Y’all have probably heard all about Robert Bentley, also known as “the Luv Guv,” the scandal-plagued governor of Alabama who just stepped down from office amid a rather sordid-sounding affair with one of his staffers. But he’s not just yet-another-Republican who hoisted himself with the family values petard only to get caught red-handed doing something deeply hypocritical. He’s also a sign of the broken system that is his entire religion. His case reminds us anew that once someone in it gets a little taste of power, all the rules stop mattering.
A Proper Christian.
Robert Bentley is Alabama-born and bred. Though born to largely-uneducated parents, he got a decent education and became a doctor. He met and married his wife Dianne during his medical school years, then joined the Air Force and served at a hospital in North Carolina, and finally became a dermatologist in the private sector. He got plenty of accolades, including being named to a list of the best doctors in America. So far so good, right?
Well, he’s also a gung-ho Baptist. He and his family were longtime members of the First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, which is one of those Baptist churches that isn’t officially using the Southern Baptist name but is totally SBC, where he was a deacon and Sunday School teacher. He served on various boards and advisory positions. In his dermatology practice, he was known as being the kind of creep that evangelized to his own patients. This guy even won the Christian Coalition of Alabama’s Statesmanship Award back in 2009.
If you’re wondering what goes into a Statesmanship Award, the coalition chairman said that Mr. Bentley earned it through his “commitment to family issues and improving health care in Alabama.” At the time, Mr. Bentley said that he was “passionate about being a public servant, striving always to be guided by conservative family values.”
Apparently one of those values was opposing healthcare for his state’s poorest citizens. He considered his dogged opposition to the Affordable Care Act to be one of the factors that got him elected in a surprise upset in 2010 to become the governor of one of the poorest, most-stressed, worst-educated, meanest, most racist and sexist, unhealthiest, and most theocratic states in the entire Union. Others would probably have said it was his gee-shucks presentation as a sweet, elderly, down-home, small-town country doctor and fervent Christian that made his state’s voters think that maybe he’d turn things around for a state that is known for the corruption that comes of being totally controlled by a small group of high-ranking church leaders, tycoons, and career politicians.
His only political experience was a seat as a state-level representative. In all the time he was there he’d passed five very minor bills. One lobbyist flat called him a “nobody.” Well, now he was the “accidental governor.”
One of the first things Mr. Bentley did once he got into office was give a speech to a church about how non-Christians are neither his brothers nor his sisters. Only Christians were because they shared the same “daddy,” as he put it. He tried to walk back the comments afterward, saying he’d be a governor for everyone. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that he meant that he’d do his best to be fair to non-Christians. That’d be a dire mistake, because he actually meant he’d try to be “color-blind” toward black people. That was what he thought all the fuss was about–that he was being accused of racism.
That kind of obliviousness is exactly what Alabama voters seemed to want.
A Private Fiefdom.
It sounds like Mr. Bentley immediately set about trying to turn the office of governor into his own private fiefdom. His voting record had always been pretty straight-ticket Republican–no for Sunday liquor sales, yes for deregulation of land-line phone service rates. Once he became governor, he began doing his damndest to eliminate abortion rights and education funds, because forced gestation and entrenched ignorance are the most valued of all conservative values. The new governor was, as a Baptist minister named Wayne Flynt observed, “sound on the fundamentals,” which he criticized as “hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.” By that standard, the new king of Alabama could not have been more sound.*
Mr. Bentley settled in well and immediately to the perks of the job: the fancy mansion, all manner of lackeys to do what he wanted, even a helicopter to ride wherever he cared to go on the taxpayers’ dime. Why, his mansion even had a pool house for guests.
One of his vassals from the start was Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a longtime churchmate at First Baptist. She and her husband had been present when he’d first begun talking about running for office. Her husband had said at the time that he didn’t think Mr. Bentley would get far, but once the election was over, Jon Mason ended up as the executive director of the governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Ms. Mason herself became the new governor’s communications director.
These were lucrative and powerful positions, ones that the onetime beauty queen and her adoring caricature of a husband both appreciated, though neither one actually had the experience or know-how needed to do either job. It hardly mattered. Very soon, Ms. Mason was staying nights at the mansion’s pool house to avoid having to drive the distance from Montgomery to Tuscaloosa. And for a while, Dianne Bentley didn’t suspect a thing.
There was a reason for suspicion, though. The new governor had quickly formed a serious attachment to Rebekah Mason. More than a few folks thought she’d deliberately encouraged his attentions to gain more power for herself by showering an old goat with the kind of adoration that he was totally not used to getting from pretty young women. Though she had very little understanding of formal politics, she soon squeezed out the other, less-adoring advisers to become known as the “de facto governor.”
The family-values governor turned out to be the most inept cheating husband on the planet. He began pulling away from his wife and sending her such strange lovey-dovey emoji-filled texts that she wondered if he had maybe meant to send them elsewhere. (He had.) The signs were there, but–like many people caught in exactly this terrible situation–Dianne Bentley had trouble allowing herself to believe what she was seeing.
Finally and in desperation, she set her phone up to record, left it in their beach house when the family was there for a vacation, and went for a walk. Just a minute later her husband had swooped for his own phone–and called Rebekah Mason on it. The contents of his side of the chat are sordid, but also sad and pathetic in their way. He sounds like every other married old dude in the world who’s fallen for a younger woman. It’s a tale as old as time, though the sheer WTFness of it veers well into um, is this guy, y’know, okay? territory.
But there’s a twist in that old tale. Among other things, he reveals to his lover on the tape that he is going to use the power of his office to remove people who can overhear the two of them canoodling together, namely Wanda Kelly, his executive assistant. She sits in his office and can hear all of his phone conversations. He’s become aware that this is a really bad thing, so he wants to “rearrange the office.” He tells Rebekah Mason, “I don’t want her right there. I honestly don’t. And it doesn’t have anything to do with you and me—uh, well, it does I guess—but really and truly I don’t think somebody needs to be right there listening to every word that is said in that office.”
Robert Bentley had his staff do a lot of his dirty work around the affair. Chief of security/bodyguard Ray Lewis and others got ordered to figure out who was gossiping about the affair, interrogate them, and stop them, to get people to turn over recordings they’d made of the governor, and even finally to break up with the woman at the center of his obsessions when he just couldn’t do it himself.
Of course, Robert Bentley didn’t rely solely on others. He often threatened people to keep silent about whatever they knew–including members of his wife’s staff. He thought he was safe because of his position. He told one staffer that she needed to watch out because “people bow to his throne.”
Charges for Everyone.
Now, it’s not against the law to cheat on one’s wife. Even fundagelical-infested Alabamistan would never be able to push that one through (nor would any of their top legislators be foolish enough even to try, considering their own peccadilloes). At most, if an affair was all we were talking about, Mr. Bentley would likely have weathered a lot of the fallout to come. But it most certainly is against the law to use the wealth and power of one’s office to foster an affair and then try to cover it up, and that’s what this desperate nitwit did as he flailed around trying to keep a lid on what he’d done.
Spencer Collier, the head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, says he’d seen evidence of the affair fairly early on. Another staffer had picked up the governor’s dropped phone in 2014 and had seen a very sexytimes text message on it from Rebekah Mason. That other staffer alerted Ray Lewis (a man who’d been promoted and paid well for his devotion to protecting the governor’s interests–and for helping keep the affair secret). A few days later, Ray Lewis played for Mr. Collier an audiotape that sounds like the one Dianne Bentley recorded. Afterward, Mr. Lewis erased the tape–but obviously copies already existed.
In 2015, Dianne Bentley filed for divorce, ending a 50-year marriage. The divorce decree doesn’t specifically mention the affair. It took damned near a year more for the charges to really materialize, though. Alabama doesn’t move all that quickly on this stuff. Finally, a 100-page-long report got made up with 3,000 pages of exhibits as evidence. The charges were of corruption and neglect of duty–breaking state ethics and finance laws, specifically. More importantly, a report was about to get released detailing all the ways that Robert Bentley had used state law enforcement and the staff that taxpayers had paid for to hide the evidence of his affair. (The detail about the breakup was probably what outraged people most.)
What really touched it off was Robert Bentley’s last serious mistake. He fired Spencer Collier on March 22, 2016. Mr. Collier says he got fired because he’d refused to lie for the governor. Mr. Bentley says it was because he was misusing state funds (though he was quickly cleared of wrongdoing, of course).
Right after being fired, as in the very same day, Spencer Collier met with reporters and told them everyfuckingthing he knew including the bit about the recording. A few days later, the tape was leaked to a conservative blogger, and soon everyone knew about it.
Can you say KABLOOEY? From there, it was just a matter of time for Alabama’s other legislators to rouse themselves to action.
Once the affair exploded into the news, of course, First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa expelled both Mr. Bentley and his paramour. Rebekah Mason had already resigned from her job in the governor’s office right after Spencer Collier’s tell-all meeting and tape had gone public, but her husband Jon remained on the payroll until resigning along with the governor today.
He Prayed About It, Y’all.
When it became crystal-clear to all observers that one way or the other Alabama intended to rid itself of its embarrassing “Luv Guv,” Robert Bentley’s onetime belligerence evaporated. People began using that dread “I” word: impeachment. Even other Republicans had gotten on board the train. The deliberations were set to begin. That’s as 11th-hour as it gets.
Suddenly Robert Bentley began presenting his decision to resign as one ordered by no less than the god of the entire universe. He prayed about it, y’all. He totally prayed about it. And Jesus told him to resign. Apparently he hadn’t prayed about it until then. (We’ve all made that mistake, right? That’s why so many Christians get divorced, obviously! You can hear them smacking themselves upside the head now: “Fahrvergnügen Crudmuffins! We forgot to pray before we got married!”)
Apparently Jesus also told him to strike a plea deal about all the charges against him. He’s pleaded guilty to failing to report a campaign contribution and for violating an ethics law for using a contribution for personal use (namely to pay legal fees for Rebekah Mason). He’ll serve a year of unsupervised probation, do some community service, repay some of the money he misused, and–possibly most importantly to Alabama’s bigwigs–never seek public office again.
The Excuses Begin.
Naturally, as soon as the affair became common knowledge, Christians in the area had to reckon with the idea of a powerful, high-ranking politician and professional Christian being such a dishonest hypocrite.
But never fear. They always know what to do. The general gist of the excuses I’ve seen so far is that for all his power and reach, Robert Bentley is just a man, and gosh gee shucks, all people are “temptable,” as the former president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention put it, adding for good measure: “I believe it was the devil, and I believe the devil knew he was bagging big game.”
Yes. SATAN made Mr. Bentley want to boff his young assistant. Couldn’t have been anything else. Then this same fellow then lamented that “secular culture is eroding evangelicalism to the point where it takes us one full year to get rid of the governor because of all these conflicting pressures.” (You know, the pressures put on Alabama law by evangelicals just like himself, who have controlled the Alabama legislature for who even knows how long. Those pressures.)
Others, including Roy Moore, the judge who got suspended for defying the law when equal marriage got legalized, opined that maybe Christians ought to be more careful about who they elect, since all that power tempts politicians to “profess things they don’t actually stand for.” I’m surprised anybody could hear him from his position on that high of a horse.
At least the story turned out all right for some of the people involved. Spencer Collier, so cruelly discarded, says he feels vindicated by how things turned out. And Kay Ivey, the lieutenant governor who just got sworn in as Alabama’s new governor after the resignation of Robert Bentley, is probably pretty pleased.
The Broken System.
It’ll be nice when Christians figure out just what it means when someone runs for office on a “family values” platform, or whenever a person in power gets into office thanks to touting his Christian credentials and pandering to fundagelical interests. But until then, it’s for us to point out that yes, hypocrisy happens, and no, it’s not Satan causing it, nor “temptability.” It’s not secular culture, either–far from it.
It’s exactly and precisely what we ought to expect to see out of fundagelicals.
The broken system doesn’t allow for the embracing or resolution of big emotions like lust or anger or greed or power-hunger. Only a few people get to enjoy those safely. The rest must simply deny that those feelings even exist in themselves and try to pretend they never feel them at all. Robert Bentley, for all his pious pretenses and his upper-crust lifestyle as a doctor and deacon, was part of “the rest” in his tribe. But oh, he wanted more.
The second he got more, he went wild with it. That’s not an accident of the system; he’s no aberration of the way things are supposed to be. That’s exactly what we ought to expect. This now-ex-governor was as true-blue a Christian as anybody could hope to find. He won awards from Christian groups, served for decades in Christian churches, and even abused his own patients with proselytization attempts. And yet the second he got power and got out from under the thumb of his overseers, this story is what happened.
Christians need to see stories like this one for what they are. Until they do, they will never mend their broken system.
But they don’t seem inclined to learn. As one reporter from Alabama puts it so well, Robert Bentley was exactly the governor that Alabama deserved:
We don’t deserve better, I said then and still believe now, because the voters of this state have consistently, without fail, fallen for the pandering stupidity of men like Robert Bentley and Mike Hubbard and Roy Moore. But we never seem to realize it until those greedy, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, racist bigots are exposed by the men and women we should be electing, and/or by the media who you profess to loathe. . . You bought the act. Just like you always do.
It’s so damned weird that “Jesus” isn’t guiding all these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ better than he is, isn’t it?
* ETA: Wayne Flynt said it as a sharp criticism of the fundagelical mindset. He doesn’t appear to support this thinking himself. Usually, a fundagelical who thinks this way uses all kinds of euphemisms instead, like “conservative” instead of “hating Obama,” “pro-life” instead of “hating abortion,” and “traditional marriage” instead of “hating gay marriage.”