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‘A spiritual battle:’ How Roy Moore tested white evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party

U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore (R) leaves the stage after speaking at the RSA activity center in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 12. (Mike Stewart/AP)

Roy Moore’s failed run for Alabama’s Senate seat tested white evangelicals’ allegiance to the Republican Party. Would they vote for a candidate who shares their conservative views on social issues even though he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women?

Exit polls suggest they did just that, with 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted selecting Moore in Tuesday’s special election, which was narrowly won by Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate.

Part of Moore’s campaign strategy was to appeal to Christian nationalism — the belief that God has a uniquely Christian purpose for the United States. It has long made him a polarizing figure nationwide but has also kept him popular in his own state.

Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Clemson University in South Carolina who studies Christian nationalism, said evangelicals are the religious group most likely to identify with Christian nationalism. Alabama has one of the highest percentages of white evangelicals, and, he said, more than half of Southerners identify with a Christian nationalist narrative.

“The view is that God can use anybody as long as they’re promoting Christian nationalist or ideals or values,” Whitehead said. “It’s all about a quest for power and what serves the purpose in the political moment.”

The stunning difference between white and black evangelical voters in Alabama.

For decades, Moore rose to national prominence by painting a portrait of Christianity under attack. He espouses the view that America should ultimately be governed by “biblical law.” Under Moore, the law would punish homosexuality. He has expressed fear that sharia law is being imposed “in Illinois, Indiana — up there. I don’t know.”

More than a decade ago, Moore was removed from his position as the chief justice of the State Supreme Court after a battle over his public display of the Ten Commandments. He was reelected to his chief justice position in 2013, but he was suspended in May 2016 for telling other judges to continue enforcing the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In emails to his supporters before Tuesday’s election, Moore reminded them of the need to “take our country back.” The Washington elite hate him, Moore wrote, because he refuses to hide from his conservative Christian values.

“I believe our nation is at a crossroads right now — both spiritually and politically. So I refuse to cower or bow to political correctness,” Moore wrote in a Nov. 22 email to supporters. His wife, Kayla, used similar language in a Nov. 10 email to supporters about “a spiritual battle,” writing, “The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me.”

Democrat Doug Jones became the first Democratic senator elected in Alabama since 1992, and exit polls show what voters propelled him to victory. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: John Bazemore/The Washington Post)

For many white evangelicals, voting for a Democrat is a nonnegotiable. It would mean electing someone who supports abortion rights and helps appoint left-leaning judges who could chip away at their religious freedom. But not all evangelicals support Christian nationalism. Evangelicals in Alabama were divided on whether to support Moore, said Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor based in Montgomery. Young evangelicals especially are looking to move past partisan politics, he said.

“Earlier evangelical support wasn’t ‘Everybody loves Roy Moore,’” said Cross, who has written a book on race and evangelicals. “He has a devoted base that shows up, but there have been mixed feelings about him among evangelicals in the state, even before the latest allegations.”

Evangelical turnout (44 percent of the vote) in the election was slightly below 2012 and 2008 elections (47 percent). Early exit poll analysis suggests bigger election shifts among white voters with college degrees, and a swing among all voters supporting Jones more than past Democrats.

The allegations against Moore were first made last month in The Washington Post, which reported that he pursued romantic relationships with teenage girls while in his mid-30s, and that one woman alleged that he abused her when she was 14 years old. With the nation in the midst of a discussion about sexual misconduct, the allegations against Moore made it difficult for many Alabama evangelicals who would typically vote for him.

The faith of Roy Moore’s opponent: Doug Jones

A recent poll from Monmouth University Poll found that likely Alabama voters were evenly divided on whether it’s more important to have lawmakers who will vote how they want on moral issues like abortion but do not adhere to moral lives themselves, or the other way around.

The poll found that evangelical Republicans are more likely to choose a representative who votes the way they want (55 percent) over one who lives a moral life (36 percent), while evangelical Democrats and independents choose the moral person (54 percent) over their preferred voting record (39 percent).

Some evangelicals fear the high support for Moore and Trump among white evangelicals exposes something deeper about the religious group that seems to vote predictably with the GOP. Political partisanship and a disdain for outsiders have become unifying driving factors for white evangelicals instead of the gospel of Jesus Christ, said Birmingham-based Collin Hansen, editorial director for the Gospel Coalition, a network popular among conservative evangelicals.

“You could preach almost any Trinitarian heresy and not one person is going to notice it,” Hansen said. “If you touch on the political things on things they care about like gun control or racism, they’ll have your head.”

Recent political changes, Hansen said, have exposed “the moral and theological rot” in the evangelical church. “There will not be a coherent evangelical movement to emerge from this political season,” Hansen said.

The editor in chief of evangelical magazine Christianity Today said the biggest loser in Tuesday’s election was Christians, writing “no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.

Although Moore lost, Tuesday’s vote demonstrated similarities to Trump’s stunning victory one year ago when final exit polls showed 80 percent of white evangelicals — who make up about a quarter of the electorate nationwide — voted for Trump. (Election polls often sort white evangelicals together by race and religion because they have statistical similarities in beliefs and behaviors.)

Facebook Live host Libby Casey talks to Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey about how Donald Trump appealed to white, evangelical voters. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Chip Somodevilla/The Washington Post)

White evangelicals can be found in both parties, but in the mid-20th century, they gravitated toward conservatism over shared concerns about Communism, growing secularism and fights over school prayer and over social issues like abortion. Nationally, evangelical leaders appeared split on whether to support Moore.

During the campaign, James Dobson, the founder of a major ministry called Focus on the Family, recorded a radio advertisement, saying he was “dismayed and troubled” by how Moore and his wife have been “attacked by the Washington establishment.” But the popular Texas-based Bible teacher Beth Moore appeared to tweet about the role of evangelicals in politics on the eve of the election, saying “the lust for power is nauseating.”

In his appeal to voters, Moore presented himself as the last-ditch effort to defend great Christian America, said Melissa Deckman, a political-science professor at Washington College in Maryland.

“If you’re engaged in a spiritual battle, you’re willing to overlook some things,” Deckman said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to change the preliminary exit poll data to the final exit poll data. Exit polls showed that 80 percent of evangelicals in Alabama voted for Moore.