to use conversation starters rather than stoppers in the intial stages of evangelization, find common ground etc.

  4. QUESTION: The change in the misssle will say Christ died for MANY. It currently say Christ died for ALL. Can you share your thoughts on this change in the missle and how it relates to the Governor’s remarks. Thanks.

  5. And yet an interesting angle is that since the Gov. is not Catholic and does not avail himself of the transubstantiated Body and Blood, he has no sanctifying grace and has “no life in him”. But this is a very hard Truth spoken by our Lord himself. Many of our Lord’s disciples cannot stand this and walk away in denial or outright disbelief.

  6. Zel Miller’s words to John Kerry come to mind… “I dont’ question your patriotism. I question your judgement.”

    Living in the deep south, I’m not surprised by this. There is a very real tendancy among some, of the more Evangelical Protestant denominations here in the south, most especially the Southern Baptists, to emphasize a filial relationship with God and ergo an exclusive sibling relationship to those who they consider “True Christians” or “Brothers”.

    The feeling of exclusion is palpable in some social situations and is sometimes all but explicitly stated. Always charitable and polite yet never really getting close is how I would describe it. The ability to share a joke, invited to play golf – efforts made at opening up to true freindship – are reseved only for “True” Christians.

    Everyone understands the genuine desire to seperate oneself from sin but the exclusionary nature of some very fervent people in some denominations here is very real. It’s still shocking to me when I encounter it and it smacks of what I would have thought, prior to moving south, was a bygone era.


  7. I really don’t think we can fault the Governor on this one so much. He is Governor of all kinds of people and his words may be taken offensively because of the setting and his position. However, you yourself (Msgr Pope, with all due respect) said that he is technically correct on some of his points. I think the offense taken is mostly because he was speaking about Christianity (albeit closer to a non-Catholic sect of it).

    Honestly, pondering on this more, I think everything falls on where his heart was at the time he decided to make the statement. Is it to offend his constituents? Is it to cause divisions among his listeners? Or is it to proclaim a truth in welling up in his heart? I honestly can’t say I could judge this his heart or am I in any position to do so.

    Another thing: Let’s say a Jew or a Muslim proclaims something unique about his/her faith during such an official capacity. However, I know that that person still does his/her job for the good of all his/her constituents, whatever color, religion or creed they are. As a Catholic Christian, should I take offense because of what was stated? Should I take offense because it was not politically correct to say such things in such settings?

    I think humility calls for a more inward reflection and knowing the real truth inside. I have real confidence in my Catholic faith. I can say I disagree on what was said or dislike the method used but would not resort to “bashing” the official, say it is “shocking,” accuse his/her intention nor even ask for an apology. I do not think I do not have the “right” to take offense nor would it be spiritually healthy for me to do so.

    Thank you very much, Msgr. Pope, for the analysis!

    1. Yes, I understand your point. I too would stop short of being shocked or offended if, to use your example a Jew or Muslim spoke this way. But I might have concerns about favoritism that might be reasonable. This would need to be monitored at least to make sure that there was fairness in dealing with the wider constituancy

  8. Having watched the videos attached to yesterday’s blog…WOW! What if this kind of rhetoric was commonplace and not the exception? What if this kind of thing was the everyday norm? Do declarations like the governors really require extensive analysis and punditry heaped on? Perhaps so – here is mine: “AMEN!”


  9. J+M+J

    You write: “Technically, and in the strict religious sense of the term, “brother,” he is right.” Agree… whether it was the proper setting or not, the proper “word” or not, I submit to you that what is being missed is that “finally” Christians are speaking up. It is said that the time has come for martyrs for the faith…perhaps what we are seeing is a beginning. This Country remains Christian, despite what the Admin would have us and world believe. Had anyone of any other “religion” made a similar comment, would there be such a “shock”, such an uproar? Probably not. All “other religions” enjoy a protective status in this Country unfortunately, contrary to the vicious attacks especially to Catholics (and Christians) are constantly battered with in this Country and worldwide.

    1. Yes, there is surely that positive side to this matter, that Christians are speaking up. When we speak however I would prefer if it were a little more invitatory and celebratory (at least as an initial appeal) than exclusionary. THat said, I understand your point.

  10. The governor’s remarks were certainly ill-advised. After all, one of the marks of being an adult is knowing that some truths are better left unsaid, or at least left unsaid in certain contexts. At the very least, though, if he wanted to point out that Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. are not his brothers, he really, really should have immediately pointed out that they are, however, his neighbors, and that he is under a strict obligation to love his neighbor as himself.

    All this would be true whether or not he was governor; he could have said it before he was elected (with the same admonitions as to what he should add), and he can say it after he leaves office. These are quite odd statements from a man who is a sitting governor, though, since he is supposed to view the people of the state as his CONSTITUENTS. If he favors his “brothers” over others, is that a form a nepotism?

    I think the best advice would be to paraphrase St. Paul: “Let politicians keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak, but to be subject, as also the law saith.”

  11. J+M+J

    Not enough “politically correct” for you, Howard? Apathy is no longer an option…regardless of the setting.

    1. ??? This may be the first time I have ever been accused of being “politically correct”. I can’t help notice that you toss this out instead of trying to argue against anything I said. So what do you disagree with?

      1. The idea that it is not always prudent to spout off something just because it’s true? (Example: “Lady, you don’t know me, but you sure are fat! I thought you should know that.”)

      2. The idea that this was a specific example of an imprudent comment? Well, what good do you see his speech doing?
      2a. Maybe you think this was an example of instructing the ignorant? If that Baptist church was like the ones I grew up in, his “instruction” was news to no one.
      2b. Maybe it was counseling the doubtful? Baptists are much, much more likely to sin against the virtue of hope by presumption than through doubt.
      2c. Maybe he was admonish sinners? In this case the sinners would have to be non-Christians, but (i) his admonition is ineffective (being deprived of brotherhood with this governor — as distinctly opposed to being deprived of communion with Christ — is not a serious penalty) and (ii) it was delivered to the wrong crowd — it’s not really constructive to admonish sins that neither you nor your audience are tempted by, on the contrary, it facilitates false security.

      I can’t see any other spiritual act of mercy that applies. Maybe it was *politically* prudent? Time will tell whether that is true, but reducing any church — even a Protestant church — to a mere tool of politics is just. plain. wrong.

      3. The idea that our “neighbors” include those who are not our “brothers”? (Hint: The lawyer admitted that the Samaritan had been “neighbour to him that fell among the robbers”. Would the Jew and the Samaritan have thought of each other as brothers, though?)

      4. The idea that a governor, in his capacity as governor, should treat his constituents in their capacity as constituents?

      5. The idea that it is a bad idea to give politicians a speaking platform in any church? I base that idea not on any abstract idea, but on observation.

      Which of these ideas do you reject?

  12. I’ve always loved the movie ‘O Brother Where Art Thou? Always get a kick out of it and I especially love the sound track. However, the title always disturbed me, it never seemed to make much sense I didn’t get it. Govener Bently’s remarks and this article have certainly made something click, not so much for the movie’s content but definately the title.

    O Brother Where Art Thou?

  13. His courage as a Christian public official is commendable, but without reading the full text of his comments, I agree Msgr. that his remarks are unfortunate, and I fear that he will do so much backtracking over the coming weeks that he will be made to look foolish.

    I think he could have been far more circumspect in his use of words and not have compromised one iota had he made the message less divisive. Surely there is a time to be divisive and there is a time to be inclusive, and it would seem that an event commemorating MLK is not the place to emphasize what divides. His enemies, and the enemies of the Christian faith, will use his words to walk all over the message and to conflate Christianity and bigotry.

    Some will say that they did the same thing to Jesus, but Jesus reserved his choicest and most divisive words for crucial moments. I would contest that when Jesus spoke divisively, he was speaking to the covenant children of God, ie His disciples and the scribes and Pharisees that were following him looking for an opportunity to catch him stumbling. I think the Governor would have done well to meditate upon Acts 17, esp. vv. 28-29, before choosing his words.

    Perhaps he could have leveraged any number of Dr. King’s speeches to discuss the Christian roots of Dr. King’s vision, and to tell his constituents about the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, in which all of mankind will live in perfect harmony. There is a time for talking about what divides us, but if we want to spread our Lord’s name, let’s start by proclaiming its greatness!

  14. American Atheists President David Silverman told Hotsheet that the comments were “bigoted” and show that Bentley “puts his Bible above the Constitution of the United States……

    It is all too common for “Christian” politicians to do the opposite. It is sadly ironic that now it is expected that the Constitution should take precedence over the Bible. Anyone think the founding fathers are rolling over in their graves?

  15. In building on what Tim H and Howard said, many of the more evangelical Protestants don’t believe Catholics are “true” Christians either – we’re “Papists,” “idolators” (for our praying to Mary and the saints and worshipping a piece of bread), and a “cult” – and could probably be included in the group he doesn’t consider his brothers and sisters. The governor’s very public remarks are fair cause for concern among Alabama constituents, and having lived for a while in the “Bible Belt” myself, I have experienced the social “stigma” that goes along with being outside the “true faith,” which is often subtle discrimination.

    Had I heard this type of rhetoric from a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc., it would have caused me concern as well, for I believe it is inappropriate from an elected official. Substitue race, gender, or other qualifier instead of religion and I think most people wouldn’t like the distinction, especially from their governor, because it alludes to discrimination. As Howard mentioned, if he had included remarks that all are his neighbor, it may have mitigated and differentiated his remarks enough to alleviate fear of discrimination for those not of the “true faith.” Because he did not do so, he left himself open to this type of speculation and accusation.

    While I am all for standing up for my faith, prudence is a virtue that is misunderstood, not practiced nearly enough in our society, and unfortunately, not practiced in this situation!

    1. I agree with Howard and Jennifer. As Jennifer stated, he probably does not consider Catholics his brothers or sisters either. I do believe that elected officials are to put the Constitution before their religious belief while performing their official duties. There are many, many good reasons why the state cannot establish a religion. If you are uncertain about those I suggest you study the history of the world. In this particular moment Bently was supposed to be doing his job – Governor of a US state. It’s embarrassing to have a fellow Christian (even if he, perhaps, doesn’t see me as one since I’m Catholic) to make such a remark that OBVIOUSLY would be taken as discriminatory during a commemoration ceremony for Dr. King. Bently had an opportunity to show love and instead showed disdain. Fitting the ceremony, Bently could have referred to how Dr. King fulfilled Jesus’ commandment to love thy neighbor through much of his life and work, thus putting Christianity in the positive light that it deserves. He hand-fed those who want non-Christians to believe that all Christian elected officials want to establish Christianity as an official government sponsored religion. Beyond foolish and shockingly naive. It’s my theory that those who say he was just innocently sharing his belief would probably not feel the same if the governor was a muslim who declared all non-muslims infadels in a public ceremony. Is freedom from the establishment of a state religion suddenly making sense?

  16. Msgr. Pope,

    I am not sure I undestand many of these, but Governor Bentley of Alabama made a stand with regards to his faith, and in this case, as a Christian. I can say the same thing when I say that I belong to my family: I have a name and family name to identify me that I am a child of my parents, and I have some siblings. Outside of this identification, I can say that my friends are not part of my family. But when I speak of this truth, this does not mean that they are necessarily outcasts, or second class citizens. I would still be available to them, or to everyone in need, whether or not they are part of my family. I think that whatever our religious affiliation is (or none of it), we human beings possess an innate “something” within us that make us respond in love to others, whether we admit that or not.

    Governor Bentley made a stand and expressed what he believes in as a Christian. A Muslim and an atheist do the same thing, and even more. But his statement has been colored by what is “proper to his position” as someone holding a public office. The argument goes that simply because he is a christian and holding a governmental position, then he should just shut his mouth.

    You, yourself, have made some counter remarks, point by point in your post, regarding his statements. Without you saying, ” True… (then) …. but…” , what really is your stand? As a baptized christian, are you not in the family of this religion called Christianity? And as a priest, should you qualify your Truth so as not to offend? And what are martyrs made of? And in this regard, how does civility come into play per your past article? And, lastly, did not Christ make his stand clear?

  17. Kinda the opposite of our “Catholic” president Kennedy who insisted that he would not let his religion influence his way of governing. Let us hope the pendulum is finally swinging back to where a politician, governor, congressman, senator, or dog catcher may be able to state his religious belifs proudly and loudly. After all, this was given in a church. I would expect anyone of christian conviction to profess his beliefs in church.

    1. Bently was not asked to state his Christian beliefs, he was asked to commemorate Dr. King in his official capacity as the Governor of a US state. He does not have to deny his faith, ever, but he is expected to abide by the Constitution whle performing his duties as a governor. Comments that are so obviously going to be used to make a case of bigotry among Christians helped no one.

  18. Let the record show that the universal brotherhood of man is a foundational doctrine of freemasonry. While it’s perfectly true to say that Christians should love all their neighbors as brother and sister, I would be very careful about ascribing that relational affinity to the unbaptized.

    Time will tell if the governor’s remarks were truly imprudent or helpfully provocative. May one point out that our wonderful Holy Father Pope Benedict has been known to toss a few verbal bombs now and then to incite serious reflection and dialogue? Kids shouldn’t try this at home — but when yesterday’s news cycle also brings reports of overt Christian witness coming from the leaders of Russia, I can’t help wondering if I’m living in the right country.

  19. If Jesus hadn’t spent time with the unbaptized than I don’t think Christianity would have spread very far. Conspiracy theories about the doctrine of love thy neighbor is a poor argument for Bently’s comments. Again, Bently was not asked to give a sermon, regardless of the location, he was performing an official duty, thus required to respect the US Constitution. As Catholics, if you think Bently would include you as one of his preferred sibings, you don’t know enough about the Baptist doctrine. In general the belief is that Catholics are idol worshipers and members of a cult. I’m not sure we’d have a place at his table in the Alabama state house.

  20. I see pride on his statement . He should separate the religion and a state.He should speak for the people on his area.
    We are brothers and sisters in the eyes of our Lord and we are all christian who follow Jesus.Jesus said: If you want to follow me carry my cross. Did he carry his cross?

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