It was a miracle that no lightning bolt struck Judge Roy Moore dead in the pulpit of the Baptist church where he spoke recently on the fringes of Mobile. He was already flagrantly apostate by using the sanctuary to magnify the message of his run for the U.S. senate from Alabama to fill the vacancy left by Jeff Sessions’ rise to attorney general. For centuries before the American tax codes began rewarding churches with exemptions to stay out of elections, the Baptists especially had insisted on keeping faith separate from the squalor of politics. Lately though, evangelicals have latched onto religiously hollow Donald Trump and are following him as if into the Promised Land. And Roy Moore, with the complicity of preachers and other faith leaders, has turned the churches into campaign venues.Then he lied, too. And still no lightning bolt. As a guest on Hannity’s cozy Fox talk show a few weeks earlier Moore had issued some dodging not-quite denials of pursuing teens when he was a thirtyish local prosecutor in north Alabama. The initial reports involved one girl just 14 years old. Then others surfaced, totaling nine. Perhaps more could have but remained silent, seeing the notoriety these nine have received. Moore conceded that some of these were friends but said he hadn’t “generally”dated teens, not without their mothers’ permission anyway. Having wounded his campaign by admitting such things, he stood in the pulpit and denied even acquaintance: “I do not know any of these women, did not date any of these women and have not engaged in any sexual misconduct with anyone.”
A merciful God must have withheld retribution in accord with the doctrine of forgiveness, as He evidently had done with regard to the church’s music minister, who helped introduce Moore. Some in the pews may have felt a twinge of recognition,which the local media later verified by running the music minister’s jail mugshot. He had been arrested and convicted several years ago for conspiracy to destroy evidence implicating one of his sons in sexual abuse of children at a Honduran orphanage. But even if the Lord had forgiven him by elevation to the ministry, choosing this ex-convict to introduce a candidate credibly accused of child molestation should have given any political image consultant a stroke on the spot. The choir accompanying the minister would have made the stroke terminal. They were a small group of young men singing with ringing harmonics about how “God just needs a few good men, Men who’ll face eternity and aren’t afraid to die.” They were handsome fellows, verging on angelic. They had an air about them. You wouldn’t have been surprised if, for a encore, they burst into the Village People’s Y.M.C.A. And you could have been forgiven if your mind tossed up random recollections of the Catholic church’s tussles with priestly pedophilia.
This suggestive scene was so arresting that you had to wonder whether it was simply a clumsy production by folks not accustomed to the intense scrutiny their semi-rural church would get from the state’s political junkies and the national media by inviting Roy Moore’s campaign into their sanctuary. Or were they more shrewd than that, and their seeming clumsy production was actually a defiance?
Equal, Not Separate
Moore is routinely accused of trampling over and paying no heed to the separation of church and state. His retort—garbled at times—has been that he objects not to separation of church and state but to “the doctrine we’ve been taught that that the state is higher than the church.” If that’s his true complaint, then he’s demanding the state be reduced to equality with the church, which is a yearning for a return not only to an era that would Make America Great Again. He wants to revert to the European middle ages, when dukes and kings were contending with bishops and popes over whose law and whose authority would rule the realm.
That would make sense of the odd display at the Baptist church where Moore campaigned on the outskirts of Mobile. The message would be: The church makes its own rules and follows its own practices for its own reasons, which the secular world may not question or alter. The church answers only to God. It has no need to justify or explain itself to any earthly authority. If the church has done anything amiss, the Lord will rectify it. Perhaps the church condones pedophilia, perhaps it doesn’t. To behave in ways suggesting it condones would not necessarily be an admission of anything. But it would be an act of defiance.
Then, to continue the medieval theme, a court jester appeared in the form of an infiltrator dispatched from Hollywood by Jimmy Kimmel’s TV talk show. This attack comic was masquerading as Moore’s most fervid fan, testifying with Amens and more. Pointing at the candidate, he shouted “Does that look like the face of a molester?” before being escorted out. Kimmel aired clips on his next night’s show, and engaged in a Twitter war with Moore over which of them more truly exhibited Christian values. It quickly descended into mutual challenges for a man-to-man showdown over whose virtues are superior. This auto-de-fa between Protestant Moore and Catholic Kimmel would presumably occur on the grounds of one of the churches here with a banner proclaiming the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
And then the Handmaids materialized. They were not quite medieval but emerged from some ancient time of women wrapped in Puritan burkas who now populate a TV series based on a novel about a modern theocracy that values them only as vessels for procreative lusts. The Handmaids formed an accusatory gauntlet at the entrance of a Moore rally across the bay from Mobile.
Moore has refused to debate his Democratic opponent Doug Jones or answer questions at press conferences, and many of his campaign appearances have been inside churches, which are primed with boosters. It’s reminiscent of Nixon’s Vietnam war days when his public appearances shrank mostly to military bases, where a receptive crowd could be assembled on command.
This venue was a big barny place that simulates a low-rent plantation experience for folks not quite ready for Gone With the Windish prime time. And that’s who came, Moore’s people by the hundreds, many straight from their jobs in work clothes, it appeared, scarcely a suit and tie among them, nearly all white.
To get in they had to pass the Handmaids at the entryway, and some of the encounters there were barbed. But once inside the warmup speakers assured them of their worth and rectitude. Roy Moore respects them and their values, they were told, unlike “Abortion Jones” as Moore’s camp has been labeling their opponent in the campaign’s waning, frantic days. They are clubbing Jones with this issue and they wield it comfortably because it is theological. Jones takes the usual liberal position that the woman must decide about abortion and the government must not intrude. And he turns typically fuzzy about exactly when a developing fetus acquires rights—to life, for instance—that the state should protect regardless of what the woman prefers. Moore and his loyalists are not troubled by such doubts. For debating purposes they might argue that a heartbeat or “viability” mark the onset of protected personhood. But their genuine belief is that a unique person appears at the instant of conception, when an awaiting soul enters this new cell to begin an earthly journey toward its eventual return to an eternal home.
For those looking in from beyond the fundamentalist circle such beliefs may seem as weird as cloistered medieval monks debating the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. But from inside these beliefs are logical and righteous.
When Moore spoke that night he bolstered such beliefs and others with recitations, as he often does, from supportive texts—and not just from the Bible. He’s liable to quote Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, which puzzles his audiences more than it pleases them. And he quotes passages from Thomas Paine, ones written to advance the revolution against King George that sound patriotic. But he isn’t engaging in intellectual archaeology, searching out sources to develop a coherent worldview for himself and his followers. It’s more like grave robbery, digging out a few momentarily useful nuggets and discarding the rest. He wouldn’t need to get very deeply into Paine’s Age of Reason, for instance, before encountering scathing denunciations of the poisonous mixing of politics and religion.
This ersatz erudition serves as camouflage. How could a racist be citing Lincoln? And Moore isn’t a racist in the openly hostile, aggressive way George Wallace was. Moore is closer to colorblind, so much so that blacks become nearly transparent to him. He sees right through them as if they aren’t there at all.
An example of this occurred some months ago, before he stopped taking questions in public. Somebody at a rally asked him to specify the time he wished to return with Trump that would Make America Great Again. Moore replied, “I think it was great at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery—they cared for one another…Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”
This is not a defense of slavery. It is not an assertion of one group’s superiority and another’s inferiority, with slavery their proper status. It merely says that other group doesn’t matter. Their condition needn’t be taken into account. We can rightly proceed for our own purposes with no regard for them. Like they don’t exist. The monochromatic crowd made it easy and soothing to believe such things.
Patriotic Feedlot Fodder
That included Steve Bannon, who flew in from his Breitbart News outpost and braved the Handmaid gauntlet. But once inside his reception was friendlier. He reciprocated this by instructing the crowd that their proper role is cannon fodder. While reciting the usual Trumpist litany of economic nationalism, wall building, immigrant hordes and the rest, he stirred in large lumps of war—the gritty glory of wars past, the heroics of the soldiers who fought them, the similar sacrifices due in the wars ongoing and yet to come in all parts of the world, and the wimpy failure of some to serve (he specified Mitt Romney and offspring, forgetting Trump and offspring)–unlike the faithful folks in this crowd and their children. It resembled a feedlot fattening livestock on gobs of patriotism before sending them off, cheering, to the slaughterhouse.
One looming destination for them is the Middle East, where the locals are again killing each other over which religion should rule Jerusalem, and Trump has just aligned the U.S. umbilically with Israel in the wars likely to result. That’s a fitting backdrop for an election steeped in issues theological and medieval. More contemporary ones have mostly vanished.
It’s snowing across Alabama the weekend before voting, wildfires surround Los Angeles, the seaport of Mobile is on the front lines of rising oceans, Trump has withdrawn America from the world climate accord, and all of this has disappeared from the senate campaign. Neither candidate addresses it. Rural hospitals are closing, access to medical service shrinks. Congress hastens toward completion of a tax “reform” that leads to undoing the New Deal and establishing an aristocracy of inherited wealth. A U.N. poverty inspector is touring the poor interior of Alabama and expressing shock at what he sees. He could find similar doldrums in the cities. The budget for low income housing programs is mostly prisons.
Even if such topics do appear somewhere in the policy statements of the two candidates, they do not appear in the fervid daily wrangling of the campaign. Aside from the suffusing theology, the dominant issue has been little girls: What the Republican Moore did or didn’t do with teen ones around a shopping mall four decades ago, versus what Democrat Jones did two decades ago as federal prosecutor in Birmingham to reopen the dormant case of the 1963 church bombing there and win convictions of two KKKers who killed four black girls.
Without these girls Jones had no chance to win. By every visible measure he is a standard moderate Democrat, which should have been a political death sentence in a state where Trump crushed Hillary very bigly last year. But the Jones campaign has focused on the contrast between his approach to little girls and Moore’s.
This helps Jones with black voters—if they will come to the polls on the 12th. Many are wary, some hostile toward Jones. They know the history of being courted by white politicians, then shunted aside after the election.
To Jones’ great credit, he has deliberately tried to break this pattern. Several weeks ago he came to Mobile for a rally in a community center on the black side of town. A large, integrated crowd awaited his entrance—beside congressman John Lewis, veteran of the 1960s civil rights battles. Jones was proud to be in the presence and receive the endorsement of such a figure. Jones said the times are changing and he wants to be on the right side of history, wants the whole state to be.
The scene was a startling switch from the era when voters were kept in their assigned part of town, while black and white politicians made furtive deals (often involving money and fragile promises) about which direction the black vote would go. In places with the white vote split and the black vote in the balance, such deals frequently decided elections.
At the rally where Bannon recruited fodder, several speakers said this election is a referendum about Donald Trump and his presidency. Nobody disagreed. That means it’s also a referendum about being on the right side of history or the wrong, according to the Jones camp.
They have burst out with energy and hope unlike anything seen in ages here—not only in social media and paid ads but with volunteer canvassing door-to-door, and poster waving at traffic intersections. And Doug Jones yard signs festoon the state from end to end.
But these signs pop up more in certain neighborhoods than others. A drive around Mobile makes this obvious. The black zones have some Jones signs. The older white areas have a forest of them. And the Jones signs are sparse in the newer tracts where whites who moved in from the countryside and their descendants live. Versions of this distribution recur across the state.
That signals a repeat in this election of the traditional alignment, with contending white elements and the black pawns between trying not to get overrun from either direction. Jones and crew want to escape from this cycyle. If they succeed the will indeed aim the state toward a different trajectory of history, along with nudging America in a different direction too.
“We’re not going back,” many Jones volunteers are saying.”We know what that was like, and we’re not going back.” A win is actuallly plausible for them, and that would be nearly a miracle. Or they could get carried backward on the current as they valiantly paddle forward.
Among Moore’s folks the question is how far back to go. Would it be sufficient for Making Alabama and America Great Again, as the Trumps and Bannons envision, to revert to the mid-20th century when we decisively ruled the world, our economy loomed over all others, our military roamed at will, and we didn’t have to give a damn about anybody or anything but us?
Or maybe that’s not enough. With Moore we could seek return to that blessed time when families were strong and united and the country had direction, although slavery might accompany this. But desirable as that might be, it’s not his true preference. He wants something more medieval.