Clay Crum opened his Bible to Exodus Chapter 20 and read verse 14 one more time.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it said.
He prayed about what he was going to do. He was the pastor of First Baptist Church in the town of Luverne, Ala., which meant he was the moral leader of a congregation that overwhelmingly supported a president who was an alleged adulterer. For the past six weeks, Crum had been preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, and now it was time for number seven.
It was summer, and all over the Bible Belt, support for President Trump was rising among voters who had traditionally proclaimed the importance of Christian character in leaders and warned of the slippery slope of moral compromise. In Crenshaw County, where Luverne is located, Trump had won 72 percent of the vote. Recent national polls showed the president’s approval among white evangelical Christians at a high of 77 percent. One survey indicated that his support among Southern Baptists was even higher, surpassing 80 percent, and these were the people arriving on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say.
By 10:30 a.m., the street alongside First Baptist was full of slant-parked cars, and the 80 percenters were walking across the green lawn in the sun, up the stairs, past the four freshly painted white columns and into the church.
“Good to see you this morning,” Crum said, shaking hands as the regulars took their usual places in the wooden pews, and soon, he walked up to the pulpit and opened his King James.
“Today we’re going to be looking at the Seventh Commandment,” Crum began. “Exodus 20:14, the Seventh Commandment, simply says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ ”
The people settled in. There was the sound of hard candy unwrapping and thin pages of Bibles turning.
The presidency of Donald Trump has created unavoidable moral dilemmas not just for the members of First Baptist in Luverne but for a distinct subset of Christians who are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly evangelical and more uniformly pro-Trump than any other part of the American electorate.
In poll after poll, they have said that Trump has kept his promises to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, fight for religious liberty, adopt pro-life policies and deliver on other issues that are high priorities for them.
At the same time, many have acknowledged the awkwardness of being both self-proclaimed followers of Jesus and the No. 1 champions of a president whose character has been defined not just by alleged infidelity but accusations of sexual harassment, advancing conspiracy theories popular with white supremacists, using language that swaths of Americans find racist, routinely spreading falsehoods and an array of casual cruelties and immoderate behaviors that amount to a roll call of the seven deadly sins.
The predicament has led to all kinds of reactions within the evangelical community, from a gathering of pastors in Illinois described as a “call to self-reflection,” to prayer meetings with Trump in Washington, to hours of cable news reckoning in which Southern Baptists have taken the lead.
The megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress has declared that Trump is “on the right side of God” and that “evangelicals know they are not compromising their beliefs in order to support this great president.” Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, said the only explanation for Trump being in the White House was that “God put him there.”
A few leaders have publicly dissented from such views, aware of the Southern Baptist history of whiffing on the big moral questions of the day — such as during the civil rights era, when most pastors either defended segregation or remained silent. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics commission, Russell Moore, asked whether Christians were “really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician?” One prominent black pastor, Lawrence Ware, left the denomination altogether, writing that the widespread reluctance to criticize Trump on racial issues revealed a “deep commitment to white supremacy.” The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, said church culture had “grown too comfortable with power and the dangers that power brings.”
But all those discussions were taking place far from the rank-and-file. The Southern Baptists who filled the pews every Sunday were making their own moral calculations about Trump in the privacy of a thousand church sanctuaries in cities and towns such as Luverne, population 2,700, an hour south of the state capital of Montgomery.
It was a place where it was hard to drive a mile in any direction without passing some church or sign about the wages of sin, where conversations about politics happened in nodding circles before Sunday school, or at the Chicken Shack after, and few people paid attention to some national Southern Baptist leader.
What mattered in Luverne was the redbrick church with the tall white steeple that hovered over the tidy green lawns and gardens of town. First Baptist was situated along Luverne’s main street, next to the post office and across from the county courthouse, a civic position that had always conferred on its pastors a moral authority now vested in Clay Crum.
“A fine Christian man,” was how the mayor referred to him.
“He just makes everybody feel like he loves ’em,” said a member of First Baptist.
And the members of First Baptist loved their pastor back. They had hired him in July 2015, a month after Trump began campaigning for president and courting evangelicals by declaring that Christianity is “under siege” and “the Bible is the best.” A church committee had sifted through dozens of résumés from Florida and Missouri and as far away as Michigan and out of all of them they had picked Crum, a former truck driver from right down the road in Georgiana.
“As Southern Baptists in this small town, we want our leader to believe like we do,” said Terry Drew, who had chaired the search committee, and three years later, Crum was meeting their highest expectations of what a good Southern Baptist pastor should be.
He kept up with the prayer list. He did all his visits, the nursing homes and the shut-ins. He wore a lapel pin in the shape of two tiny baby feet as a reminder of what he saw as the pure evil of abortion. And when Sunday morning came, he delivered his sermons straight out of an open Bible, no notes, and it wasn’t unusual for him to cry.
“He is just really sincere,” said Jewell Killough, who had been a member of First Baptist for four decades, and as Crum stood at the front of the congregation now and looked out, hers was one of the faces looking back.
She always sat in the center row, fifth pew from the front, right in line with the pulpit. Jewell Killough was 82, and as Crum had gone through the first six commandments Sunday after Sunday, she had not yet heard anything to dissuade her from believing that Trump was being used by God to save America.
“Oh, I feel like the Lord heard our prayers and gave us a second chance before the end times,” she had said a few days before, when she was working at the food pantry of the Alabama Crenshaw Baptist Association.
It was a low-brick house where the Baptists kept stacks of pamphlets about abstaining from premarital sex, alcohol, smoking and other behaviors they felt corrupted Christian character, which was not something Jewell worried about with Trump.
“I think they are trying to frame him,” she said, referring to the unflattering stories about the president.
By “they,” she meant liberals and others she believed were not only trying to undermine Trump’s agenda, but God’s agenda for America, which she believed was engaged in a great spiritual contest between good and evil, God and Satan, the saved and the unsaved, for whom God had prepared two places.
There was Heaven: “Most say it’s gonna be 15,000 miles wide and that high,” Jewell said. “We don’t know whether when it comes down how far it will come, if it’s gonna come all the way or if there will be stairs. We don’t know that. But it’s gonna be suitable to each person. You know that old song, ‘Lord, build me a cabin in the corner of Gloryland?’ See, that’s not right. It’s not gonna be you have a cabin over here and I have one over there. It’s gonna be suitable to each person. So, whatever makes me happy. I like birds. So outside my window, there will be birds.”
And there was Hell: “Each person is gonna be on an islandlike place, and fire all around it. And they’re gonna be in complete darkness, and over time, your eyes will go. And worms’ll eat on you. It’s a terrible place, the way the Bible describes it.”
It was a binary world, not just for Jewell Killough but for everyone sitting inside the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, who prayed all the time about how to navigate it.
There were Brett and Misty Green, who sat a few rows behind Jewell, and said that besides reading the Bible or listening to Pastor Crum, prayer was the only way to sort out what was godly and what was satanic.
“Satan is the master magician,” said Misty, 32, a federal court worker.
“The father of lies,” said Brett, 33, a land surveyor, who was sitting with his wife and his Bible one evening in the church’s fellowship hall, a large beige room with accordion partitions that separated the men’s and ladies’ Sunday school classes.
“That’s why we have the Holy Spirit,” Brett said, explaining it was “like a gut feeling” that told him what to do in morally confusing situations, which had included the election, when the spirit had told him to vote for Trump, even though something the president allegedly said since then had given Brett pause. It was when Trump was discussing immigration, and reportedly asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?”
“Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth, and Nazareth was a shithole at that time,” Brett said. “Someone might say, ‘How could anything good come out of a place like that?’ Well, Jesus came out of a place like that.”
Other things bothered Misty. Crum had preached a few Sundays before about the Third Commandment — “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain” — but as Misty saw it, Trump belittled God and all of God’s creation when he called people names like “loser” and “stupid.”
“A lot of his actions I don’t agree with,” Misty said. “But we are not to judge.”
What a good Christian was supposed to do was pray for God to work on Trump, who was after all pro-life, and pro-Israel, and pro-all the positions they felt a Christian nation should be taking. And if they were somehow wrong about Trump, said Misty, “in the end it doesn’t really matter.”
“A true Christian doesn’t have to worry about that,” said Brett, explaining what any good Southern Baptist heard at church every Sunday, which was that Jesus had died on the cross to wash away their sins, defeat death and provide them with eternal life in heaven.
“I think about it all the time, what it’s gonna be like,” she said.
“I know we’ll have new bodies,” said Brett. “We’ll be like Christ, it says.”
There was Jack Jones, who sat behind the pulpit in the choir, and was chairman of the deacons, the church leaders who tried to set a Christian example by mowing lawns for the homebound, building front door ramps for the elderly and maintaining standards in their own ranks.
“We stick strictly to the Bible that a divorced man is not able to be a deacon,” said Jack, who said it was uncomfortable being such a Bible stickler and supporting a president alleged to have committed adultery with a porn star.
“It’s difficult, that’s for sure,” he said, sitting with his wife in the church basement.
The way he and Linda had come to think of it, Trump was no worse than a long list of other American presidents from the Founding Fathers on.
“George Washington had a mistress,” Linda said. “Thomas Jefferson did, too. Roosevelt had a mistress with him when he died. Eisenhower. Kennedy.”
“None of ’em are lily white,” said Jack.
What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others.
“Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.
Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing antiabortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”
It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.
There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.
“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”
The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”
“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”
As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.
“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.
So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.
There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.
“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”
There was her friend Suzette, who sat in the fifth pew on the right side, and who said Trump might be abrasive “but we need abrasive right now.”
And there was Sheila Butler, who sat on the sixth pew on the right side, who said “we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”
She was 67, a Sunday school teacher who said this was the only way to understand how Christians like her supported Trump.
“Obama was acting at the behest of the Islamic nation,” she began one afternoon when she was getting her nails done with her friend Linda. She was referring to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, not a Christian — allegations that are false. “He carried a Koran and it was not for literary purposes. If you look at it, the number of Christians is decreasing, the number of Muslims has grown. We allowed them to come in.”
“Obama woke a sleeping nation,” said Linda.
“He woke a sleeping Christian nation,” Sheila corrected.
Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.
“Unpapered people,” Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”
Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”
Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”
“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’ ” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”
To her, this was a moral threat far greater than any character flaw Trump might have, as was what she called “the racial divide,” which she believed was getting worse. The evidence was all the black people protesting about the police, and all the talk about the legacy of slavery, which Sheila never believed was as bad as people said it was. “Slaves were valued,” she said. “They got housing. They got fed. They got medical care.”
She was suspicious of what she saw as the constant agitation of blacks against whites, the taking down of Confederate memorials and the raising of others, such as the new memorial to the victims of lynching, just up the highway in Montgomery.
“I think they are promoting violence,” Sheila said, thinking about the 800 weathered, steel monoliths hanging from a roof to evoke the lynchings, one for each American county where the violence was carried out, including Crenshaw County, where a man named Jesse Thornton was lynched in 1940 in downtown Luverne.
“How do you think a young black man would feel looking at that?” Linda asked. “Wouldn’t you feel a sickness in your stomach?”
“I think it would only make you have more violent feelings — feelings of revenge,” said Sheila.
It reminded her of a time when she was a girl in Montgomery, when the now-famous civil rights march from Selma was heading to town and her parents, fearing violence, had sent her to the country to stay with relatives.
“It’s almost like we’re going to live that Rosa Parks time again,” she said, referring to the civil rights activist. “It was just a scary time, having lived through it.”
She thought an all-out race war was now in the realm of possibility. And that was where she had feared things were heading, right up until election night, when she and Linda and everyone they knew were praying for God to save them. And God sent them Donald Trump.
“I believe God put him there,” Sheila said. “He put a sinner in there.”
God was using Trump just like he had used the Apostle Paul, she said.
“Paul had murdered Christians and he went on to minister to many, many people,” Sheila said. “I think he’s being molded by God for the role. I think he’s the right man for the right time. It’s about the survival of the Christian nation.”
“We are in mortal danger,” Linda said.
“We are in a religious war,” Sheila said.
“We may have to fight and die for our faith,” Sheila said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, we will.”
She rubbed her sore knee, which was caked with an analgesic.
“In heaven, I won’t have any pain,” Sheila said.
“No tears,” said Linda.
“I think it’ll be beautiful — I love plants, and I think it’ll be like walking in a beautiful garden,” said Sheila.
“Have you ever been out at night and looked at the stars?” said Linda. “That’s the floor of heaven, and heaven is going to be so much more beautiful than the floor.”
“I’m going to be in my kitchen,” Sheila said, imagining heaven would have one. “I think it’s going to be beautiful to see all the appliances.”
It was hard to know what a good Christian should do in the meantime, Sheila said, and that was why Clay Crum was so important. He had been inspiring her with sermons all summer, including the Sunday before Memorial Day, when he had everybody stand up and not only pledge allegiance to the American flag but to the Christian flag and the Bible.
“I see Clay as my leader,” Sheila said. “Clay just knows what we need on any given day.”
He had gotten through “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before. It was not easy. There were veterans in the congregation. Crum had to explain how God could command people not to kill in one part of the Bible, yet demand a massacre in another.
“God does not want you to kill on your terms, he wants you to kill on his terms,” he had concluded in his sermon. “So let’s promote Jesus in life. Let’s not kill. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Now he sat in his office, where there was a metal cross on the wall and three Bibles on his desk and prayed about what the Lord wanted him to say.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” he read again.
“How can I get people to see the whole picture?” he asked himself.
What was the whole picture?
There had been a time before he became a pastor when Crum saw things differently. He saw the pastor of his childhood church stealing money, and as he got older, he saw deacons having affairs, Christians behaving in hateful ways and finally he came to see it all as a big sham.
“I thought it was very hypocritical,” he said. “That they pretend. That it’s all a show.”
He gave up on church. He started drinking some and went a little wild, dabbling in world religions and having his own thoughts about the meaning of life until one day when he was listening to Christian radio on a truck haul. He remembered the preacher talking about salvation and suddenly feeling unsure of his own.
“So I just prayed to the Lord while I was driving,” he said. “I want to be sure.”
The next Sunday, he began attending a Southern Baptist church near Luverne, where he was asked one Wednesday night to step in for the absent pastor and deliver a prayer.
He had just gotten off work. His back hurt. His feet hurt. He was exhausted and as he began to pray, something came over him. He started crying and begging God to forgive him for his rebellion, and by the end of it, Clay Crum had found a new profession. He felt God was telling him to go into the ministry, and 10 years later, here he was, the pastor of First Baptist church who had gotten to where he could discern the voice of God all the time.
“It’s not an audible voice,” Crum said. “We all have a million thoughts that come in our head every day. You got to know which are from God.”
He was sure that it had been the voice of God that told him to preach on the Ten Commandments. It would be a series on “the seriousness of morality,” Crum decided, because to him, the biggest problem in society was that “people do not want to own the wrong they do.”
“They want to excuse their actions by explaining them away,” he said. “They want to talk generally: ‘I know I’m a sinner.’ Well, what is the sin?”
And it was the same voice of God that had led Crum to vote the same way most of his congregation had voted in one of the most morally confusing elections of his lifetime.
“A crossroads time,” Crum called it.
He did not feel great about voting for Trump, who had called the holy communion wafer “my little cracker,” who had said his “favorite book” was the Bible, that his favorite biblical teaching was “an eye for an eye,” and who had courted evangelical Christians by saying, “I love them. They love me.”
“It’s a hard thing to reconcile,” Crum said. “I really do struggle with it.”
He knew what the Bible had to say about Trump’s behavior.
“You’re committing adultery, that’s sinful. You’re being sexually abusive to women, that’s wrong. Any of those things. You can go on and on,” Crum said. “All those things are immoral.”
He thought about whether Trump could do anything that might require the moral leader of Luverne to abandon his support, or criticize the president publicly.
“There are times when Christians have to stand up,” said Crum.
The dilemma was that Trump was an immoral person doing what Crum considered to be moral things. The conservative judges. The antiabortion policies. And something else even more important to a small Southern Baptist congregation worried about their own annihilation.
“It encouraged them that we do still have some political power in this country,” said Crum.
When he prayed about it, that was what the voice of God had told him. The voice reminded Crum that God always had a hand in elections. The voice told him that God used all kinds of people to do his will.
“Nebuchadnezzar,” Crum said, citing the pagan king of Babylon who was advised by godly men to tear down an old corrupt order. “Even sometimes bad leaders are used by God.”
He had wondered at times about the idea that God had chosen Trump, and the opposite, the possibility that God had nothing to do with Trump at all. He wondered about it again now, his Bible bookmarked to the 14th verse of Exodus Chapter 20 for the sermon.
“It’s a hard thing to reconcile,” he said. “I think ultimately God allowed him to become president for reasons we don’t fully know yet.”
Sunday came, and the followers of Donald Trump took their usual seats in the sanctuary.
“Hey, sugarfoot,” Sheila Butler said to one of her Sunday school ladies.
“Morning,” Crum said, welcoming the regulars.
They settled into the seafoam-green cushions along the wooden pews, some of which also had back cushions to make them more comfortable. They opened old Bibles bookmarked with birthday cards and photos of grandchildren, and after they all sang “I was sinking deep into sin, far from the peaceful shore,” Crum walked up to the podium to deliver the sermon God had told him to deliver.
“What is adultery?” Crum began.
Jewell Killough was listening.
“Adultery, simply stated, is a breach of commitment,” Crum said. “When one person turns their back on a commitment that they made and seeks out something else to fulfill themselves.”
He talked about the dangers of temporary satisfaction, of looking at “anything unclean,” and in the choir behind him, Jack Jones nodded. He talked about other kinds of adultery, such as “hardheartedness” and avoiding personal responsibility.
“See, we don’t want to look at ourselves,” Crum said. “We don’t want to say, ‘I’m part of the problem.’”
Someone in the congregation coughed. Someone unwrapped a caramel candy.
“The purpose of the commandment is so we can see the sin, so we can repent of the sin and then fully experience the complete grace of god,” he said. “But only when we admit it. Only when we repent of it. And only when we return to him by faith.”
He was at the end of his sermon. If he was going to say anything about Trump, or presidents, or politicians, or how having a Christian character was important for the leader of the United States, now was the time. His Bible was open. He was preaching without notes.
He looked out at all the faces of people who felt threatened and despised in a changing America, who thought Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were sent by Satan to destroy them, and that Donald Trump was sent by God to protect them, and who could always count on Clay Crum to remind them of what they all believed to be the true meaning of Jesus Christ — that he died to forgive all of their sins, to save them from death and secure their salvation in a place that was 15,000 miles wide, full of gardens, appliances, and a floor of stars.
Not now, he decided. Not yet. He closed his Bible. He had one last thing to say to them before the sermon was over.
“Let us pray.”
“Amen,” someone in the congregation said.