Pastor David Floyd, appalled that a president of the United States had the soul-destroying gall to embark on a sexual relationship with a woman less than half his age, told his Alabama flock in 1998 that Bill Clinton had crossed the line and had to go.
As allegations of advances by Senate candidate Roy Moore on women less than half his age have peppered Alabama voters almost daily over the past week, Floyd is telling his congregation that Moore is “an upright man” who should be forgiven for his sins and elected to office.
Floyd, who for 34 years has been the pastor at Marvyn Parkway Baptist Church in Opelika, says his evangelical theology has not changed in the past two decades. It’s just that he knows Moore to be a more moral man than Clinton was.
“All of us have sinned and need a savior,” Floyd said. “Of course, moral character is still important. But with Bill Clinton or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, we’re talking about something completely different. You have to look at the totality of the man. That’s why I support Judge Moore. I’ve prayed with him. I know his heart.”
Alabama’s pastors are struggling to make sense of the allegations by at least nine women that Moore, the Republican candidate in a special election next month, made advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Some ministers have concluded that the accusations against Moore, who has based his political career on a decades-long crusade to bring faith back into the public square, disqualify him for public office. But many others have stood by a man they consider a champion of their effort to restore traditional values in a country that has embraced abortion rights, same-sex marriage and childbearing outside of wedlock.
“When we vote in elections, we should vote for those who hold positions close to ours,” Floyd wrote in a Facebook post this week. “It is our desire to see sinners saved.”
The pastor said in an interview that “we can’t live by accusations.”
“I could accuse you and you could accuse me,” he said. “What I know is Judge Moore believes abortion is wrong. His opponent believes it’s right.”
What’s happening in the churches of Alabama — a state where half the residents consider themselves evangelical Christians, double the national average, according to a Pew Research study — is nothing less than a battle for the meaning of evangelicalism, some church leaders say. It is a titanic struggle between those who believe there must be one clear, unalterable moral standard and those who argue that to win the war for the nation’s soul, Christians must accept morally flawed leaders.
Evangelicals are not alone in shifting their view of the role moral character should play in choosing political leaders. Between 2011 and last year, the percentage of Americans who say politicians who commit immoral acts in their private lives can still behave ethically in public office jumped to 61 percent from 44 percent, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings poll. During the same period, the shift among evangelicals was even more dramatic, moving from to 72 percent from 30 percent, the survey found.
“What you’re seeing here is rank hypocrisy,” said John Fea, an evangelical Christian who teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “These are evangelicals who have decided that the way to win the culture is now uncoupled from character. Their goal is the same as it was 30 years ago, to restore America to its Christian roots, but the political playbook has changed.
“With Donald Trump, the playbook faced its greatest test because he was not a man of character that evangelicals could embrace, but many did anyway. In the Roy Moore situation, very much like Trump’s ‘Access Hollywood’ situation, they’ve decided that the need to keep the Senate justifies embracing someone whose behavior they would universally condemn,” Fea said. “I wish I could tell you there was some interesting theological distinction here, but it’s all just politics. It is a form of moral relativism.”
The decision to stick with Moore is not just a power play — rather, it’s an evolving view of human nature, said Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas and perhaps the most prominent evangelical supporter of President Trump.
“For evangelical Christians, morality doesn’t change,” Jeffress said. “But over the last 40 years, Americans have become more aware of the flaws of individuals. Remember how shocked Christians like Billy Graham were when they heard Nixon’s tapes — his foul language, his racist remarks. We’re more aware now because of media scrutiny that our leaders are flawed and morality cannot be the only measure.”
Jeffress argued that Christians have come to see that although morality remains important in choosing candidates, “leadership, experience, morality and faith are all important, and the rank of those changes according to circumstances.”
In supporting Trump, Jeffress decided that although the president “may not be a perfect Christian, he is a good leader.” About 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump last year, exit polls showed.
In Moore’s case, Jeffress said if the allegations against him are true, “that’s disqualifying from holding public office,” yet the pastor said he understands why many Christians in Alabama are standing with their candidate.
“We should judge everyone by the same standards, but we do revert to our tribes,” he said. “That is a natural default position.”
As he fights to save his candidacy, Moore has sought to demonstrate that his religious base is sticking with him. His campaign this week published a list of more than 50 Alabama pastors who still support him. Several ministers on the list have said that they were not asked for permission to use their names, but many confirmed that they still back Moore.
“The Bible definitely explains that people ought to choose men of upstanding character,” said Terry Batton, who heads Christian Renewal and Development Ministries in Georgetown, Ga., but who has long been active in Alabama politics, running tea party groups there and supporting Moore’s campaigns. “With Roy Moore, if he’s guilty of what they’re talking about, the question is, has he repented of that? If he has, it should be forgotten.”
Batton readily agrees that political views color how Alabamians view Moore’s protestations of innocence.
“If you’re against him, you’re more likely to see him as guilty,” he said. But that’s neither hypocrisy nor moral relativism, Batton said, because context defines a person; that is, “with Bill Clinton, you had immorality in what he stood for, and with Roy Moore, you have a godly man whose positions live out his biblical precepts.”
The wave of accusations that women have made against men in politics, entertainment and other fields since this fall’s revelations of sexual harassment by Weinstein, the powerful Hollywood producer, should not be a difficult challenge for evangelicals, said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary near Charlotte and previously the longtime head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy wing.
“I don’t know if Roy Moore is guilty, but anyone who is guilty of such things should not be in public office,” Land said. “I was very critical of Bill Clinton and I still believe the same things. I can’t imagine supporting Judge Moore at this point. ‘My candidate, right or wrong’ is hypocrisy.”
Yet many evangelicals were shocked by the allegations against Moore and are genuinely torn by the gap between his public declarations of fealty to biblical principles and his alleged private behavior. “A lot of pastors have called me because they’re concerned,” Land said. “They’re suspicious of when this came out. They’re suspicious of the media. But Democrat or Republican, believer or atheist, it’s appalling. . . . All things being equal, women need to be taken seriously.”
Land still believes in a line he attributes to Harry Truman, about how if a man lies to his wife, he’ll lie to me and the American people. “In an ideal world, you wouldn’t want anybody working for you who’d broken his marriage vows,” Land said. “But I understand that would disqualify a number of our presidents.”
Context matters, Land said. Trump was “my last choice among the Republican presidential candidates” in last year’s primaries, largely because of character questions, Land said. In the end, he voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton and agreed to serve on a Trump advisory board because “I had to choose between a lesser evil and a greater evil. Mrs. Clinton called abortion sacrosanct, so I already knew what I needed to know.”
Other evangelical leaders have shifted their rhetoric through the years. Ralph Reed, the longtime head of the Christian Coalition, said in 1998 that Bill Clinton’s White House affair with Monica Lewinsky rendered him unfit to serve. “We will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character,” he said at the time.
In 2016, however, Reed, who did not respond to a request for comment, said after the release of videotape showing Trump boasting of grabbing women by their genitals that a recording “of a private conversation with a TV talk show host ranks pretty low on [evangelicals’] hierarchy of their concerns.”
The change in how some Christians judge politicians has been underway for a long time, Jeffress said, leading some evangelicals to overlook private behavior and past deviations from a socially conservative worldview.
“A watershed moment was 1980,” he said. “Evangelical Christians chose between a born-again Baptist Sunday school teacher and a twice-married Hollywood actor who had signed the most liberal abortion bill and whose wife practiced astrology. And evangelicals chose Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.”