There are people who support separation of church and state in the South – plenty of them. It has been my privilege over the years to meet with some.
They even exist in Alabama. But there’s no denying that many of the residents of that state – and the Deep South generally – are enamored of very conservative forms of Christianity and see government as a vehicle for promoting that faith. They call this region the Bible Belt for a reason.
That makes what’s going on in the Heart of Dixie more than just a little bit ironic: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has resigned due to a sex scandal. The details are very salacious and involve the usual flurry of indiscreet text messages, semi-pornographic phone calls and incredibly reckless behavior. There are even allegations that Bentley’s security detail helped him suppress news of his frolics with his former aide Rebekah Mason.
Former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is the latest "family values" politician to fall due to a sex scandal.
It should surprise no one to learn that Bentley, who was married to his wife for 50 years until she abruptly filed for divorce in 2015, ran as a “family values” conservative who played up his conservative Christianity during his first campaign in 2010. He liked to quote scripture to legislators and opined that God had put him in office.
Bentley, a Southern Baptist deacon, got off to a rocky start with Americans United and other church-state separation advocates. On his inauguration day, Jan. 17, 2011, Bentley attended services at a Baptist church and offered some remarks. What he said was problematic.
“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,” he said.
Sounding more like a pastor than a governor, Bentley continued, “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 … it makes you and me brother and sister. If we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters.”
Bentley later offered an apology of sorts: “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’s fall from grace gets even stranger when you add in the fact that Mason’s husband, Jonathan P. Mason, until recently ran Alabama’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, called Serve Alabama. He was paid $91,000 annually and had no experience in this kind of work. Prior to joining the state government, he was a TV weatherman. (Alabama’s new governor, Kay Ivey, handed Mason a pink slip shortly after being sworn in.)
What’s frustrating about all of this is not that yet another holier-than-thou politician turned out to be a hypocrite – that’s old news. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Newt Gingrich.) It’s that the results of fusing right-wing Christianity and government, which many in the Religious Right hold up as a model for the nation, have served Alabama so poorly.
Bentley is hardly alone. Remember, Alabama has also been embarrassed by the antics of Roy Moore, who has twice been removed from the post of chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court because he won’t accept that government should be secular.
A columnist for AL.com, a statewide news site, says the state’s residents have no one to blame but themselves. It’s a harsh assessment, but it may be true. In light of it, I’d like to offer a little unsolicited advice: Maybe it’s time to stop picking political leaders on the basis of where they go to church, how many prayer proclamations they’re willing to sign and how many pieces of far-right social legislation they say they’ll ink.
Maybe it’s time to pick a leader who’s willing to work for all Alabamans, not just those who happen to be far-right Christians. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time for one who actually respects the separation of church and state.
It’s worth a shot. I mean, could things possibly get any worse?
P.S. No matter where you live, you can get involved in the battle to preserve church-state separation by joining Americans United.