Alabamians are used to religion permeating life. Social introductions often include what church a person attends, and business deals are regularly made during Sunday morning fellowship. But, a few weeks ago, when Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford came to city hall bolstered by an army of pastors it raised eyebrows.
“The mayor and this council, we pale in comparison to the power that the church possesses in this city,” declared Langford.
In an official proclamation, Langford compared Birmingham’s crime rate to that of the Old Testament city of Ninevah. He accused city residents of turning their backs on God and called for an official day of prayer.
“With this event he alienated many of Birmingham’s citizens and used the Christian faith as a manipulation tool for his own agenda.” (Knox)
Birmingham resident Ben Knox is a Christian, but says the Mayor’s proclamation bothered him. He emailed, asking Langford to reconsider, and got a response that said – quote – “As a Christian, you should be the first to recognize the power of prayer. Cops can only lock up the problem. The blood of Jesus can solve the problem.” Mayor Langford says he stands by his words.
“This country is good about finding reasons not to pray. But the first time a tsunami or a cyclone hits, the very first thing out of our mouths is ‘oh god’. Well listen, since everything ends with him, I’m saying let’s begin it with him.” (Langford)
“I’ve never seen anything like this before.” (Neal)
Attorneys usually don’t have a hard time expressing themselves, but in this case, Allison Neal does. She’s with the Alabama office of the American Civil Liberties Union. She says while Langford – the individual – has a right to engage in vigorous free speech about religion, Langford – the mayor – doesn’t.
“You know the government should not be in the business of endorsing religion and dividing Americans along religious lines and I think the proclamation is an example of that.” (Neal)
“When I pave a street, I don’t ask who lives on the street – whether it’s Jewish or Christian or non-believer, I don’t ask that question.” (Langford)
Langford says he feels like Christianity is under attack in the U-S.
“I’m not out here campaigning against anyone’s belief or non-belief. And quit campaigning against mine b/c I’m not going to change mine any more than you’re going to change yours.”
Langford says God chose him to be mayor for a reason, and each Friday morning he holds a bible study in city council chambers. Employees aren’t required to attend, but Langford encourages them. He also welcomes residents, like magazine publisher Sandy Patterson.
“The fact that he does pray and the fact that he seeks god’s direction in what he does, puts his feet on the ground a little bit better. I would much rather have Mayor Langford down here, and being questioned about separation of church and state, than see what we’ve got in New York and some other places.”
The mayor has galvanized a lot of conversation about morals and corruption… both society’s and his own. Langford is being sued for allegedly taking kickbacks for government contracts. A federal grand jury is also investigating him – and criminal charges could result.
At the mayor’s recent “Day of Prayer” to combat crime more than a thousand people packed the auditorium. They donned sackcloth – to show humbleness before God — and, as a shofar blew and pastors dumped ashes on a makeshift alter, the mayor approached a podium bearing the city seal.
“For those who can go on your knees, go on your knees for god’s mercy,” Langford preached.
Kyle Whitmire, a reporter and political columnist for Birmingham Weekly newspaper, was in the audience.
“There was a lot said about Mayor Langford and how god had made him Mayor of Birmingham, much more so than any talk about crime. And at the end of this event, I had to ask myself – whose crime is this really about?”
Critics charge the mayor is using religious rhetoric to set himself up as David to the government’s Goliath. That he’s courting Birmingham’s black Christians in hopes of getting a sympathetic jury pool.
“Larry Langford is real smart, very cagey.”
Chriss Doss is a Baptist preacher, former Alabama senator, and constitutional law expert who’s known Larry Langford for decades. He says the mayor is possibly breaking the law with his mix of religion and politics…
“But I would say that Larry’s behavior basically was the same before any threat of an indictment.”
Larry Langford says he will continue talking about Jesus and praying publicly. And he may need those prayers. In addition to the grand jury investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union is looking into possible violations of separation of church and state. Another lawsuit could be on the way.