With the thunder and fire of an old-time revivalist, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore rose before the assembled souls at the Redemption Baptist Church, a front-runner in the polls days out from an election that could rattle the rickety structures of the Republican Party.
"You think that God's not angry that this land is a moral slum?" asked Moore, 70, reciting a rhyming poem he had written years earlier during a 50-minute address before several dozen believers. "How much longer will it be before his judgment comes?"
Republican primary voters across the country have been trying since 2010 to elect angry outsider candidates who promise to disrupt the ways of Washington. But no one in recent history has promised to be quite as disruptive as Moore, a former chief justice of Alabama who was twice removed from the bench for defying judicial orders.
And few have divided the GOP as Moore's candidacy has, producing a momentous power struggle over an election that is likely to turn out less than 20 percent of Alabama's Republican voters but could nonetheless set the tone for the coming 2018 election battles.
In August, Moore won the first round of primary voting with 39 percent of the vote and then won the endorsement of the third-place finisher weeks later. Now, with the runoff election just five days away, Moore leads public polling averages by nine points over Sen. Luther Strange, the man appointed to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate.
Strange, a 6-foot-9-inch former prosecutor in the conventional mold of his colleague, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), is bolstered by millions of dollars pouring into the state from establishment Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — and even by President Trump, who plans to hold a rally for Strange in Huntsville on Friday.
But many of Trump's core supporters remain with Moore, who relentlessly praises Trump's policy agenda on the campaign trail. Also backing Moore is a hodgepodge of conservative iconoclasts: former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, Bannon's Breitbart media operation, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson and evangelical leaders from across the country.
And for now, they are winning, revealing with startling clarity the gaping divide between Trump's most ardent fans and GOP leaders — and setting up the uncomfortable possibility that many of them could turn out to see Trump as he tries to prop up Strange, and then vote for Moore.
The central argument of Moore's campaign is that removing the sovereignty of a Christian God from the functions of government is an act of apostasy, an affront to the biblical savior as well as the Constitution. Among the prices he says this country has paid for denying God's supremacy: the high murder rate in Chicago, crime on the streets of Washington, child abuse, rape and sodomy. It is a crisis he hopes to address next year from the floor of the Senate.
"We have forgotten the source of our rights," Moore preached during that church appearance, quoting from memory passages from several books of the Bible, along with the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1892. "We put ourselves above God. And in so doing, we forgot the basic source of our morality."
Moore has always been controversial, and proudly so. As a judge, he denied custody of three teenagers to their mother, who was in a lesbian relationship, writing that her private behavior was "an inherent evil against which children must be protected."
In his current campaign, he has called for the impeachment of judges, including possibly Supreme Court justices, who issue rulings for same-sex marriage and sodomy.
He also acts nothing like a professional political candidate. During the final days of a brutal campaign, which has featured withering daily television and direct-mail assaults on his character, he invited a reporter to spend hours alone with him traveling through the state. Unstaffed by campaign aides and tethered to the outside world only by a flip-phone, Moore offered a seat in his family's pew for Sunday church services, welcomed a tag-along when he visited with his 90-year-old mother, gave a tour of his home and property in rural Gallant, Ala., and then offered to speak on the record for a two-hour drive, with a quick stop for lunch with his wife, Kayla, at a roadside Cracker Barrel, where they both ordered the Sunday Homestyle Chicken.
The last 50 years, Moore argued, have witnessed the tragic removal of God from public life, from schools, from government, something that was never intended under the Constitution's establishment clause. "There is no such thing as evolution," he said at one point as he waited for his lunch. Species might adapt to their environment, he continued, but that has nothing to do with the origins of life described in the Bible. "That we came from a snake?" he asked rhetorically. "No, I don't believe that."
Moore's on-the-record candor arises from an earnest desire to make sure that his unconventional ideas about the Constitution and God, which he has recorded in three separate books, are accurately portrayed for a national audience. "One thing I do not want you to do, because it's not right, is to say that I believe in biblical punishments," he said during the drive, which included periodic rain storms that blotted out the rolling forest and farmland. "I've been accused of saying I want to kill homosexuals because the Bible says. And I don't."
As a historical matter, there is little debate over the religious convictions of the founding Americans. But Moore has used these admonitions to take the position that any legal orders that defy a conservative evangelical view of "the law of nature and nature's God," as Thomas Jefferson put it, are illegitimate, unconstitutional and should not be obeyed.
"The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, not what judicial supremacists say it is," he said. "It's not debatable when it contradicts reason."
In 2003, when a federal judge ordered Moore to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments he had installed at the Supreme Court of Alabama, he refused. Like a soldier ordered to murder civilians, he could not, as an officer sworn to the Constitution, carry out an illegal command, he explained. He was removed from office as a result.
Alabama's electorate returned Moore to his old post 10 years later — just in time for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Moore again rebelled, writing a flurry of memos and decisions, telling the governor to "oppose such tyranny" and announcing that the order should not be accepted as the "rule of law" since human beings are not "at liberty to redefine reality." He was suspended from the bench without pay and voluntarily retired.
Underlying all of these actions, and his latest designs on elective office, is an unwavering vision of key constitutional questions as moral choices between good and evil. "Sodomy is against the laws of nature," he said, before comparing it to a man or woman who has sex with a donkey. "Let's say the court decides to get rid of the law of gravity and says you can jump off the Empire State Building. Can they do that? No, they certainly can't do that."
A fighting instinct
Moore's hometown of Gallant boasts a post office, a church and 855 residents, according to the 2010 Census. Other than that, there is not much to distinguish it from the farmland and forest that surround it. Moore started building his house here on weekends nearly 50 years ago, when he was still a 20-something bachelor working as a deputy district attorney.
He was living in a trailer at the time — a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a Vietnam veteran who viewed hard manual labor as his hobby. "When I say I built it myself, I laid the block," he explained, as he approached the property. "I hand-dug the foundation, and laid the rock and filled the rock with cement that I mixed by hand."
He also built the dining room table that his family still uses, and he hand-carved the bedposts on the four-poster bed he shares with his wife under plaques displaying the Ten Commandments. As his family grew — he adopted Kayla's first child by a previous marriage, and they have three children together — he built a pool outside the back door, 15 feet deep with a jumping platform nearly as high. He then installed a circulating waterfall, which he decorated with another marble display of the Ten Commandments. A third set of commandments sits on the fireplace mantel.
In Moore's home office, where he does his writing, he hung a couple of antique rifles in glass cases. "Guns, guns, guns. I've got lots of guns," he said, passing through. "Guns you don't see."
Such details are not incidental to Moore's political views, because a defiant, individualist attitude has always driven him, nearly as much as the ideas he espouses. Ask him for his story, and he tells it as a series of confrontations.
When he arrived at the U.S. Military Academy, the first in his family to go to college, he suffered hazing from his fellow cadets — on account, he believes, of his strong Southern accent and small-town education. He began training as a boxer, deciding to literally fight back and win the respect of his fellow cadets. In Vietnam, he ran a military police company supervising the stockade in Da Nang. It was toward the end of the war, when drug use and low morale among draftees were rampant. Amid threats on his life for his strict demands for discipline, he challenged anyone in the company to take him on in the boxing ring.
By the time Moore became a prosecutor, he had little patience for the conventions of the legal community. He complained to a county grand jury about law-enforcement budget problems, a breach of protocol that earned him an investigation by the Alabama State Bar Association.
When Moore campaigned for district attorney years later, the legal establishment turned against him and he lost. He said he was so angry that he moved to Texas, and spent a year studying kickboxing so that he could come back home and beat a local black belt, unaffiliated with the legal community, in a tournament in the county seat. He won. "One thing my father always taught me is the one thing they can't take from you is what you know," Moore explained. "That's why when I go to defend myself, I learn things."
Decades later, the attitude never dimmed, nor did his fighting instinct. As a Republican judge, Moore has criticized the current Senate for letting fears of a government shutdown be used to allow Planned Parenthood to receive federal funding. He supports a raft of conservative political positions, saying he will increase funding for the military, work to secure the border either through military deployment or a wall, fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act and oppose former president Barack Obama's executive orders, including protections for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children.
Moore is open to granting some of those same immigrants a chance to eventually stay in the United States, if they first return to their countries of origin and meet certain qualifications. "To put them all in the same pot, to say you are all welcome or all rejected seems harsh," he said. "That's the kind of thing I can negotiate on."
One thing he won't negotiate is his view of how the Senate conducts business. He carries with him a pocket pamphlet he published containing his legal theory of God's supremacy, along with the key documents that he claims as evidence for the argument. This includes a full copy of the Constitution, which he has begun to mark up in recent weeks, noting each place where the document lays out voting margins in the legislative branch.
Nowhere, he notes, does the document permit the Senate to require 60 senators to bring a vote — a convention that has on occasion tied the hands of the party in the majority. He says he plans to help end the practice if he wins election, although he won't say how. "I got a plan," he said with a smile. "I'm not going to tell you."
That attitude could foreshadow a new level of disruption in the U.S. Senate, where individual members still have significant powers to upend proceedings and slow down legislation. Many of his supporters are counting on it.
"Watch if he doesn't do exactly what he says he will do," says Dean Young, a longtime Moore friend and adviser, who helped coax him into the Senate race. "They can kick him off every committee. They can blackball him. It won't matter if it's one man against 99 in the Senate. We all know Judge Moore will be that one man."
Whether that happens is now largely out of Moore's hands, a function of who turns out on Tuesday and what role negative campaign ads and Trump's endorsement will play in the result. He will continue to campaign into the final days, warmly greeting all the supporters who stop him as he makes his way through the Cracker Barrel. "You know, I don't pray to win," he tells his crowds on campaign stops. "I pray that God's will be done."