Here we go again. The ill-considered words of a public servant will fuel public fears about Christianity’s influence and embarrass no small number of us who are Christians.
Moments into his new administrative responsibilities the governor of Alabama told a congregation that those who are not Christians are not his brothers and sisters. As Anne Lamott once observed in a different connection, it is the kind of statement that would drive Jesus to drink gin from the cat’s dish.
There are at least two problems with this kind of language.
One arises from the public trust that the governor assumed when he was inaugurated. He is responsible to and for the people of Alabama — every man, woman, and child. While I am sure that his office will assure the citizens of Alabama that he knows this, he also knows — or should have known — that his inauguration carried with it the burden to speak for the people of Alabama.
When leaders indulge themselves by giving public voice to personal commitments, they run the risk of alienating people who do not share those commitments. Thanks to the governor’s lack of discretion, the people of Alabama cannot be blamed for wondering if he will discharge his responsibilities without prejudice.
The other problem is theological. The church uses familial language in two senses. As the governor’s remarks imply, that language is used at times to express the common bond that Christians share with one another. That is a bond that is shaped to varying degrees by a shared creed and language.
But the same familial language is also used to describe the larger connection we have with one another as God’s creation. That is the language that a governor can and must use.
It also has its contribution to make to the shape of the Christian life. We are not favored or special, and we are certainly not more righteous than others. We did not save ourselves, transcend our humanity, or rise above others. And, while we gather to care for and support one another in our common worship, the purpose of that time together is meant to deepen our connection with and care for those around us.
In other words, the language of our larger familial connection is about humility and gratitude for something undeserved. That is why Jesus moved so powerfully across religious communities and dealt so directly and generously with everyone he met. In fact, his harshest words were reserved for those who indulged in self-righteous behavior that implied a preferential relationship with God.
Alabama would be better served by a governor who remembers that…and Jesus will drink a lot less gin.