But the former state judge is not the only Christian running in Alabama’s special election for Senate. His Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, is also a Christian—a very different kind. His beliefs don’t elicit as many headlines but are still an important part of his character. Moreover, his mainline Protestant faith is shared by many Alabamians and Americans.
Another kind of Christianity
Jones belongs to Canterbury United Methodist Church, a 4,000-member congregation in Birmingham’s suburbs. Over the past 33 years, he has been an active participant in Sunday school, even teaching occasionally, and has driven the church bus to bring older members to services.
“It’s fair to say Doug has been a very active Christian,” according to former Birmingham-Southern College president Neal Berte, who first met Jones when he was working at the University of Alabama in the 1970s and attends church with him. “He is a principled leader, but … not in the sense of, ‘You either believe the way I do or there’s no room for you.’”
Through his campaign staff, Jones declined an interview. His spokesman, Sebastian Kitchen, said in a statement: “As a person of deep faith, Doug believes in Christ’s call to minister to all people—regardless of their background, race, or religion. Unfortunately, Roy Moore instead uses religion to divide people, instead of trying to join together to make progress.”
In an article in the Birmingham News, Jones spoke openly about how his faith commitments drive his professional commitments of justice, fairness and respect.
“I go to church. I’m a Christian. I have as many people of faith that have been reaching out to me about this campaign,” he said. “They want someone who cares about all people, not just a select few. That’s what I think the teachings of religion are, is the caring about the least of these, the caring about all people, and making sure there’s a fairness to everything.”
The Rev. Bill Morgan, a former pastor at Canterbury, told a local newspaper that Jones and his wife are longtime, dependable churchgoers.
“I found him to be an ordinary member in the best sense of the word, along with being a competent person of compassion and justice in his profession,” Morgan commented on a blog post. “In our Methodist understanding of the priesthood of all believers and the general ministry of all Christians, thankfully there are more ministers than we limited clergy types.”
Christians can — and do — vote for Democrats
As a Christian and Democratic politician from the Bible Belt, Jones is not alone.
Take Alabama state legislator Anthony Daniels, the youngest and first black politician to serve as minority leader in the Alabama state House.
“People need to understand that it’s okay to be a Christian and a Democrat,” said Daniels, whose Twitter bio begins, “Husband, Father, Christian.”
Alabama’s moderate and liberal religious and political leaders acutely feel the public perception that Christianity and the Republican Party seem closely intertwined. However, while 88 percent of Republicans in Alabama identify as Christian, according to poll analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute, so do 81 percent of Democrats.
The progressive concerns held by Alabama’s religious leaders rarely come into the spotlight: racial justice and civil rights, immigration, environmental justice and gun control. Despite shared values with Christian constituents, Democrats tend to hesitate to bring up religion, largely due to the issue of abortion. The cause takes center stage (even over other hot topics such as same-sex marriage and school prayer) as their Republican counterparts draw Christian support.
But in Alabama, the Pew Research Center finds that 78 percent of adults who believe abortion should be legal also identify as Christians.
Antiabortion and anti-Moore
Some voters are willing overlook Moore’s accusers due to his antiabortion stance, particularly his campaign efforts against late-term abortion. But this special election puts voters who are anti-Moore and antiabortion in a more interesting position.
Certain antiabortion activists are willing to say that Jones, despite his party’s position in favor of legal abortion, is actually a better choice.
As a Christian voting for Doug Jones, Matthew Tyson says he does not face any internal conflicts.
“People like Roy Moore will actively do things that will drive people to abort,” said Tyson, a Catholic Democrat and the co-founder of an organization called The New Pro-Life Movement. In contrast, Tyson added, Jones “certainly has a much more compassionate platform.”
Former Methodist bishop William Willimon, who joined fellow Christian leaders to sue the state over its 2011 anti-immigrant law, sees Jones as an ethical option for antiabortion Christians like himself. Willimon cited Moore’s record of public service and the need for Christians to consider other issues beyond abortion.
Willimon, who now teaches at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, used to visit Methodist lawmakers serving in the state legislature. As Democrats, they — like Jones — faced backlash over the abortion issue, with fellow Christians questioning their faith because of it. Somehow, “it’s now okay for Christians to doubt other Christians’ commitment if they are labeled to be to the left or liberal,” Willimon said.
Finally, some Alabama voters won’t be supporting Moore or Jones. For Republicans like Michael Bullington, a 23-year-old Southern Baptist, voting for a candidate who is open to legal abortion access represents too great a moral evil, so he plans to write in a name. Bullington said Jones’s faith didn’t make a difference for him; the abortion stance was a dealbreaker.
“A lot of potential voters are kind of caught in this dilemma of: Do they vote for someone who is so troubling as an accused sexual assailant or someone [who] supports … abortion?” said Bullington, who belongs to the Greater Birmingham Young Republicans of Alabama.
Would he vote for Jones, all things in the race being the same, if Jones were adamantly antiabortion? He said, “I would definitely vote for him and probably actually campaign for him at this point.”
Countering the ‘perverted view of Christianity’
The Rev. Angie Wright, a minister in the United Church of Christ, helped rally Alabama’s moderate and progressive faith leaders against Moore. At least 123 pastors have signed a letter declaring that his “extremist values and actions are not consistent with traditional Christian values or good Christian character.”
It represented the first time that the Rev. Cat Goodrich, a Presbyterian signatory, took a position on politics rather than policy.
“I had to draw a line and speak out so that people would know that there are faith leaders who vehemently disagree with his perspective and don’t believe he is fit for public office,” said Goodrich, who plans to vote for Jones but won’t endorse a party from the pulpit.
While mainline Protestants and some progressive-leaning evangelicals might not equal the muscle of the Religious Right, they are at least contesting the role of Christianity in politics.
“The soul of Alabamians is at stake,” Episcopal Rev. Carolyn Foster told me. “The people of Alabama need to know and hear from faith leaders whose values and teachings are sometimes overshadowed by those with emboldened voices of pride, arrogance and hypocrisy.”
The Other Christians Across America
At a recent public dialogue with a Methodist preacher, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, lifelong Methodist Hillary Clinton took issue with our cultural narrative that Christians “can only have one set of political beliefs, and if you deviate from those political beliefs, you somehow are not really a Christian.”
While post-election attention focused on the 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, Clinton was right to push back on the idea this represents all Christians.
If we look at exit polls, we can see that 54 percent of “Other Christians” (all Christians, except white evangelicals) voted for Clinton. These “Other Christians” nearly doubled the size of the “white evangelical” vote.
In starkest contrast to Moore’s brand of Christianity, his potential colleague, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), leads the fight against sexual assault. She doesn’t brandish her faith but has spoken about how going to church led her into public service.
Moore and white evangelicals alone do not speak for Christianity. In Alabama and every day across America, other Christians evidence their faith through political action.
Their Christian faith calls into question the Religious Right’s domination of our public imagination. These Christian voters and leaders exist, and their influence on politics and public policy is just as real.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons writes about the intersection of faith and politics. He lives in Louisville, Ky. You can follow him on Twitter @guthriegf.