Reflections on Governor Bentley's Sister-Brother Act

Alabama's newly-installed governor, Robert Bentley, ruffled feathers last week when he boldly declared his idea of religious kinship:

"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 ... it makes you and me brother and sister." He added that "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."

Non-Christian religious leaders responded with the expected outrage. The Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation and various Islamic groups condemned the remarks as unacceptable coming from a political leader, effectively putting Bentley on notice that his constituents deserve equal treatment, whether or not he considers them his spiritual siblings.

The response was appropriate and necessary. Rather than add to the chorus, I'd like to use the occasion to make some broader observations.

First, let's call Bentley's attitude what it is: an expression of a narrow, tribal religiosity that sees the members of one's own group as the Chosen and everyone else as infidels, heathen, the doomed or the lost, or simply as unfortunates to be pitied if they can't be converted. You can find it in corners of all religions, and it was probably the rule through most of history. But now, in our increasingly diverse, globalized, omni-connected and well-informed world, it seems ugly, dangerous and antiquated. Like other tired ideologies, it is destined for the scrap heap of history. It will not fade soon, nor will it go quietly, since it boasts millions of adherents, including the most zealous of fundamentalists of every stripe. But fade it will.

Everything we know about the spiritual development, and the trend line in surveys of religious attitudes and beliefs over the past few decades, supports that conclusion. Individually and collectively, the arrow of evolution moves away from tribalism, literalism and exclusivism to encompass wider and wider circles of identification and concern. The range of people we care about and feel connected to -- those we're willing, symbolically, to call brothers and sisters -- tends to expand like ripples on a pond, especially when we interact closely with those who are different from us. And the presence of spiritual teachings that highlight the essential unity at the core of religious and ethnic diversity serves to accelerate that evolutionary process.

The Bentley incident also reinforces my growing belief that we need to rethink our religious categories. It no longer makes sense to classify people according to the usual divisions of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, etc. There are simply too many differences within those categories for them to have any utility beyond census-taking. Within every religion there are similar types: scriptural literalists, fervent believers, doubters, casual participants, mystics, eclectics and others, not to mention the alienated and the indifferent. Such categories cut across religious lines, and they tell us a lot more about the individuals in them than the customary labels. In many ways, Governor Bentley has more in common with certain zealous Muslims and Jews than he does with Christians who were dismayed by his statement because the Jesus they know would consider everyone his brothers and sisters.

The spiritual giants of East and West all felt that universal kinship, and they urged us to feel the same way. The Hindu and Buddhist teachers who came to the West even gave us spiritual technologies like meditation to bring such lofty sentiments to life. Compare Bentley's remark with, for instance, the words of Swami Vivekananda when he addressed the opening crowd at the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893: "Sisters and brothers of America." He was interrupted at that point by a standing ovation from the audience -- most of whom, it should be noted, were Protestants who had probably met few, if any, Catholics or Jews, much less a Hindu monk. Surely, the citizens of Alabama who are not in Bentley's tribe would like their governor to address them that way.

It won't happen, of course, at least not soon. But the world is changing rapidly, as more and more people awaken to the truth of our inherent oneness. The secular recognize our common humanity, encoded in our DNA. The spiritual recognize our common divinity, encoded in what Hindus call Brahman and Christians call the Holy Spirit. Sadly, people like Bentley think that spirit lives only in those who believe as they do, as if the infinite could have such limits. Perhaps in time he'll learn from the reaction to his unfortunate statement and give a farewell address that sounds more like Swami Vivekananda, or Jesus for that matter, than the president of Iran.