Alabama's new governor, Robert Bentley, told a Martin Luther King Day crowd that he plans to be a governor "of all the people," but then added that anybody "who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister."
Bentley's remarks came after he delivered a warm tribute to Dr. King at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, where the slain civil rights leader once served as pastor.
"I was elected as a Republican candidate. But once I became governor...I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind," Bentley said in a short speech given about an hour after he took the oath of office.
But then Bentley, a longtime deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, gave what The Birmingham News said "sounded like an altar call."
"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."
He 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."
Bentley appeared to be echoing the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, when some in the crowd around him announced that Jesus' mother and brothers were there to speak with him. Instead, Jesus turned to his followers and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother."
Some religious and secularist groups said they were appalled at Bentley's words, esepcially coming on the day he was sworn in as governor.
The Hindu American Foundation called Bentley's words "intolerant, repulsive and wholly unacceptable." Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Bentley's comments "are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor."
The governor later insisted he wasn't intending to insult people of other faiths, and his spokesperson said Bentley "is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike."
Still, Bentley's comments are only likely to cement Alabama's reputation as a state where vying to see which candidate can be most religious takes precedence over which candidate can cut the most taxes.
One of Bentley's rivals for the GOP nomination, Bradley Byrne, was blasted during the campaign for suggesting that not all of the Bible was meant to be read literally. And of course Judge Roy Moore, who also ran for the Republican gubernatorial nod, first made a name for himself -- and lost his job as the state's top jurist -- for refusing to move a monument to the Ten Commandments from a state courthouse.