When former judge Roy Moore bounded onto stage Tuesday night to declare victory in the Alabama Republican primary, he was quick to offer his own explanation for his resounding nine-point win.
“There’s one you don’t see up here [on stage], and let me just tell you, He’s done more for my campaign than anybody — and that’s almighty God,” Moore said to a raucous crowd. He then quoted a passage from Isaiah 40 before declaring: “We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United States to the United States Congress.”
Moore’s fusion of faith and politics doesn’t fit neatly into any of the well-worn political narratives used by pundits to characterize his path to the Senate. Some framed his primary win as a blow to Donald Trump, who endorsed Moore’s opponent Luther Strange, and a cheeky win for former senior White House adviser Steve Bannon, who backed Moore. Others read it as a sign the GOP establishment that rushed to defend Strange is drowning beneath an unrelenting tide of raw populism exemplified by Moore.
“We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United States to the United States Congress.”
Ultimately, more polling and study is needed to determine exactly where Moore’s support came from. But his faith-fueled speech may offer a telling signal about his ability to inspire conservative voters. Moore’s candidacy points to something political analysts should keep an eye on: Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism, broadly defined, is hardly new. But sociologists and analysts have seen a peculiar resurgence of Christian nationalist sentiment in conservative American politics, beginning when a bevy of right-wing evangelical Christians coalesced power during the tenure of President George W. Bush. A decade or so later, voters are now readily backing politicians who say the United States is a “Christian nation,” attaching the idea — often in ways unmoored from any specific denominational system — to Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, among other ideologies.
Trump made ample use of Christian nationalism in his climb to power (and is beloved by many overt Christian nationalists) and continues to wield it while in office. He invoked it during his many attempts to convince voters to back Strange, telling a crowd in Huntsville that “[Luther Strange] knows the true source of America’s strength — it’s God, it’s family and it’s country.”
“You have to understand it was the duty of the government under the First Amendment…to foster religion and foster Christianity.”
But it’s not easy to out-Christian nationalist Moore, who helped birth the modern movement by rooting it in the religiously fertile ground that is church-going Alabama.
It was Moore—then Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, an elected position he won as an outsider—who made national headlines in the early 2000s for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments he erected in the central rotunda of the state judicial building. Moore already had a long career (and string of controversies) revolving around his insistence on displaying the Biblical laws, but the monument controversy hit a fevered pitch, resulting in thousands of protesters and various leaders of the Religious Right descending on the Alabama state capitol to defend him.
Moore’s activism ultimately cost him his job—he was removed from his position as Chief Justice in November 2003 by the state Court of the Judiciary. But he returned to the bench in 2013, remaining until he resigned to run for senate. Naturally, he doubled down on his tried-and-true devotion to Christian nationalism: Two tablets emblazoned with the Ten Commandments sat outside his victory party last night, and he still insisted on a melding of Christianity and politics during his campaign.
“You have to understand it was the duty of the government under the First Amendment…to foster religion and foster Christianity,” Moore told Vox’s Jeff Stein earlier this year.
This helps explain Moore’s historic popularity in Alabama, where every single public poll showed him beating Strange ahead of Election Day. But he also trumpets more recent and widespread aspects of modern Christian nationalism. He insists on putting “God” back into schools, telling a group of pastors this year that removing prayer from public education has resulted in “shootings and killings.” He is brazenly Islamophobic, making blatantly false claims that some U.S. cities are under Sharia law and writing in 2006 that Rep. Keith Ellison should not be sworn in as a member of Congress because he is Muslim, saying, “Islamic law is simply incompatible with our law.” He dismisses most traditional understandings of the separation of church and state (which he insists is a Christian concept), saying government should only stop short of “forcing” people to worship one way.
And Moore echoes the hardline stance on immigration common among Christian nationalists: In addition to opposing immigration reform efforts such as the Dream Act, he has argued for using military force to stop immigration at the border.
“Judge Moore knows the Ten Commandments is the basis for the Judeo-Christian west,” Steve Bannon said.
The electoral allure of Christian nationalism wasn’t lost on Steve Bannon, who journeyed to Alabama to speak at a rally for Moore ahead of the run-off. After claiming the “mainstream media” thinks displaying the Ten Commandments on government grounds is “a capital crime,” Bannon launched into an endorsement of Moore’s ideas about faith and government.
“Judge Moore knows the Ten Commandments is the basis for the Judeo-Christian west,” Bannon said to the roaring crowd, echoing his own broader Christian nationalist views. “Judge Moore is a good man, he’s a courageous man, and more importantly he’s a righteous man.”
It would be tempting to dismiss Moore as something distinct to Alabama or the deep South, where mixtures of religion and politics have been common for ages. But doing so misses the bigger picture: Trump already utilized a slightly less explicit version of Christian nationalism to win on a national scale, and Moore himself insists God sent the real estate mogul to the White House. So-called “anti-establishment” candidates are reportedly already readying primary challenges to more traditional Republicans across the country.
And despite the commander-in-chief’s support for Strange, virtually all parties seem eager to wed Moore’s victory to the same surge that catapulted Trump to victory—one that readily invokes God.
“On November 8, I knew: It was divine providence that helped us win,” Bannon said at the Moore rally, referring to the president’s 2016 win. Later, after quoting Ecclesiastes, he added: “A vote for Roy Moore is a vote for Donald Trump.”