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New governor's words don't upset many in Alabama

By Bob Johnson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 20 2011 4:41 p.m. MST

Newly sworn in Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, left, and his wife, Dianne, prepare to leave Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church after he spoke during the annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday on Monday, Jan. 17, 2011, in downtown Montgomery, Ala.

Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop in Alabama, so it's not hard to find people who agreed with their new governor this week when he said only Christians are his brothers and sisters.

Even so, some of his brothers and sisters thought he could have found a nicer way to say it.

It's unlikely that Republican Gov. Robert Bentley will suffer politically from his inauguration day remarks, which he made from a church pulpit at a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday service Monday.

"I don't think he was too smart to say that," 72-year-old Ron Brooks said as he was getting his hair cut at a barber shop in Wetumpka, a suburban town about 20 miles north of Montgomery. But Brooks, a retired employee of a defense contractor, said he's "inclined to agree" with Bentley's statement.

Baptist churches are a fixture in every tiny corner of the state, many of them Southern Baptist, the same denomination Bentley follows.

There are about 1.1 million members of about 3,300 Southern Baptist churches in Alabama, said Keith Hinson, a spokesman for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. There are believed to be as many as 600,000 others who are members of Baptist churches that are not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Keith Nicholls, a pollster at the University of South Alabama, said in his polls of Alabama residents, often as many as 70 percent identify themselves as "born-again Christians."

Bentley's comments Monday shocked and offended some nonbelievers and member of other faiths and stoked criticism from across the country. The governor apologized Wednesday for the remarks after meeting with leaders of Alabama's Jewish community.

A lifelong Baptist who works at a two-pump gas station in rural Rock Creek, Angel Byram said Thursday she understands what Bentley meant with his original comments.

"I get what he was saying. It didn't bother me," said Byram, who was selling a soft drink and headache powders to a coal miner at the small store on Warrior River Road.

"But being in a public office like that (Bentley) should have thought of others," she said. "If I wasn't Baptist and didn't believe that way I would have been offended."

Byram said it was good that Bentley apologized. "But I wonder if he really meant it or was just saying it like politicians do," she said.

Kay Cummins of Hueytown said she wasn't offended by Bentley's speech and didn't think he should have apologized.

"I wouldn't have," said Cummins, working in the fellowship hall at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which she attends.

"I see really nothing wrong with what he said. I think it was innocent, and people are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill," said Cummins, who voted for Bentley. "I was offended that he hadn't even been in office as hour and they were already taking him apart word by word."

Talk radio shows in Montgomery were full of chatter after Bentley's remarks, with some callers saying the governor shouldn't have apologized.

Retired Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt, who has written a book about the history of Baptists in the state, said the controversy won't damage Bentley in Alabama, where candidates typically portray themselves as Christians, with campaign commercials often showing them at church.

"I don't think this hurts him at all within the state. I think it really helps him with his very conservative base," said Flynt.

Flynt said Bentley's problem was that when he made the remark about his "brothers and sisters" he was speaking in "insider language" that was misunderstood by many outside the Baptist faith.

Bentley made the remarks at the predominantly black church where King first served as a pastor in the 1950s. Flynt said he believes the governor was trying to show the black Baptists that he includes them in his family, but went too far when he said non-Christians were not his brothers and sisters.

The barber at the Wetumpka shop, 59-year-old Jimmy Spivy, said he doesn't think Bentley meant to offend anybody.

"I just think it was a slip of the tongue. I think Robert Bentley is going to be our best governor," Spivy said.

At a downtown Montgomery restaurant, 72-year-old retired appraiser Kervin Kelley summed up how many Alabama residents seemed to take Bentley's remarks.

"He probably shouldn't have said it, but it didn't bother me," Kelley said.

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Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham contributed to this report.

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