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Ala. Governor Comments Stir Debate On Church, State

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Ala. Governor Comments Stir Debate On Church, State

Ala. Governor Comments Stir Debate On Church, State

Ala. Governor Comments Stir Debate On Church, State

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Alabama Republican Governor Robert Bentley set off a controversy when he said during his inauguration day remarks that only Christians are his brothers and sisters. While there were knee-jerk responses from detractors and defenders alike, few considered the difficulty in drawing a bright line when it comes to the separation of church and state. In this week's installment of Faith Matters host Michel Martin speaks with Pastor Hershael York about the theological underpinnings of the governor's statement and what's appropriate from politicians who are also people of faith.


We're going to continue this look at the confluence of faith and policy and politics here in the U.S. It's a key civic value embedded in the Constitution. We were thinking about this after Alabama Governor Robert Bentley gave some words to a Baptist church audience just after taking his oath of office. It was in the very church where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor in the late 1950s, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Governor Bentley said that, quote: 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.

Now, Bentley has since apologized, but the comment set off a controversy about what he meant, and whether his comments crossed the line appropriate for a public official. So we've called on the Reverend Hershael York. He's pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. He's a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And we often call upon him to talk about theological matters, and he's with us once again. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

Reverend HERSHAEL YORK (Buck Run Baptist Church): Well, thank you, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So Reverend York, I wanted to ask you about - just one question, if I may, about this question of the Ugandan gay rights activist. I did want to just ask if there - if you do credit the notion that the influence, just because there are a lot of missionaries from the United States working in Africa, whether you think that their role is influential in creating a context around these faith issues, issues of - what some people are - issues of morality, other people are not. But do you see my question?

Rev. YORK: Right. Sure. And there's no doubt that evangelical missionaries stand pretty well united in their belief that homosexuality is a sin. That's certainly the case. And I'm sure that that is taught in churches. But people who give their lives to go live in another country, where they are deprived of the comforts of home and family, are not the kind of people who engender hate. So there really is a disconnect there.

And people are responsible for their own actions. And furthermore, when you dig down into the details of the - certainly, the New York Times reporting on it, you find that this so-called group of evangelicals that went were really, three people. And it's just hard for me to believe that three people could get a ball this big rolling down the pike.

MARTIN: I understand.

Rev. YORK: So both things are probably true.

MARTIN: I just wanted to get your perspective on that.

Now, let's go back to the Alabama governor's statement. I wanted to ask you what he meant theologically. I mean, he was making these comments within the context of a church audience. I do want to mention that groups like the American Atheists, a Jewish group - the Anti-Defamation League - said the governor was using the office of governor to advocate for Christian conversion. They take exception to that.

So, I will ask your perspective on that. But I did want to ask you what he meant theologically.

Rev. YORK: Well, Christians believe that God is fatherly toward all his creation because he is Creator. We're all, certainly, brothers by virtue of being descendents of Adam and Eve. But we also believe that God is father especially to those who come to him through faith in Jesus Christ. And Jesus himself said that. Jesus looked at his audience one day and said, you're of your father, the devil, you know. You're not of my father.

So this isn't new lingo, by any means. The question really is whether or not a sitting governor should make public remarks like that, that are - by their very nature - sectarian.

MARTIN: What do you think, if you don't mind my asking your opinion - because you are a faith leader for many people who hold positions of public responsibility. What's your wisdom on this?

Rev. YORK: Well, you know, I pastor in Frankfort and have many public officials who attend my church and I will be, next Monday night, praying before the governor's state of the commonwealth address. So, I understand these issues. And there is a line, because an elected official has to be representative of all the people. And certainly, the governor's statements would be theologically correct in a Baptist context.

I believe I read that he is a Southern Baptist and this is, indeed, what "The Baptist Faith and Message 2000," says. But he was speaking at an event that was really, a public event to celebrate what has become an American holiday for an American hero. And, though no one who is a Baptist would really take issue with his remarks perhaps, the question is, should he have said it in the way he did?

And the fact that he went and stated the negative, that you're not my brother and sister, was probably predictable that it would be offensive. Now, he went on to say his desire, as all Christians, we want to be united with everyone, because we want them to accept Christ as savior. And he said that, but as a governor, that's really a delicate thing for him to do in a public forum like that. Even though it was in a Baptist church, it was in celebration of a public holiday and probably not well-advised for a sitting governor to say that.

MARTIN: He says - he also did apologize, I mentioned - he said, do I get in trouble about speaking openly and honestly about everything? Sure I do. But I also realize that sometimes you just have to choose your words, and you have to do it correctly.

Rev. YORK: Right.

MARTIN: Is there any - there are some who characterized it as an altar call; you know, at the point at which you would invite people to come forward to invite -to share that faith experience that you feel is so profound. Is your word of wisdom on this, if you are an elected official, perhaps the altar call should wait 'til you're out of office? Or is there ever a time when it is appropriate to say, I really invite you to share something that I think is very important?

Rev. YORK: If he were in a church setting where it was a church service, then I think he's free. The question is - here, the lines blur. This particular event, he was in a Baptist church, but was it really a church service in the typical sense? And here's where it does get confusing. I'm very sympathetic to the governor, and I even agree with his statements - as a Baptist.

But I think that he probably should wait 'til - like if he were speaking in a church service. And I've heard politicians who are also preachers and laity speak in church services and share their faith in that way, and that's appropriate. But in a public forum that is larger than that religious purpose -and I really do believe the Martin Luther King celebration is that because it is celebrated by all people. It's not primarily about his faith in Christ, but about his - what he did as a civic leader in the United States.

MARTIN: Reverend Hershael York is the senior pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. He's a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He joined us from member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida. Reverend York, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Rev. YORK: Thank you, Michel.

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