United Church of Christ Pastor Jennifer Sanders is one of 53 Alabama ministers who signed a letter stating Roy Moore is “not fit for office.” Photos by author.

Christians could swing Alabama’s senate election

Last week, someone spray painted the word “rapist” across a big, wooden Roy Moore sign near my house in Birmingham. Someone else ripped Moore’s name from a voter registration flyer posted in the women’s restroom of the coffee shop near my son’s school. Meanwhile, yard signs for Democratic hopeful Doug Jones are popping up across the state—from Huntsville to Gadsden and Montgomery to Mobile.

On December 12, the nation will be watching to see if a homegrown backlash against the Republican candidate will translate into enough votes for a Democrat to win the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.

Jones, whose campaign hasn’t emphasized faith, may be dependent on the very voters Moore believes are in his own pocket: Christians. While some evangelicals are standing with Moore, going so far as to equate the candidate’s taste for young girls to the carpenter Joseph wedding a teenage Mary, not every Christian in the state can wave away recent allegations with a holy wand.

Since early November, nine women have accused Moore of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to attempted rape of a minor. Moore, the conservative judge twice removed from the state’s highest court, has denied the allegations, but admits to dating teenagers with their parents’ consent when he was in his thirties. Recently, AL.com reported Moore publicly admitted to first noticing his wife when she was 15. He was 30. Allegations that Moore was banned from the Gadsden mall in the 1970s for badgering teenagers have inspired some locals to wonder if we hold food court patrons to higher ethical standards than elected officials.

Moore was already the most controversial of the candidates in the primary, someone so radical in his beliefs that political spectators ventured Jones, a respected former U.S. District attorney, could flip the seat in this deeply red state. Moore’s supporters thus far have been a zealous but small group in a race with very low expected turnout. While some Republicans, including Governor Kay Ivey and wealthy white suburbanites, may reluctantly vote for Moore to tow the party line, things seem to have turned in the Democrats’ favor.

A recent National Republican Senatorial Committee poll shows that Alabamians either aren’t buying Moore’s claim that the sexual allegations are politically-motivated “fake news,” or they aren’t cool with grown men dating (or attacking) teenage girls—either way, Jones is now beating Moore by 12 points. Prior to the allegations, he was losing in most polls.

Faith has always been a factor in Moore’s campaign. In a state where 86 percent of residents say they are Christian, candidates often focus on faith and family values, and Moore has taken the Evangelical angle to the extreme—even declaring the recent allegations are “forces of evil” armed to destroy conservatives. He’s given many campaign speeches from Evangelical pulpits, including a recent event at Walker Springs Road Baptist Church in Jackson, where he told the crowd he was at the center of a battle over “God in America.”

Jones, whose campaign hasn’t emphasized faith, may be dependent on the very voters Moore believes are in his own pocket: Christians.

But Alabama Christians aren’t all the same, and a lot of them don’t like pedophilia. Or homophobia. Or a host of less harmful shenanigans Moore is known for. He’s long been a contentious figure in Alabama politics, and along the way, he’s made a lot of Christians mad.

The GOP candidate has said gay people should be imprisoned, American communities are currently under Sharia law, and Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to hold public office. A recent Washington Post investigation found Moore lied about taking a salary from the nonprofit he founded to promote Christian values. According to tax records and officials at that nonprofit, Moore did indeed earn a salary, more than $1 million in the past five years for part-time work at the organization. Plus, he rode his dang horse to vote for himself in the runoff and whipped out a pistol during a campaign rally.

And the thing is, Moore isn’t the only Christian in the race.

“I don’t see how—if you believe in a God—you could vote for Roy Moore.”

For more than 33 years, Jones has been a member of Canterbury Methodist Church in Mountain Brook. He’s mostly kept his religion out of campaigning, focusing instead on what he calls “kitchen table issues” like health care and education. In an attempt to appeal to voters who want more across-the-aisle compromise, Jones has kept a lot of things under the radar, including his support from national Democrats, as his campaign tries to appeal to more moderate voters.

Even if this approach means left-wing Christians aren’t gushing over Jones, many still seem inclined to cast a vote against Moore.

Pastor Jennifer Sanders is one of 53 Christian ministers who signed a letter in opposition to Moore. She leads a small United Church of Christ congregation at the Beloved Community Church in Birmingham. When I asked her if the Moore allegations had newly motivated her congregants, she said that most of the people in her circles had supported Jones since the primary. But even her more radical friends and acquaintances are voting for Jones despite his “rather moderate candidacy…because the alternative is Roy Moore.”

On the other hand, Chad Jones, a 42-year-old Republican in Vestavia Hills, is opting out of the race altogether. A practicing attorney who also teaches P.E. at a local elementary school, Jones said in an interview that Moore’s “absolute defiance of Federal Court Orders, over and over again, causes me to believe that his judgement is so poor he absolutely is unfit for office.” He added that the recent allegations only deepen his confidence in not voting for Moore. “These are serious allegations for someone seeking one of the most powerful seats in our government,” he said. He added he was open to the Democrat candidate before learning of Jones’s stance on abortion (the candidate is pro-choice).

At Church of the Highlands, a nondenominational Christian church with campuses across the state, views on the race are mixed. With nearly 40,000 members, the largest congregation in Alabama, Church of the Highlands streams its sermons via large screens in their theater-like worship halls.

Alabama Christians aren’t all the same, and a lot of them don’t like pedophilia. Or homophobia.

Between the 8 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. services at their Grants Mill location last Sunday, the crowd of a few hundred was diverse. I asked a dozen people if they were following the race. An elderly white-haired guy in Wranglers and a tucked-in plaid shirt stood cross-armed near the bathrooms, saying the world couldn’t handle his opinion on politics, “no way, no how.” An older Black gentleman in a 3-piece suit simply winked and wagged a finger toward the sky as if only God might know his vote. A young family in matching hoodies told me they’d definitely be voting for Jones.

Sitting on sofas and thumbing through their Bibles, a group of long-haired missionary teenagers returning from work in the South Pacific said they were following the race but weren’t comfortable saying who they would vote for. One of them, a 19-year-old named Jake (who preferred his last name not appear), offered he was conservative and was re-thinking the race in light of the accusations against Moore. “As for the women coming forward with allegations, I get why they’re doing it now. Because everyone else is coming out with allegations, so they feel safer.”

The Beloved Community Church in Birmingham is home to a liberal United Church of Christ congregation.

Near the campus café, three young men in khakis and polos were discussing an upcoming wedding. When I asked if they’d been following the Senate race, they all looked to one another before nodding. A 25-year-old white guy, another conservative, said he was still undecided. “I don’t know Moore personally. I don’t know those women either. I’m still weighing the options. My faith means that I have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and trust them at their word so there’s a lot to think about.”

No one openly voiced support for Moore.

But Brian Bowman, a 41-year-old firefighter who was playing with his infant daughter near an exit, was quick to denounce him. Bowman, a Catholic, was visiting the church at a friend’s request.

“I don’t see how—if you believe in a God—you could vote for Roy Moore,” he said.

His wife, Alisha, a 36-year-old graphic designer for a wine importer, was blunter about her take Moore: “The guy’s a piece of crap.” She laughed and looked around to see if anyone had heard her, then shrugged as if to say she didn’t mind.

Their friend and a regular at Church of the Highlands, Brandon White, might be part of the most important voting bloc in the state right now—the people who weren’t planning to vote prior to the sexual allegations against Moore. Like a number of the people I spoke to, White said he was still burnt out from the 2016 presidential election.

“I try to stay away from politics,” he said, adding there’s too much back and forth without compromise.

A self-described “Democrat who loves guns,” White wasn’t following the race before the allegations against Moore because as a Black guy growing up in the South, he said he learned early on that people can be “very, very stuck in their ways.”

Now? White thinks Jones has a shot.

“A lot of people didn’t think Democrats had a chance, but it seems the tide is changing,” he said.

  • Katherine Webb-Hehn

    About

    Katherine Webb-Hehn is the Alabama Political Reporter for Scalawag. She's a Birmingham-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, In These Times, The Nation, PANK and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @KAWebb_.