It was three days after Roy Moore lost the U.S. Senate election in Alabama, and the mayor was up early. His candidate had failed, but the reasons Charlie Gilchrist had supported him remained. He still wanted America to be a good Christian nation, and Glencoe to be a good Christian town, so he said the prayer he said every morning — "Lord Jesus let me be a blessing to somebody today" — and headed to City Hall.
He parked his truck, got a shovel out of the back, and walked over to a patch of grass where two small orange flags marked a hole in the ground. He began digging in the frosted dirt.
It was just after 8 a.m. and traffic was whooshing by, past the one-story strip malls, past the Big Chief Drive-In and church after church, including the hulking redbrick one lit up for Christmas next to the smaller buildings of City Hall. The parking lot of First Baptist ran right up to the grass where the mayor was digging, his breath visible in the cold air.
He was born and raised in Glencoe, a largely white, largely Christian town of 5,100 people in the northeastern part of the state. He had been mayor 13 years. He was 70 now, and everyone knew him by the nickname he'd had since he was a boy, Peanut, and as he described himself in the city directory: "Charles 'Peanut' Gilchrist is a Christian, family man, Vietnam Veteran, a member and vice commander of the Glencoe VFW Post 10408" who "volunteers for the Senior Citizens Meal Program."
He tossed aside a rock. He tossed aside a chunk of dirt. He looked at the hole and then at what was going in it: a 50-foot flagpole with a silver cross on the top, now lying in the grass. That was his plan, to erect that flagpole adjacent to City Hall, and to eventually raise a Christian flag high over the town for everyone to see — a red cross on it for the blood of Jesus, a white field for purity and a blue square for the waters of baptism.
The mayor kept digging. The sun came out. Soon, four workers from a construction company down the road arrived with a crane truck, and he watched as they hoisted the pole off the grass.
"That's a tall pole, ain't it?" the mayor said as it went up. "That's way up there."
He leaned back, watching as they hoisted it higher and higher.
Roy Moore had lost, but there were still all the people who believed as he did that America was a Christian nation, that biblical law came before man's law, and as the mayor did, that sin was real and so was salvation.
"Looking good," the mayor said, squinting into the sun.
The flag he wanted to raise, now folded up in a filing cabinet in his office until he could plan a "big to-do," had flown for years next to an American flag and the Alabama state flag in front of City Hall, ever since a former police chief had put it there in the 1990s. In all that time, the mayor said, no one had said a bad word about it until two years ago, when a letter came from a nonprofit group in Wisconsin called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, citing a complaint received from a local resident and threatening legal action.
"It is unconstitutional for a government entity to fly a flag with a patently religious symbol and meaning on its grounds . . ." the letter stated. "No secular purpose, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity and the overall display promotes Christianity."
Similar letters about other government-sanctioned displays of Christianity had gone out elsewhere in Alabama, a state where roughly 80 percent of adults are Christian. The foundation complained about a Nativity scene in front of Rainbow City Hall a few miles away, and a "Keep Christ in Christmas" parade in the city of Piedmont, and a Bible distribution at an elementary school in Lauderdale County.
When the mayor read the letter sent to Glencoe, he was distraught. He couldn't sleep. He saw the whole thing as a kind of invasion — "These people coming from Wisconsin telling little ol' Glencoe what to do," as he put it — but the city attorney advised him that going to court was a lost cause.
" 'Peanut, you can fight 'em, but it's going to cost money,' " the mayor remembered being told, and so he reluctantly agreed with the city council to take the flag down, a moment that made national news and led to a minor rebellion.
Even as the flag at City Hall was lowered, other Christian flags began going up. People put them all over town, on porches, storefronts and the backs of trucks. The flag went up on a pole above J & J Welding next door to City Hall, and another began flying on the sign for Big Chief, whose owner, Jeff Word, saw the lowering of the flag in front of City Hall as another sign that America had entered the biblically prophesied period of tribulation, a time of hardship and disaster before the second coming of Jesus. At Life Church one Sunday, a hairdresser named Denise Wilson heard about the situation and decided that "God placed it on my heart that if the city couldn't fly the flag, I could fly it anyway." She went to a local Christian bookstore, bought a Christian flag and headed to City Hall, where she began waving it at the cars passing on Highway 431.
People honked in support, and soon there was a small group out in front of City Hall waving Christian flags every day, a two-week stand that culminated in a rally of more than 100 people organized by a local group called First Responders for Christ.
"On the surface, the flag removal appears to be a battle over the fictitious separation of church and state," one of its members told a newspaper at the time. "But the underlying reason the flag was removed was due to the separation between God and man because of the sin that's in man's heart."
That was essentially how the mayor saw it, too. The whole matter was deeper than law, bigger than even the U.S. Constitution. He saw it as part of a larger spiritual crisis taking hold in the country, and when the flag came down, he prayed about what to do, or as he put it, "I got to talking to the Lord."
Talking to the Lord was something he did all the time. Every morning, every meal, every night, he asked the Lord for guidance, and he had been doing so since Aug. 5, 1979, the most important date of his life, the story of which he told to anyone who would listen.
It always began with who he used to be, a Vietnam War combat veteran and "sorry drunk" full of shame who on the night in question took his young son to the racetrack and arrived home staggering drunk. His wife told him she was leaving him, and as he tells the story, he said, "No, you're not" and grabbed her throat. His son began crying and said, "Daddy, I'm gonna go with you but not with you like this, drunk," and ran out of the house, his father running after him saying, "Son, don't leave me, talk to me," and the boy saying, "Daddy, talk to Jesus." The story goes that the old Charlie Gilchrist dropped to his knees then and asked God to forgive him, and the new one was born. In that moment, he stopped drinking, and to his astonishment, he started crying, which went on for weeks.
"I'd go to work third shift at Goodyear, and I'd just cry in my truck," he said one day, almost crying telling it 38 years later. "Every day I'd get in my truck and cry. It'd pour out of me. It was like the Lord was cleaning me up inside. I was showing him the filth I was in. Just all that stuff. Just sin. Just the hurt and the pain. And even in my sin, the Lord loved me. Even in my filth. It was like the hate and bitterness was leaving me, and love was taking over."
That was the story of the mayor's salvation. It was the reason he had a hard time understanding people who wanted the flag to come down, and it was why, when someone suggested one day that there was another spot where the flag might go, he wondered if God had a plan.
The spot turned out to be right between the First Baptist Church and City Hall, a patch of grass so ambiguously situated that a passerby might wonder whether it belonged to church or to state. It was visually in line with a veterans memorial in front of City Hall and the American and Alabama flags just beyond. It was in front of a row of seven trees that seemed to mark the end of church property and the beginning of the city complex. While the patch of grass had once been a public right of way, however, it had been quietly turned over to the church years before. Legally, there was no question that the parcel was on private, church grounds.
The mayor said it felt as if "the Lord opened a window," and so it was that one day in October, as the Senate race was in full swing all over Alabama, he headed out of the front doors of City Hall, walked across the invisible line separating state from church, and stopped on the patch of grass where he felt free to express himself as a private, Christian citizen.
"We can't fly it there, but we can fly it here," he said, feeling pleased about how it was all working out, and as he stood there, he imagined what it would be like on the day of the actual flag raising. He thought of whom he might invite. Probably his congressman. Of course his state legislators. And maybe Roy Moore, as Alabama's newly elected U.S. senator.
The mayor had met him before. He didn't agree with everything about Moore, such as his refusal to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the State Judicial Building. But he shared Moore's conviction that the laws requiring him to do so were wrong, and he shared what he understood to be Moore's sense that America needed some kind of salvation.
"When I was saved, I said, 'Lord break my heart for what breaks yours, teach me how to love like you love me,' " the mayor said. "That's what we need in this country."
He thought about those Americans who might see the Christian flag as a symbol of exclusion, or not believe as he did, who might be Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or agnostic or atheist. He thought all those people should not worry.
"I don't push Jesus on nobody — if you can't see Jesus in me, then I've failed," the mayor said. "I don't have a thing against Muslims. I don't see color. I don't hate anybody. But we do need to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord."
He imagined what a more Christian nation would look like.
"Imagine a baptism of love," the mayor said.
He wondered who could possibly be opposed to that.
On Election Day, the mayor was among the first to vote at the George Wallace Senior Center, and he voted for Roy Moore.
He knew what had been said about Moore in the last weeks of the campaign, the allegations that he had pursued teenage girls when he was in his 30s, and thought Moore should have asked for forgiveness just as the mayor had done on Aug. 5, 1979. But what was more important to the mayor was their shared belief in a Christian nation.
"I voted for you, I'm praying for you, and praying for victory," the mayor texted Moore just after voting, and it was a sentiment shared by others arriving at the senior center.
A retiree named Dorothy Diambra said she felt more and more lately as though her faith was under assault because of laws allowing transgender bathrooms, and same-sex marriage and other things she considered unbiblical. "I'm Christian, and nobody's going to take that away from me," she said. "But a lot of people are trying to stomp on it."
A 38-year-old man named Bryan Crowder clenched his fist to explain how good it felt voting for Moore. He said it was like telling the rest of the world, "Shut up."
"We like the Bible here; we like God here," he said.
As they hurried to their car in the cold early evening, Allen and Allyson Lee said they felt their vote brought America one step closer to being a Christian nation.
"We were founded on 'In God We Trust' " Allyson Lee said. "Everything should be based on biblical principles, and God's way should be the way."
She thought a moment about those who might see things differently.
"They don't know God," she said with a look of pity.
"Not the way we know God," said her husband. "I would hope that everyone would want to be Christian."
All day long people streamed into the senior center to vote, and then it was evening and all the lights around Glencoe came on including the ones lighting up the Christian flag at the Big Chief, and the Christian flag at J & J Welding, and the Christian flag in front of the Methodist church, and the one in front of North Glencoe Baptist, and meanwhile, at the First Baptist Church by City Hall, a huge display of Christmas lights spelled out "Our King is Here."
The mayor drove past it on the way to the senior center, where he always closed down the polling station on voting day.
Inside, the poll workers were in Christmas sweaters, and someone had brought a voting-day cake and gave him a piece with a paper towel over it for later.
"Hey, Peanut, how you doing?" one of the workers said.
It was just before 7 p.m., and a few voters were standing in line.
"Had a good turnout, haven't you?" the mayor said.
"Got about 1,400 now," one of the workers said, explaining that the total was around double what it had been for the Republican primary a few months before.
"I don't know if that's a good thing for Roy Moore or a bad thing, but it's like that everywhere," the mayor said as one last voter rushed in.
"Go on ahead and vote," the mayor said, and after that a police officer locked the doors.
The mayor walked over and peeled off the "Vote Here" sign, and a while later, he got the results for Glencoe, where Moore had won with 72 percent.
Back home, he and his wife settled in to watch the news, and when it looked as if Moore was winning, they toggled over to TBN, a Christian broadcasting network. When they toggled back, Moore was suddenly losing, and soon, it was clear he had lost. It was over.
"My gosh," the mayor said, and went to bed trying to understand what it all meant.
The next morning, he said his prayers, and as he went about the day, he kept thinking about it until he figured out the way it made sense.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways. What if he got this Democrat in there to say we need to wake up? That's what I think. Maybe it's to tell us we need to get to work," he said.
That was it. It was all God's will, the mayor thought.
"It's not about Roy Moore," he said. "It's about our faith in the Lord, and trusting him."
And that was why, three days after Moore lost, the mayor of Glencoe was standing on the patch of grass, feeling content as he leaned back, squinting into the sun as a crane lifted the flagpole into the air and finally into a hole in the ground that was almost on city property, but not quite.
"There you go," the mayor said, watching as the claw of the crane twisted the pole in.
"Which direction you want your cross facing?" the operator yelled from the truck.
The mayor thought about it.
"Can you turn it just a hair?" he said.
Then it was done, all of it except the Christian flag, and that was coming in the new year.
"We got it up now," the mayor said, looking at the pole.
"Up where everybody can see it," one of the workers said.
The mayor stood back and looked up at the cross on the top.
"When that sun rises in the east and sets in the west?" he said, imagining it. "It'll shine."