Fannin Road Baptist Church sits across from an abandoned cow pasture on the west side of Montgomery, Alabama, in a poor neighborhood of sparse, dilapidated single-story homes near Maxwell Air Force Base. Pastor Jim Lester began what he calls a “missionary church” here in 1998, while he was still on active duty in the Air Force.
At 63, Lester has a military bearing and sports a closely cropped gray mustache, a bald head, and a distinct North Carolina drawl. Like most pastors of independent fundamentalist Baptist churches in Alabama, Lester doesn’t mince words about what he believes—or why he supports Roy Moore.
Lester was one of the 53 Alabama pastors who signed a letter endorsing the Republican Alabama Senate candidate back in August. A month ago, Moore’s wife, Kayla Moore, re-posted the letter on Facebook in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against her husband. Since then, Lester says he’s been contacted by close to a hundred reporters but hasn’t spoken out, until now.
“Roy Moore was a man who was willing to stand on his principles, even though it cost him his job as chief justice, cost him his livelihood,” Lester says, referring to Moore’s removal from the Alabama Supreme Court, first in 2003 and again in 2016. “That’s extreme.” But Lester is quick to clarify that his support for Moore goes beyond his belief that Moore is a man of principle.
“We take the Bible literally as God’s word,” he says. “And the problem with abortion is that we believe that it’s the taking of a human life, at any point.” Lester is referring to Democratic candidate Doug Jones and his support for abortion, which is all Lester needs to know about him. He quotes Proverbs chapter 6, which lists seven things that God hates. “You ever heard this?” he asks me. “You know what they are? Do you know what one of them is?” He quickly answers his own question: “The shedding of innocent blood. That is something God hates.”
Lester doesn’t believe the allegations against Moore are true. But he says that even if Moore were proven guilty of the worst of the accusations leveled against him—that he groped a 14-year-old when he was in his early thirties—abortion, or “the taking of a human life,” would still be a worse sin in the eyes of God. “It’s not about what Jim Lester thinks, it’s about what God thinks,” he says. “That directs my voting.”
Moore Supporters Are Motivated By Religious Convictions
This is more or less the view of a large swath of Moore supporters in Alabama, and especially the pastors of mostly small, independent churches who have publicly endorsed him. Pastor David Floyd of Marvyn Parkway Baptist Church in Opelika, who also signed the August letter, told me that Moore caught his attention back in 2000, when he was running for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and promised to install a monument to the Ten Commandments—then actually did it when he won the election. “If I thought Judge Moore was just another politician I wouldn’t support him.” Floyd tells me. “Over the years, I have found him to be a righteous man. I believe him.”
When we sit down to talk, the 63-year-old, white-haired pastor takes out a recording device, places it next to mine and says he’s going to tape our conversation. Floyd is wary of reporters after what he claims was an unfair and inaccurate representation of his remarks to a Washington Post reporter. This is his first time supporting a political campaign publicly, and he tells me he and his congregation have suffered “vicious attacks” from all over the country because of it, even some attacks here in their hometown. Outside his modest church, a large Roy Moore sign has been repeatedly knocked down. But Floyd doesn’t mind the abuse because to him Moore’s campaign is about more than politics, it’s about turning America back to God.
“When Roy Moore announced his campaign he said he wanted to do what Trump said, to make America great again,” Floyd says. “But then he said for America to ever be great again, she’s got to be moral again, and that’s how I feel. We’ve got to repent and turn back to God, and we’ve got a long way to go.”
Religious leaders like Floyd and Lester—and hundreds of thousands of Alabama voters who agree with them—are uncompromising in their sense of moral obligation at the voting booth. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 58 percent of Alabamans think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and that the vast majority of this group are white, churchgoing evangelical Protestants who tend to vote Republican, consider themselves politically conservative, and oppose gay marriage.
But such surveys don’t capture the deep ambivalence such voters feel about partisan politics. If a candidate agrees with their views on abortion and gay marriage, then they will vote for that candidate. If not, they won’t. As it happens, Republican candidates often hold such views, so they tend to vote for Republicans. But many of these voters have little use for the GOP as such, and especially for what they view as a Republican establishment in Washington that’s lukewarm or ineffective on the issues they care about most (abortion and gay marriage).
They are especially disturbed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s concerted efforts to keep Moore out of the GOP conference. As Lester says of Moore’s opponents in the GOP, “They don’t want Moore in there because he would be an embarrassment. But what’s an embarrassment to me and what would be an embarrassment to them would be different things altogether.”
Politics, especially the increasingly pervasive politics of all-out culture war, is for these voters a straightforward extension of their religious convictions. The mainstream media paints these people as without principles—or worse, as hypocrites, given their support of Moore in the face of his alleged sexual misdeeds. But the opposite is true. They take their principles so seriously that they’re willing to make hard choices with their eyes wide open. In this case, they will not vote for Doug Jones because Jones supports abortion—no matter what Moore did.
Ask them about the accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore, and they will likely tell you they don’t believe them, for a handful of reasons. Moore’s offenses are said to have happened nearly 40 years ago, and although he ran in three statewide elections since then, the allegations never came up. Why not? Moore also twice gave up high elected office because of his convictions, once over refusing to remove the Ten Commandments statue and again in 2012 over refusing to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage in Obergefell.
As retired pastor Layton Sampson told me, Moore is “a man who doesn’t change his principles. He’s been a fixture here for a long time, and always did what he said he would do.” By standing on principle, his supporters say, Moore has shown himself to be a man of integrity, a man who won’t just say or do anything to win or keep office. If he says he didn’t do the things he’s accused of, he should be trusted.
Even non-religious supporters of Moore echo these sentiments. Warren Fuller and about a dozen of his friends, all retirees, gather most weekday mornings at the McDonald’s in downtown Auburn to drink coffee and talk politics. The 84-year-old retired commercial painter says all but one of his group—the “damn Democrat”—supports Moore, and that it doesn’t matter how many women come forward with accusations, he doesn’t believe them. He thinks they’re being put up to it.
A recent CBS/YouGov poll found that among voters who don’t believe the allegations against Moore, 91 percent say Democrats are behind them and 89 percent also say the media is behind them. Fuller says he doesn’t go to church but, like most people in Alabama, he believes in God and thinks Moore has been unfairly attacked for years. Unlike most politicians, who he says are only in office to enrich themselves, “Roy Moore won’t take a dime.”
Same People Who Misread 2016 Dismiss Alabama Voters
Whether you think the accusations against Moore are credible or not, these are not unreasonable arguments. They are also not necessarily borne of ignorance, bigotry, or populist fervor, as so many Washington pundits like to claim. Even if you aren’t convinced by his supporters’ arguments, they must be reckoned with and answered, not dismissed or scoffed at, precisely because they are so prevalent. That CBS/YouGov poll found that 71 percent of Alabama Republicans don’t believe the allegations against Moore, while just 17 percent say the accusations are true. The poll also found a majority of likely voters believe that other things matter more in this election than the accusations against Moore.
For many people outside Alabama, especially the Republican establishment and the mainstream media, this is a big problem. Their general consensus is that the allegations against Moore are credible, and that he is therefore unfit for office. Their lack of curiosity about why so many Alabamans nevertheless support Moore, and their instinct to dismiss his supporters out of hand, is one of the reasons America got Donald Trump last year—and why almost no one saw it coming.
The professional class that’s supposed to understand American voters never bothered to ask why Trump’s message might resonate with tens of millions of people, in part because they never bothered to ask those people what they cared about or treat their concerns as legitimate. For the most part, the mainstream media and Washington elites would rather pretend these people don’t exist, or dismiss them as backwater rubes and racists.
There is of course a kind of sanctimony in this indifference and condescension. Jim Lester was right: Moore is indeed an embarrassment to people like McConnell and certain prominent conservative columnists who think the people of Alabama should be less concerned with abortion and gay marriage. Just like they should’ve been less concerned last year with immigration and free trade. Don’t these people know what’s good for them?
As the polls now stand, Moore is ahead by about 4 points. That means the rubes of Alabama are poised to send Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate. They don’t seem to care what the media and the GOP establishment think. Many of them, however, care very much what God thinks, and they believe they know what they have to do.