Today, Dec. 12, as polls are closing in the Senate race pitting Democrat Doug Jones against Republican Roy Moore, we’ll be lighting a candle for the first night of Hanukkah in my home in Alabama, as my family has done for a century. A gift, for me, would be the election of Jones, an upset as inspiring as the Hanukkah story of underdog Judah the Maccabee’s victory for freedom of belief against the forces of tyranny.
Moore supporters, I know, would cast the roles opposite, their candidate the rebel fighting for religious freedoms. That many voters for Moore champion the “Ten Commandments judge” as a righteous hero was evident at a rally a week prior to the election at a barn up the road from me. The atmosphere was as much revival as political showmanship, from the band playing country gospel, to the African-American pastor telling the crowd that in the 1960s he was “marching for civil rights” and now “for religious rights,” to Moore himself, who decried “the attacks on my character” but made no mention of the allegations against him of sexual improprieties with minors. Moore spoke of himself as the victim of “spiritual wickedness in high places,” to shouts of “Amen,” and he proclaimed of his scandal-plagued candidacy: “When God puts you there you have nothing else to do but stand!”
A woman who recognized me in the crowd from the years I worked at the Mobile, Alabama, newspaper told me she disdained the publication now because of its “nasty” treatment of Moore, then nodded to the throng of journalists from all over, calling them “the globalist press” not to be trusted. She echoed Stephen K. Bannon, who took the stage and in a lengthy rant tore into fake news, the Republican swamp, and the “Clinton agenda” that he warned Jones would further.
There were, indeed, more personal attacks on the Republican establishment, including Sens. Jeff Flake and Mitch McConnell, and Gov. Mitt Romney—“he’s a Mormon!” someone behind me yelled out—than on Jones, maligned not for his character but his positions, being a Democrat, on Trump’s border wall, guns, and abortion. When I asked my acquaintance about the stories of Moore and the teenage girls, she answered, even if true, “We all do bad things when we’re young. But I believe in salvation.”
I believed she was sincere, as were many of the attendees at the rally. Moore struck me as a slick operator, but among his followers, I’m sure, were true believers of the faith he preached. As a religion reporter in the past I had seen the sincerity of Alabama faith up close, from rural churches to historic sanctuaries. But this ever-growing mix of God and politics was toxic. I had traveled only 10 miles to this venue but I could just as well have jetted to a foreign land.
I’d experienced that world before, at the Alabama Judiciary Building in Montgomery in 2003 when the battle raged over Moore’s refusal to remove his two-and-a-half ton Ten Commandments from the rotunda. On the courthouse steps, a man in a shirt emblazoned with a crown of thorns and the words “Love Hurts” had exhorted followers to pray for the judge, who would soon be suspended from the bench for ethics violations. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary concluded that “the highest judicial officer of this state has decided to defy a court order.”
And I’d seen it when Moore, elected again in 2012 as chief justice of the Alabama court, railed against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on marriage equality, instructing Alabama probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Moore lost his judgeship a second time; this go-round, the Court of the Judiciary determined that his order “put 68 probate judges in direct defiance of federal law.”
At the rally, Moore turned these episodes of his disregard for man’s law into stories of adherence to God’s. As he preached his talking points about the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of “traditional marriage,” and how we must be a Christian nation, he was met with wild applause and shouts of support. There was patriotic fervor, too. When a couple of protestors cried out, “No Moore!”, they were led out by security guards as the crowd chanted, “USA! USA!”
No matter how accustomed I had become to finding an alternate universe next door, the chasm this election season, I realized, was deepening. There were more than 50 pastors who supported Moore in a letter shared on the Facebook page of Moore’s wife, Kayla, on Nov. 12, after the underage sex scandal broke, defending Moore as “a champion of liberty,” an “immovable rock in the culture wars.” Five days later 59 pastors countered publicly with their own letter, saying Moore’s “extreme values and actions are not consistent with traditional Christian values or good Christian character. He and politicians like him have cynically used Christianity for their own goals.” The breach in our state was about far more than traditional politics.
Among my Alabama family and friends—of diverse faiths, races, sexual orientations, and political views, including Republicans outraged over their party’s candidate—Moore is an anathema, his potential election the final straw in rendering us, like in the George Wallace era, the scourge of the union. It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled elsewhere in this country and felt compelled to say, “I’m from Alabama, but …”
Our Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, who said he would not vote for Moore but write in the name of “a distinguished Republican,” doesn’t want that for us. The Greater Birmingham Young Republicans, censuring Moore, don’t want that. The pastors who signed the letter calling Moore “unfit” for office don’t want that. But President Trump and Republican leadership backing Moore don’t care if we’re the shame of the nation or not, or if Capitol Hill welcomes a Senator who’s expressed his contempt for equality and moral behavior, so long as it’s a win for their side.
As the rally ended I picked up a Moore flyer that stated, “Principle Over Politics,” a sentiment akin, ironically, to “Country Over Party,” Sen. Flake’s message of why, as a Republican, he supported Jones. Finally, an idea we could all agree on—the primacy of “the content of one’s character,” to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who showed the world, from an Alabama pulpit, the power of benevolent faith.
Let Alabamians decide for Alabama, as the mantra goes, by casting a vote for character. It’s a quaint notion these days, but revolutionary, too. If that comes to pass it will be not just a Hanukkah gift but a miracle.