Roy Moore’s campaign is pitting evangelicals against each other

The Rev. William J. Barber and other faith leader rally in opposition to Roy Moore on November 18, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Prominent evangelical Christians are blasting Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, with some calling on him to step down after a rash of sexual abuse allegations and rebuking conservative pastors that still back him—but it’s unclear whether white evangelical voters in the state will care.

The back-and-forth is the latest electoral battle in an ongoing war over the soul of American evangelicalism. Just as President Donald Trump claimed broad support among white evangelicals in 2016 despite numerous allegations of sexual assault, some faith leaders are concerned that a victory for Moore in evangelical-heavy Alabama—which remains a very real possibility—could further tarnish the brand of so-called “values voters.”

The chorus of evangelical voices criticizing the Republican candidate began shortly after several women quoted in the Washington Post claimed that Moore, while in his 30s, abused them when they were minors or pursued them as teenagers. The outcry from conservative religious circles crescendoed when Kayla Moore—Roy Moore’s wife—published a letter on Facebook signed by more than 50 pastors endorsing the embattled Senate candidate, and leaders such as Franklin Graham dismissed liberal critics as hypocrites.

Although the letter was later revealed to be suspect in various ways (e.g., some of those listed said they no longer support Moore, and others do not live in Alabama), some of the pastors listed on it have maintained their ardent support for a man who was once removed from office for refusing to take down a statue of the 10 Commandments on government property.

By contrast, many prominent evangelicals have worked to distance themselves from Moore, expressing concern that his campaign is eroding the reputation of evangelicalism.

Ed Stetzer, a professor at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, has openly questioned the clout and influence of pastors who endorsed Moore, asking his Twitter followers to investigate whether the ministers actually support him. He has also made unequivocal statements calling for Moore to end his campaign.

”The accusations against Roy Moore are credible and Moore should step down,” read a November article penned by Stetzer in Christianity Today. “If he continues to maintain his innocence, he should still step down so he can fight to clear his name, for the good of his state, for the success of his party, and to end the embarrassment he is causing evangelicals.”

“If [Moore] continues to maintain his innocence, he should still step down so he can fight to clear his name, for the good of his state, for the success of his party, and to end the embarrassment he is causing evangelicals.”

The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, Russell Moore (no relation to the candidate),  has also issued forceful condemnations. And he’s saved some of his harshest criticism for ministers who use theological arguments to defend Roy Moore—such as when one Alabama official compared Moore’s alleged abuse of minors to the age difference between Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus.

“My blood pressure has been elevated in recent days with people suggesting that even when such horrible things take place that it’s the equivalent of Mary and Joseph — no, it’s not,” Moore told CNN.

Meanwhile, a group of more than 60 primarily Alabama-based ministers have signed a letter declaring Moore “not fit for office.” Whole most of the signers hail from more liberal-leaning faith traditions that are a minority in the state, the New York Times reports that a growing number of conservative-leaning ministers in the region—normally reticent to weigh into political campaigns—are also contemplating speaking out. A group of Alabama Baptists also issued a statement this month denouncing sexual assault, abuse, harassment, and the exploitation of women (although they did not mention Moore by name).

Even Religious Right paragon Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and faith adviser to president Donald Trump, has asked Moore to take a polygraph or lie detector test to prove his innocence.

“I can only tell you if I were in your position and I were innocent of these allegations, I would insist on having a polygraph test administered as soon as possible,” wrote Land, who also criticized Moore in 2003 when he defied a federal court order. “Passing such a test would cause this metastasizing cancer on your candidacy and the damage it is doing to the Christian witness to evaporate instantaneously.” (Of course, it’s not clear that passing such a test would have any impact on Moore’s credibility, especially considering that the American Psychological Association has argued for years that “there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies.”)

It remains to be seen whether Alabama evangelicals will be swayed by the outcry among conservative Christians.

The Association of Religion Data Archives reports that Alabama has the highest evangelical Protestant adherence rate out of all 50 states — clocking in at 420 evangelicals per 1,000 people. Very few Alabama polls specifically target this group, but one of the first surveys conducted in November after the allegations against Moore came to light found that 37 percent of self-described evangelicals in the state said they were more likely to support Moore after hearing about his alleged sexual misconduct.

Though more robust polling is needed to understand more about the rationale behind this support, the rhetoric of Moore and his supporters — often conflating patriotism and piety — may offer a clue.

Take Earl Wise, an Alabama realtor and Baptist pastor who reiterated his support for Moore this week in a way that conflated his national identity and his faith.

“The Founding Fathers didn’t establish [the United States under] the God of Buddha, or Allah, or Hinduism” he said, saying they instead “[said] we’re going to go by the Bible.”

“I stand with Roy Moore,” Wise told ThinkProgress, dismissing the allegations of sexual assault and implying Moore’s accusers were paid (a claim for which there is currently no evidence). He then added: “Roy Moore has consistently through the years—since the beginning of his career—stood for the 10 Commandments for being the basis for our laws in our nation.”

The 10 Commandments reference — one Moore often makes himself — is telling. Most evangelicals in Alabama are white and conservative, a demographic disproportionately represented among Christian nationalists, a resurgent group that believes America is a “Christian nation” whose religious identity must be protected. Moore, an ardent Christian nationalist, has long trumpeted these ideals.

Recent studies of the group, which also arguably helped Trump’s rise to power, have found that an important part of Christian nationalism is that it does not necessarily reflect a consistent theology. Instead, it’s more closely associated with identity. And if Trump’s popularity among white evangelicals in 2016 despite numerous sexual assault allegations and religious critiques is any indication, the phenomena also does not appear to be overly influenced by religious hierarchy. After all, some of Moore’s critics, such as Russell Moore, also railed against Trump — to no avail.

Meanwhile, less prominent leaders like Wise enjoyed national attention this week. He told the Boston Globe that he would stand by Moore even if the allegations were proven true, and repeated numerous axioms of Christian nationalism unprompted during an interview with ThinkProgress.

“The Founding Fathers didn’t establish [the United States under] the God of Buddha, or Allah, or Hinduism” he said, saying they instead “[said] we’re going to go by the Bible.”

Wise also seemed unmoved by pastors who cast aspersions on the candidate.

“I think they need to practice what they preach,” Wise said. He contended that “just because a person’s a pastor” doesn’t mean they embrace the same religious message he preaches, adding they even if they believe Moore is guilty they should recall that “the lord is able to forgive people and make their life new.” He maintained this point despite the fact that Moore has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, much less expressed guilt or repentance.

“Those fellas who are saying they are ministers probably haven’t read Roy Moore’s book,” he added.