The allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore are the latest reminder to evangelical leaders that for many in their tribe, partisanship can trump anything — even accusations of a sexual encounter with an underage girl.
Even before Moore made national political headlines, he was revered in Alabama for his Christian conservatism. The former Alabama chief justice was a known culture warrior who was kicked off the bench in September 2016 after an ethics commission said he tried to block same-sex marriage in the state, an act of revolt against a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In 2003, he was removed as chief justice for defying a federal court’s order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments he had installed at the state judicial building. Moore previously had been suspended while a circuit judge for refusing to remove a wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench.
He has said that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress and that homosexuality should be illegal.
In a state where, according to the Pew Research Center, 86 percent of residents are Christian and 49 percent identify as evangelical, Moore’s views proved popular. He beat incumbent Luther Strange, whom President Trump endorsed, by nearly nine points in the Senate primary.
But just weeks before the general election, The Washington Post reported that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with her when she was 14 and he was in his 30s, while three other women accused Moore of trying to start romantic relationships with them when they were teenagers.
Multiple Christians have defended Moore, with one Alabama state official pointing to an age gap between the biblical Joseph and Mary to claim that the former judge’s alleged behavior was not “immoral or illegal,” just “unusual.”
And after the allegations were public, the legislative affiliate of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization that endorsed Moore, tweeted that he was still in the lead.
But other conservative leaders expressed their deep disappointment while watching some evangelicals defend sexual ethics that the Christian faith does not support.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, wrote in Christianity Today that evoking the Holy Family to defend the allegations against Moore especially angered him:
As Christians, this should provoke anger.
We should be angered, first that politicians think they can lie to us so easily by appealing to biblical language and characters. Second, that we so easily fall for such tactics.
For the past decade, evangelicals have been easy marks, and I hope that people won’t fall for these things.
Karen Swallow Prior, an author and professor at Liberty University, a Christian university, asked whether people will acknowledge the allegations as a “sin.”
But this is not the first time in the current political climate that evangelical leader had to remind those within their flock of the seriousness of sexual misconduct allegations. Many evangelicals still supported Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced of him bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission — something Joe Carter, an editor of the Gospel Coalition, wrote was in direct opposition of their faith:
But for the most part, evangelicals have historically been the ones most opposed to lowering moral standards for politicians and to accepting their sexual indiscretions and crimes. We were the “values voters” who could be counted on to hold candidates to a higher standard and to defend their victims.
That’s no longer true. Recent events have shown that many evangelicals — especially prominent conservative defenders of family and public morality — side with the powerful oppressors over the vulnerable oppressed. Many have shown they are willing, even eager, to overlook admissions of sexual assault if it will lead to their preferred political outcome.
In discussing Moore, a candidate he supported, Jerry Falwell Jr., a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, referenced how evangelical voters responded to sexual harassment and assault allegations against the president.
“It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser,” the Liberty University president told the Religion News Service.
“The same thing happened to President Trump a few weeks before his election last year except it was several women making allegations,” Falwell added. “He denied that any of them were true and the American people believed him and elected him the 45th president of the United States.”
Only 8 percent of Trump voters believed the allegations against Trump, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. It’s not clear how many of those supporting Moore believe these reports, but some have said that if the allegations are true, they will still support Moore.
What’s clear is that, when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct, evangelical leaders and evangelical voters appear to be reading from two different books. Moore was already the front-runner in this race before The Post report. Now that he has used the allegations as an opportunity to raise campaign funds, it’s possible that he could attract more support from evangelical voters than previously expected.