A little context goes a long way (Updated again)

Freshly inaugurated as Alabama’s new governor, Robert Bentley already is making national headlines — but not the kind likely to excite the Republican or his press office.

From The Birmingham News, which broke the story:

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s comments on religion stir concerns

From ABC News:

New Alabama Gov. Criticized for Christian-Only Message

Non-Christians Accuse Robert Bentley of Treating Them as Second-Class

From The Associated Press:

New Ala. gov.: Just Christians are his family

What exactly did Bentley say?

Well, he was addressing a large crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Bentley touted the need for Alabamians to love and care for each other, pledged to be the governor of all the state’s residents and described himself as “color blind.” Then came the part that sent shock waves across the media universe. From the Birmingham paper:

“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said.

“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.”

Bentley added, “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.”

So far, the media coverage is fairly predictable with Jewish and Muslim advocates criticizing the governor, along with the president of American Atheists, who was quoted by ABC News, among other media outlets:

“We live in a country that is hugely diverse,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, the country’s oldest atheist civil rights group. “The governor basically said: ‘If you’re not like me, you’re second class.’ This is a man puts the Bible above the Constitution and his preacher above the president. His words are disgusting and bigoted and reinforce Alabama’s reputation for being backward and bigoted.”

What’s sorely lacking from most of the coverage, however, is any kind of context or background to help readers understand Bentley’s comments from an evangelical perspective. In other words, the notion that an evangelical Christian believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven isn’t exactly breaking news. Yet most of the coverage fails completely to explore that angle.

An exception was the Los Angeles Times, which to its credit provided background on Bentley’s church and interviewed its pastor:

The new governor is a Sunday school teacher and deacon at Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, which considers “passionately” evangelizing to be a “key core value,” according to its website. …

Gil McKee, senior pastor of Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, said the new governor “was in no way meaning to be offensive to anyone.”

“He was coming strictly from the fact that Scripture talks about how those that know Jesus Christ as their savior are adopted into the family of God, and as we are adopted into God’s family, we are adopted into the family of Christ,” McKee said.

See how easy that was? A little context goes a long way.

Update: Religion News Service’s just-published story also includes McKee and a rabbi who suggests the governor’s comments weren’t totally out of the mainstream in the Bible Belt.

Second update: The Associated Press reports that the governor apologized today for his remarks.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.thewardrobedoor.com Aaron

    That was exactly my criticism of the coverage. It completely ignores the meaning behind those words, even beyond an evangelical context.

    Every group uses that type of familial language. The Jewish, Muslim and Atheist groups criticizing the governor use it. In fact, by claiming to speak on behalf of certain groups of people based on their religious beliefs, they are being just as exclusive as Bentley.

    I read both the CNN and ABC articles and neither gave any context, explanation or a side other than those complaining.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    This is one of those stories where the focus was on the Governor, but I feel I learned much more about everyone else who was doing the complaining.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    That was exactly my criticism of the coverage. It completely ignores the meaning behind those words, even beyond an evangelical context.

    Great point. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://ellidavis.com Elli Davis

    Even if there is a hidden meaning behind Governor’s words, he is a Governor, for God’s sake! He has to speak so that no one will misinterprete what he meant, that there won’t be discussions like this even if he meant well.

    Just my opinion, of course.

  • Tim

    So people would rather the governor lie about what he believes? I thought people were already sick of dishonest politicians, you can’t have it both ways…

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dear friends, just a reminder that GetReligion is concerned about the journalism-related issues. Do you have a comment about the media coverage? That’s terrific. Want to debate whether the governor is a saint or a scoundrel? This is not the place.

  • Suzanne

    I wanted more context about the event — it was on the day of his inauguration, was it intended as an inaugural event? If so, then it seems a little odd that he’d kick things off by listing the degrees of closeness that he feels for various populations whom he serves as governor. Was it an MLK Day event? Did he see it as a simple church service? The Birmingham paper compares his comments to an “altar call” — a little explanation of that would have been appropriate, although I understand it from the context.

    No one’s asking the governor not to believe what he believes. But he clearly put it out there himself — he wasn’t responding to a question, but introducing the idea that he can’t feel “brotherhood” with anyone who doesn’t share his faith.

    On a day when he’s taking the reins of government and honoring the sort of American standard-bearer for brotherhood among Americans, it was at the very least tonally off. I’m surprised by those who are surprised by the response.

  • Dan Crawford

    I too am surprised by those who are surprised by the response. When he says, “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.”, is he suggesting that this is what Jesus taught? How does he square such an attitude with Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritan woman, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, and other Gentiles? It would have been helpful to set the governor’s remarks in the context of the Gospels, but one can’t assume that a secular reporter knows what the Gospels are, let alone reads them.

  • Dan Crawford

    I should note that Pastor McKee’s interpretation of the Governor’s remarks does not accurately reflect what the Governor actually said.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dan, I wonder how the media would handle this quote from Jesus (John 14:6, New International Version):

    “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

  • Jettboy

    “How does he square such an attitude with Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritan woman, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, and other Gentiles?”

    How do you? He tolerated them, but he also called them out as following the wrong spiritual path.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Added this update to the post but for those just following the new comments: The Associated Press reports that the governor apologized today for his remarks.

  • mone

    I agree that it is taken out of context. What I haven’t understood in this whole occasion, was this said in a church context? in the church? If it was, it should have been taken and accepted in context…The media keeps leaving off the remark about his desire for them to be brothers and sisters….In Christ. It is as plain as day.
    It is in his inaugural speech that he is the servant of the people of Alabama and he will do his best there.
    Being a servant of Christ does not mean not being a servant…of all.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    mone, Good questions. I think this was an MLK Day event at a church, but I don’t think the coverage I’ve seen has been real clear on the issues you’ve raised.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    OK, late in the day, so I’m making less sense than usual: By good questions, I meant the issue of whether this was a political event at a church or a church event by a politician.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    He apologized? For what? Could someone please tell me, based on the information we have in the stories so far, just what that man did that demanded an apology?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dave G., here is the top of the AP story to which I linked:

    MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley apologized Wednesday for his inauguration day remarks about only Christians being his brothers and sisters and said he would work over the next four years for people of all faiths and colors.

    Bentley said he didn’t mean to insult anyone with comments he made from the pulpit of a church once led by Martin Luther King Jr. He said he was speaking as an evangelical Christian to fellow Baptists.

    “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,” Bentley said Wednesday.

  • Dave S

    I thought the last paragraph of the AP story was interesting.

    “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,” ADL regional director Bill Nigut said.

    This is Mr. Nigut’s interpretation of the First Amendment. While many people, including me, would disagree with his interpretation the AP simply presented it as a fact.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    That was an early version of the AP story. This later version has some much better details and context.

  • Dave

    This story produced some waves in the Pagan blogosphere. There was no question, however, that the new Governor’s remarks (pre-apology) were squarely within the context of the New Testament.

  • Stephen

    Dave says, “There was no question, however, that the new Governor’s remarks (pre-apology) were squarely within the context of the New Testament.”

    Uh, that’s the problem that his critics were complaining about. Not all citizens of the state of Alabama believe in the New Testament and many who do do not think that a governor has any business being preacher-in-chief.

  • Dave

    No duh. That’s what the Pagans were griping about.

  • Daniel Shelley

    News ought to be focused on facts, here. Just exactly when and where did Bentley say “I’m better than all you guys, and unless you become Christians, I’m superior?” Emotional reactions to his quotes may or may not be as newsworthy as his comments, but the point is that the new governor could not have made his comments without the commonly held Christian belief that we are all sinners. Thus no grace could be poured out on him, according to his beliefs, without his admission that he were a sinner in need of forgiveness. So are all the unbelievers to whom he had reference!


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