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Alabama governor’s faith ‘genuine,’ pastors say after Bible study draws criticism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Alabama governor Bob Riley has taken heat for holding early-morning Bible studies, but two of his pastors say his motivation is pure.

A Southern Baptist, Riley was sworn in as governor in January, and recently began offering Bible studies for his staff. He holds a Bible study for his Cabinet and senior staff on Tuesday mornings, while other staff members hold their own Bible study on Wednesday mornings. Attendance is voluntary.

Various groups have criticized Riley, who was baptized at First Baptist Church, Ashland, Ala., where he has been a member since 1953.

Larry Darby, Alabama director for American Atheists, told the Associated Press that the Bible studies were “a form of Christian terrorism” and were not voluntary as long as Riley was involved. Darby added that Riley was performing “political panhandling for public policy.”

Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., questioned Riley’s rationale, speculating that the governor was simply following the lead of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has been under fire for his public display of the Ten Commandments.

“It’s strange that when politicians like Roy Moore gain so much power from religious demagoguery that the governor would institute such a proceeding,” Dees told AP.

But Riley’s current and former pastors told Baptist Press that his faith is authentic.

“They (Riley and his family) were active in the church long before he ran for office,” said Randall Ingram, who was Riley’s pastor in Ashland from 1994-1998.

Ingram was Riley’s pastor when Riley won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996. Before running for Congress, Riley taught a Sunday School class at the church.

“Bob was leading this class before he became a congressman,” Ingram said. “… The class truly enjoyed the time he taught them. I do believe his faith is genuine.”

Riley’s convictions were a big reason he ran for public office, Ingram added.

He wanted “to change the moral climate of America,” he said. “… He felt like he ought to try to do something about it. He wanted to make things better for his grandchildren.”

Riley’s current pastor is Bruce Willis, who has been at First Baptist, Ashland since 1999. Willis said Riley’s congressional duties kept him in Washington, D.C., much of the time, but couldn’t keep him away from Ashland.

“Even then, they came to church when they were home,” said Willis, who prayed at a prayer breakfast at the state capital the week of Riley’s inauguration. “I had a pastor-parishioner relationship with them.”

Both pastors have comforted Riley and his family during some tough times. Willis was pastor when one of Riley’s daughters died, as well as when the father of Riley’s wife, Patsy, passed away. Ingram performed the funeral for Riley’s mother.

“I’ve walked with them through some of life’s experiences,” Willis said.

During the gubernatorial campaign last year, Willis said he was often asked if Riley was sincere about his faith.

“My response was, ‘Yes, as far as my ability to know,'” he said. “The real test of his character is his children’s lives. See the character in their lives. That leaves no question to me. All four of his children are just outstanding.”

Said Ingram: “He’s just a fine Christian man. The family’s the same way.”

Both men said they have not spoken to Riley about the Bible study. However, Willis applauded the concept.

“I think it is a good idea,” he said. “He is a man of Christian character, and one of God’s basic purposes for our lives is that we become more Christ-like. A part of the purpose of the Bible study would be to facilitate spiritual growth.”

Riley has seemed incredulous that the Bible study has caused a controversy.

“How did we get to this point?” he said in a FoxNews.com story. “How did we get to the point that today it’s controversial to come together at a Bible study?”

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  • Michael Foust