John F. Kennedy faced questions about his Roman Catholic religion in the 1960s, when he ran for president and won. Religion’s role in elections grew with the rise of politically outspoken religious figures such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
But in Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election this year, religion is featured front and center — due in large part to the presence of Republican candidate Roy Moore, who gained fame years ago as the “Ten Commandments Judge” and proclaims his views today on issues linked to religious values, such as same-sex marriage, abortion rights and prayer in public schools.
A Google search turns up dozens of articles mentioning Moore’s name along with the word Bible. His campaign rallies are mostly in churches.
Moore was removed from his first term as chief justice of Alabama because he refused to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed in the state Judicial Building. After being re-elected to the post, he was kicked out again when he ordered county clerks to disregard a federal court ruling allowing same-sex marriages. Both acts were in keeping with his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
Against that background, allegations against Moore of sexual indiscretions decades ago — first made by four women in a Washington Post story on Nov. 9, with additional allegations since — made worldwide headlines. Moore has denied all allegations. He and his campaign say the candidate did not know the accusers, question why charges came now, during a campaign, and dispute the authenticity of an inscription Moore is alleged to have made in the high school yearbook of one of his accusers.
Still, most of Moore’s political base of conservative evangelical voters have stuck with him. His polling numbers took a dip shortly after the Post story, but they have since rebounded for the most part. As of early December, the Real Clear Politics average of the six most recent polls showed Moore with a lead of 2.3 percent; two of the polls showed a lead for his Democratic opponent, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.
Jones faces questions of his own about faith-based issues. A longtime member of Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Jones supports abortion rights, a position consistent with most Democratic officeholders and much of the party’s base but at odds with a recently adopted stance of his own denomination.
Political Leanings, Church Membership Linked
In Alabama, as nationally, it’s a matter of which faith voters follow that often is linked to their political leanings. The tilt of voters for Moore or for Jones is reflected in the churches they attend.
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center of political trends along denominational lines found members of evangelical churches such as Southern Baptists, various Pentecostal and charismatic fellowships, and many non-denominational churches with a more literal view of the Bible tend to be politically conservative.
On the other hand, those who attend mainline Protestant denominations tend to swing Democratic, as well as those who attend predominantly African-American churches, according to the Pew study. An exception to this trend is the United Methodist Church, whose members trended almost as Republican as the Assemblies of God, the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination, Pew found.
Some clergy from the more liberal side of the liturgical spectrum came out in opposition to Moore, signing an open letter that was published by The Birmingham News criticizing the GOP candidate about a week after the allegations of sexual misconduct became public. The 59 ministers included 23 United Methodists, seven from the Episcopal Church and seven from the Presbyterian Church (USA). Others were from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Eight identified themselves as “Baptist,” though there was no indication of whether they were a part of the Southern Baptist Convention or any of several other Baptist groups.
Role of Southern Baptists, Pentecostals
In general, Southern Baptists appear to remain standing with Moore, though not without dissent. Since mid-November, Moore has used Southern Baptist churches as his primary forum, with most of his campaign appearances being held at their churches, mostly rural ones.
But in mid-November, a week after the sexual allegations were made public, many ministers and delegates to the Alabama Baptist Convention in Huntsville qualified their support when interviewed by The Birmingham News.
“I think it’s practically universal among Alabama Baptists, the repugnant nature of sexual abuse. It’s an unfortunate characteristic of our time that that has invaded the church, and clergy and lay people alike have been indicted, and in many cases convicted, of abuse,” said Dr. Bob Terry, the longtime president and editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper. He’s worked with Baptist news media for nearly half a century.
At the Huntsville convention, a resolution condemning child sexual abuse did not make it to the floor for a vote, Terry said.
But after the convention, a group of younger pastors began an effort on social media to condemn child sexual abuse. “This was a grass-roots effort to say that this kind of activity is not only repugnant, but it is sinful, it is against what God teaches, and it just has no place and we want to stand against it. I hope that whatever else is heard about Alabama Baptists, I hope we hear that note, because that is the strongest note,” Terry said. “The kind of activity being described in some of the charges is antithetical to what our faith is about. That kind of alleged activity has to be rejected and has no place. I think we’re agreed as Baptists with that.”
And Moore in the past has not enjoyed universal support within the Southern Baptist community. “When we were dealing with the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building, the leaders at the time of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention did not support what Chief Justice Moore did,” Terry said. “While many of us fulfill the stereotypical images that some may have of us Baptists, not all of us embrace those stereotypical images.”
Terry also pointed out that other Alabama politicians have used campaign issues rooted in religious tenets. “(Former Governor) Bob Riley was very well known for his opposition to gambling. That came not only from the business acumen that he had, but also from the moral conviction that he had about what was good for Alabama. There has been a moral background to many of the questions we have faced in this state… . It is not unusual for the teachings of the Christian faith to be considered in the public square or to be influential in the public square.”
Pentecostals historically have voted much as Southern Baptists have, which means usually Republican.
The Rev. Ken Draughon, the Alabama District Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, said the state’s largest Pentecostal fellowship does not endorse candidates, only issues.
“We (the Alabama District Council) have never endorsed a candidate, and we never will,” Draughon said. “But this is a minefield … . Naturally we are pro-life and pro-family. But we have a dilemma in trying to work through the accusations that have come out. This is tough, but — and I hate to use a cliché — we’re praying about it.”
Those who attend congregations under Draughon’s supervision are facing similar decisions: whether to vote for someone they agree with politically but who stands accused of sexual improprieties, or else vote for someone who has a clean reputation but holds positions opposed to their own.
“Most of the people I’m hearing from are saying they’re going to vote their convictions, and they’ve not changed because of this, and then they will let the Senate work out the details,” Draughon said.
Some current senators have suggested publicly that if he wins, Moore might be brought before the Senate Ethics Committee to answer the allegations against him, or that the Senate might refuse to seat him in the first place. Either would force Gov. Kay Ivey to select a replacement and potentially call for yet another special election.
Moore-Jones Race a ‘Minefield’ for Faith Groups
Many other faith groups agree with Draughon’s “minefield” assessment, so much so that they are avoiding it altogether. Two other Protestant groups declined comment for this story, as did the Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham.
The Diocese submitted a copy of a 42-page paper titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which discusses many issues pertinent to church teaching. “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith. It is a basic part of the mission we have received from Jesus Christ, who offers a vision of life revealed to us in Sacred Scripture and Tradition,” reads a portion of the introductory section of the document.
Jones’ own United Methodist Church reversed its position on abortion last year at its General Conference meeting. After supporting for 40 years the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, United Methodists voted to change that position, and they severed ties with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Terry said that Jones likely hurt his chances among Baptists with his stand on abortion, particularly in an interview that Jones gave shortly after winning the Democratic primary. In that interview, Jones gave an answer to a question about abortion rights that his opponents claim indicated Jones supports abortion up to the moment of birth. Jones disputes that assertion, claiming only to support current law.
“I think he’s tried to walk it back some. I don’t think he’s successfully convinced a lot of Alabama Baptists about his position,” Terry said.
Views From African-American Churches
Predominantly African-American churches have historically had more involvement in political matters, going back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. They also have tended to support Democratic candidates by a large majority over the years. That didn’t stop Moore from visiting a predominantly African-American church nine days before the election.
Bishop Jim Lowe of Guiding Light Church said social media was ablaze with misinformation after Moore appeared at his church in east Birmingham. The pastor said reports that the Republican candidate was specifically invited were not correct.
“He asked to come worship with us,” Lowe said. “As I normally do for the congregation to get a chance to know a candidate, I say, ‘OK, here’s your opportunity to get to know the candidate.’ We let the candidate have a few words. Any candidate can come. We let him have a part of the church where (a candidate) can meet with the people.”
But Lowe said he hasn’t tried to guide church members in voting a certain way. He said he’s never endorsed a candidate.
“I don’t underestimate the intelligence of my congregation,” the Guiding Light pastor said. “They can make intelligent decisions themselves.”
The Rev. Thomas Wilder is pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, where the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was the pastor in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Wilder said that, rather than telling church members for whom to vote, he conveys certain principles to help them in making decisions.
“Nobody can do a lot of what they say they can do when they’re campaigning,” Wilder said. “We as people need to understand what the law is and the limits of any political leader and not be so gullible. People can promise, ‘I’m going to put a Cadillac in every garage and a chicken in every pot,’ but they just can’t do that. They say that in order to get elected.”
Wilder added that he doesn’t like when a candidate’s message is to “Vote for me because I’m not him. You may be a worse devil than they are.” He also urges his members to look at the candidate’s life rather than the headlines, which, he said, may not reflect reality.
Wilder said he can appreciate a man’s faith but said experience has taught him to be suspicious when some say they are Christians and love God.
“Your love for God is demonstrated by what you do, not necessarily what you say,” he said. “I hear what Roy Moore has said. I also have read some of the things — read for myself — some things about him, and I don’t see a match. I don’t see a match always.”
The special election will be held Tuesday, Dec. 12.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected. John Kennedy was not the first Roman Catholic to run for president as the nominee of a major party, as an earlier version of the story said. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to win the presidency. Democrat Al Smith, in 1928, was the first Roman Catholic nominee of a major party.