Alabama inaugurated a new governor last Monday, on Martin Luther King Day. Governor Robert Bentley seems a most unlikely man to have ascended to the top job in Alabama governance. He’s a dermatologist that was also a state legislator for many years, but had virtually no state-wide name recognition prior to winning the Republican primary and then the general election. He was helped along in the primary by his opponent’s nasty fight with the Alabama Education Association’s chief, Paul Hubbert. As it turned out, the help came both indirectly and directly (which I posted about, here). The direct help wasn’t revealed until after the primary fight, which tarnished Bentley’s image as a straight-shooter a bit, but everyone in Alabama knows that Paul Hubbert must be placated before he will allow any political career to proceed.
Bentley could hardly be considered a politician cut from the same cloth as a George Wallace or Roy Moore. He certainly didn’t run as a demagogue like have so many of Alabama’s politicians before him. But he made some interesting comments in his inauguration speech:
We live in a great country, and we will work with the federal government when we can, but they will not dictate our every move.
As elected representatives, we answer to you, the people of Alabama, not to politicians in Washington.
I will defend our right to govern ourselves under our own laws and to make our own decisions without federal interference.
But I will also always remember the words of the Declaration of Independence, signed by our brave forefathers on July 4, 1776: “That we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights.
These unalienable rights cannot be surrendered, bought or sold because they come from our creator, not from the government. In Alabama, from this day forth, government will only be an instrument for protection of these rights.
Which, I wonder, are the laws we must defend from federal interference? With what will they be defended? The squadron of Apache helicopters stationed at Ft. Rucker that, nominally at least, belong to the Alabama National Guard? The Constitution necessarily trumps any state law that contravenes its principles. Federal law necessarily preempts state law when the two conflict. Unless federal law superseded state law where it conflicted, the “United” part of our republic’s title would be nothing except meaningless hyperbole. And those Apache helicopters belong to the federal government. The federal government only allows states to sort of pretend, so long as it doesn’t need them, that the assets and troops in the state’s national guards belong to them.
Yet the idea of resisting an oppressive federal government and all its varying initiatives plays well in the hearts of white Southerners, particularly Alabama’s. With the possible exception of South Carolina (which has been bickering with the federal government over everything from tariffs to slavery since the ratification of the Constitution–even the South’s own son, President Andrew Jackson, found them exasperatingly belligerent), Alabama has deigned to resist federal interference in her internal affairs more than any other state, particularly during the Civil Rights era. The legacy of defying federal mandates is the legacy of Alabama’s racist past. It’s why a constitutional law text (and the course in my law school regarding the era) could have simply been titled The Supreme Court Smacks Alabama. Surely Governor Bentley did not mean to evoke the silly image of a Governor being forced to step aside by federal marshalls to allow a black woman to attend classes at the University of Alabama.
Later that day, after the inauguration, Bentley attended an MLK day memorial being held at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the same church where Dr. King was pastor during the bus boycotts of the fifties. Things got really weird there, when he said,
“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.”
Incredible. And not just the confused theology, but that’s part of it. How is one “adopted” into God’s family? Wouldn’t we, by necessity, all be members of God’s family if the God is, as Jude0-Christian theology claims, all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present? Doesn’t that mean that all things are in God, and that we are therefore all in God’s family? And when did Jesus as Savior become Jesus as Father? Even the Trinitarian religions don’t count Jesus as “the Father”. They see things as God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Which is a logically dubious tripartition of the one whole that conflicts with all the omni’s- (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence) of God’s infinity, but still doesn’t provide for us all to have the same “daddy” in Christ. See how easy it might be a rational mind to become impossibly and irredeemably confused?
Alabama is an Old Testament culture, white and black alike, and the Old Testament is essentially a manual for racism in the name of God. The Jews claimed that God had chosen them alone to live in the land of Canaan, and so required them to kill every last Canaanite in the land upon making good his promise to deliver them the land. How is the idea of a “chosen” nation, i.e. a collection of closely-related tribes, not racist, especially when you throw in the little ethnic-cleansing directive just to make the imperative clear? It’s easy to see why adopting the Old Testament narrative and ethic is common among racial groups of all vintages, particularly in areas like Alabama and the Deep South, where the races have a long tradition of racial enmity and hatred spicing up their Sunday morning exhibitions of piety. With Bentley’s perorations, he was simply doing what politicians and preachers do, strumming the visceral chords of racism that animate political and religious beliefs, but being a bit clever about it, pretending that those visceral chords don’t resonate differently for each racial group. Are you with us or ag’in us? That’s the eternal question from the pulpits and the podiums. In ancient Palestine, the answer often meant the difference between life and death. Now it just means the difference between exclusion or inclusion in whichever of the myriad political or religious groups is doing the asking. The answer matters more today to the organization than to the individual, which probably explains a lot of why organizations are so determined to create demarcation lines around themselves.
Bentley didn’t go so far as to hint at secession as has Texas’ governor Rick Perry. Which was wise. The secession question was settled nearly 150 years ago. Though the idea of being denied exit from the Union after having voluntarily agreed to membership might strike any reasonable person as ethically unsound, ethics don’t really matter. Power does. And no single state (not even Texas) could have any hope of effectively standing up to the other forty-nine. Alabama and the rest of the Confederacy seceded in the 1860’s to protect their right to own slaves, i.e., to protect a property interest they felt was in threat of impairment by newly-elected and abolitionist President Lincoln and his government. The freedom to own and alienate property forms the foundation of all other freedoms–it is the very essence of why people organize themselves into governing entities–so if it appears the government is clamoring to restrict freedom by impairing property rights, (though this view regarding slavery necessarily depends on believing that slaves were sub-human and therefore didn’t have rights of their own), it may likewise yield the conclusion that the cost of being ruled by such a freedom-restricting government exceeds its benefits. Perhaps it was the case with slavery that its elimination would have made the cost of inclusion in the Union for slave-holding states exceed its benefits. But it could hardly be argued today that the cost of Alabama’s membership in the Union exceeds its benefits, even ignoring the roughly 60% return the state’s citizens get for every dollar they send to the federal government. The institution of slavery formed the economic backbone of the antebellum South. Fighting for its perservation made good economic sense. What would be gained by leaving the Union now, were it even possible? The opportunity for Alabama to print its own money? What would it be called, the Yokel?
Bentley’s performance on inauguration day is proof he’s not a seasoned politician. He’s more a throwback to the days when political office was a part-time job to be done only as often as necessary to keep the ship of state placidly sailing. Until his election as governor, I imagine he’d have listed “dermatologist” on his resume before state legislator. Which is not a bad thing. But he needs to work on his tin ear. He can’t be carrying on about Tenth Amendment perogatives or about the brotherhood of Christianity and have any chance to be taken seriously. Tenth Amendment perogatives were asked and answered in the carnage of the Civil War, and while the brotherhood of Christianity might be a nice idea for some, it really has no place in the political arena. Yet, Bentley seems to be a basically decent man that didn’t mean harm with his speeches on inauguration day. He’s just got to be mindful of that other oath he took long before inauguration day next time when he opens his mouth–first, do no harm.