Bentley’s redefining moment

Published 8:36 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

Things are different now. The setting is different. The stakes are different. The audience is different.

Somebody probably should have pointed that out to him before he really stepped into the deep end.

But nonetheless, what’s done is done.

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When a dermatologist and a Southern Baptist deacon stands up and makes a comment differentiating Christians and non-Christians, there are no repercussions. There is no backlash. No media attention. No national criticism.

When the newly-inaugurated governor of a state with a national reputation of lagging behind society’s pace stands up — even in a Baptist church — and makes that same comment, people pay attention.

When a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The more appropriate question is whether or not anyone cares that the tree fell.

Now that the retired dermatologist is in the public’s eye, people care. They always care.

Bentley’s personal task may be his greatest challenge of all. It may be greater than education funding, jobs, roads, gambling or healthcare. His greatest obstacle is to reconcile his personal faith with the public expectation for the modern politician.

The public may complain about its politicians being scumbags and scoundrels, but it is not ready for men who openly profess their religious beliefs either.

It prefers cookie cutter politicians who smile, kiss babies, shake hands and fill empty speeches with optimistic words about the future. The same society that vilified a Catholic John Kerry for going against a fundamental doctrine regarding abortion now also disparages Bentley for openly stating one of his fundamental beliefs. The phenomenon seems a conundrum. But the simple, unwavering motto of modern society is simply, “Believe what you want to believe, just don’t tell me about it.” Such is especially true when it comes to elected officials.

Governor Bentley apparently did not know that. So he said what he said, a very Baptist tree he thought was falling in a very Baptist forest. And it made a sound.

The ensuing backlash has come more from of a national perspective than from a local.

No shock really considering that church attendance in the state of Alabama is among the highest in the nation.

Things are different now. Outside of the Bible Belt, tolerance is largely the gospel of the day. Except when it comes to doctrines that would mark a difference between individuals. Outside of the Bible Belt, that is intolerance. And intolerance will not be tolerated, even by the tolerant.

So Bentley’s faith, his fervor, his candor? Those things will need to be placed in a box for the next four years. Or, at the very least, they will need be kept inside the walls of a Baptist church.

Wait. No. That is what got him in trouble the first time. Those things will now have to be kept inside the walls of the Baptist church he calls home, unless there is a reporter there.

No. That may still offend someone. He is governor now. So Bentley’s faith must remain in the walls of his own home. That is the way society wants it. Preaching in private. Progress in public. Bentley can go back to being himself in four years when there’s no one around to hear it.

Jeremy D. Smith is the community editor of The Demopolis Times.