MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Two days after being sworn in as Alabama governor, Robert Bentley apologized Wednesday for proclaiming to a Baptist church audience that only Christians were his brothers and sisters and vowed to work for people of all faiths and colors.
His comments Monday shocked and offended some believers of other faiths, but the backlash didn't seem to be a serious political wound for the retired dermatologist and Southern Baptist deacon.
In a conservative state with some of the highest levels of church attendance in the country, some Christian leaders defended the remarks and the Republican will likely get a fair chance to pursue his agenda in the coming legislative session.
"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," he told reporters Wednesday after meeting with leaders of other faiths in his new office.
After he took the oath of office at the Alabama Capitol on Monday, Bentley headed across the street to a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at King's first church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
During his speech, he remarked: "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."
The former director of the Center For The Study Of The Law And The Church at Samford University, Chris Doss, said he believes Bentley stumbled briefly, partly because he is a Baptist deacon, speaking in a Baptist church.
"He was talking to his own flock," Doss said. But he added Bentley will need to be careful that he doesn't repeat that mistake.
Bentley apologized for his remarks, but not for being a Christian.
"I will never deny being a born-again Christian. I do have core beliefs and I will die with those core beliefs," Bentley said. "But I do not want to be harmful to others. And I will die if I have to defend someone else's right to worship as they choose."
The pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, the Rev. Jay Wolf, said he thought Bentley's remark was misunderstood by the news media.
"He was trying to relay something that is fundamental to our faith, that people who believe in Jesus are related," Wolf said. "He didn't mean that he's not part of the brotherhood of humanity."
Wolf said the 67-year-old Bentley has spent his career as a physician helping people.
"To say now that he's being exclusionist, that's absurd," Wolf said.
The president of the national Interfaith Alliance, the Rev. Welton Gaddy, said Bentley "went too far."
"I thought that with his statement he created two classes of citizens in Alabama, those that were his brothers and sisters in Christ and everyone else. As an elected official, he has the responsibility to serve all the people and treat all the people equally," Gaddy said.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group that fights discrimination, said it sounded like Bentley was using the office of governor to advocate for Christian conversion.
"If he does so, he is dancing dangerously close to a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from promoting the establishment of any religion," said ADL regional director Bill Nigut.
Retired University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart said the remarks were a mistake.
"I don't think the governor needs to get into things like who is going to be in the kingdom and who isn't going to be in the kingdom," Stewart said.
But he believes Bentley will be able to rebound.
"There's going to be goofs by anybody," Stewart said. "Once he gets into his policies and the substance of his administration, I think he can turn it around."
Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, said Bentley was making a "theological statement" to a church crowd. She called Bentley's statements a "classic altar call" from an evangelical.
"He's saying I want to be your brother. That's an invitation. But basically the way it's heard is as an exclusionary statement," said Brown, who studies evangelical Christian literature.
"My guess is that expressions of shock and concern by critics are even perhaps disingenuous, because this can scarcely be the first time they've heard a similar statement. If they're in Alabama, they've heard this before, they've heard it many times before and maybe even by political leaders."2 comments on this story
One of the Jewish leaders who met with Bentley Wednesday, Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, called the new governor's remarks "a difficult misstep" at the beginning of his administration. But he said he was pleased with the governor's apology and said "I hope and pray we can come together in the next four years."
Another rabbi, Elliot L. Stevens of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, called the meeting with Bentley a positive step.
"We are all gathered here at the table in the first days of his administration and we are talking about inter-religious dialogue," Stevens said.
Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.