For Alabama Christians, Governor Bentley’s Downfall Amid Sex Scandal Is a Bitter Blow

Robert Bentley resigned as governor on Monday and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in the wake of a sex scandal. Credit: Bob Miller for The New York Times

As governor, Robert Bentley would quote the Bible before the Alabama Legislature and say that God had elevated him to the State Capitol. In his dermatology practice, in the city where he was a Baptist deacon, he sometimes witnessed to patients. And when he was a first-time candidate for statewide office, his campaign headquarters were often filled with volunteers from local churches.

This is a state that knows well how mixing faith and politics can lead to disappointment. When Mr. Bentley on Monday resigned from office and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in the wake of the sex scandal that ended his 50-year marriage, his downfall reflected both enduring and contemporary challenges for evangelical voters.

To many of the conservative Christians who unexpectedly propelled Mr. Bentley, a Republican, into power, his demise was a dispiriting setback in an age when they feel their values are under siege.

“We’re sorry for him and his family, but at the same time, he made his choices and did what he did,” said the Rev. Joe Godfrey, the executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, a church-supported group that holds substantial influence in the Legislature. “I don’t know that people feel had; I think they feel disappointed. Here was a man who had a chance to accomplish great things, and he failed.”

But others said it had become clear that for conservative Christians, the cultural and political issues that define modern conservative politics mattered at least as much as moral piety. That was why, they suggested, Mr. Bentley was able to cling to his job for nearly 13 months after his reputation as a paragon of probity came under fire.

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

When Mr. Bentley ran for governor in 2010, Christian voters saw extraordinary promise in the obscure lawmaker from Tuscaloosa who liked to tell people about how Bear Bryant, the revered University of Alabama football coach, had been one of his patients. He seemed oddly ordinary, the politician who was thought to be tailor-made for a state increasingly frustrated by decades of corruption in Montgomery.

“People were looking for something that was more grandfatherly, something that was more wise and trustworthy and less politically slick,” said Angi Stalnaker, who was Mr. Bentley’s campaign manager. “They wanted someone that they could see themselves having Sunday dinner with, and, of the candidates in 2010, Robert Bentley was the one you could see inviting over for fried chicken and cornbread.”

He won that election, and then another in 2014. But Dianne Bentley filed for divorce the next year. Months later, an ousted state official accused Mr. Bentley of having an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a top aide and former beauty pageant contestant whom he had taught in Sunday school in Tuscaloosa. Lurid audio recordings became public, and on Friday, a special counsel concluded that the governor had committed an array of misdeeds to try to cover up the “inappropriate relationship” that had led to Mr. Bentley and Ms. Mason leaving their congregation.

Ms. Mason declined to comment, and the governor quit hours after impeachment hearings began. His abrupt exit — he failed to mention to reporters that his resignation was a condition of his plea agreement — spurred a new round of pain for Christians who had spent years supporting him.

“I think he’s just like all of us: He’s made of flesh and bone, and he’s temptable,” said the Rev. John Killian, a former president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. “I believe it was the devil, and I believe the devil knew he was bagging big game.”

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: The New York Times
Alan Blinder