Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oedipus in Alabama

The early Christians were, as readers surely know, accused of cannibalism, incest, and odium generis humani. The charge of cannibalism came, in all likelihood, from a misunderstanding of the Eucharist; that of incest, from the custom of calling each other "brother" and "sister." The hatred of people in general seems to have been a catchall slur. All the charges, needless to say, were false.

Right? But it does seem that the metaphorical use of family-language among Christians remains somewhat problematic. Consider, if you will, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama.

An hour or so after he was sworn in, Bentley spoke to a church group. He spoke warmly of his plan to be the governor of all Alabamians -- Republican and otherwise, white and otherwise.

But then, unfortunately for himself and perhaps many other people, he kept talking. As the Birmingham News reports:
"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."
Oops. That may not have come out quite right. You're not my brother. You're not my sister. Or, more bluntly, If you don't share my faith, convert.

Yes, we get what he was -- probably -- trying to say. The governor is a a dermatologist and a Baptist deacon, and he was surely urging the unconverted to turn their hearts toward Christ. Good Baptist deacon kind of sentiment, but not perhaps the sort of thing that the government officials of a secular and pluralistic nation are supposed to say.

Now, we're not suggesting that Alabamians, willing to elect this guy, enjoy Oedipal marriages and Thyestean banquets. (Although, come to think of it, [cue the theme to Deliverance].) Nor even a hatred of humankind in general.

Bentley and his spokeswoman have tried to be clear that "we weren't trying to insult anybody" and Bentley "is the governor of all the people, Christians and non-Christians alike." But we can't help thinking that, for better or, almost certainly, worse, the message has now been sent and received. Christian exclusivists have heard the governor take their side. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists have been put on notice. Despite the governor's disclaimers, he has given them reason to fear that they are second-class citizens, who do not enjoy the fullness of the governor's "brotherhood." It may not be odium, exactly, but it isn't warm fuzziness, either.

While it will be hard, deep in the Bible Belt, to document any chilling effect on the free exercise of religion (or irreligion), this is one more small nail in the coffin of the First Amendment.


LoieJ said...

I want to know what other conservative Christians are saying about this? Are they applauding or are they upset? And what about those Christians that don't think his denomination has "real Christians" in it? Oh my, there could be all sorts of problems brewing.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it's not just Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists who should worry... the "accepted Jesus Christ as savior" formulation, as you well know, speaks to a very specific brand of fundamentalist Christianity. Nobody from what Glennzo the Clown would call "social justice" churches gets to be sibs with the Guv, either.