About 20 years ago in West Palm Beach, Fla., I attended Sunday service at an evangelical church for the last time. That day’s sermon was led by a guest speaker, an educator who came to speak with young people in the church about her experience with conversion therapy. In her youth, she told us, she fought with her sexual urges towards women and lost. For years, she drifted away from her family and her church community, while seeking out sexual relationships with female peers and classmates. Desperate to win their daughter back from her chosen life of sin, her parents and pastor staged an intervention that resulted in her attending conversion therapy. While the therapy did not succeed in helping her become attracted to men, she was thankful that it had rid her of the “demonic” influences that caused her to seek sexual gratification from women.
I think about that sermon, occasionally. I think of the speaker’s forced smile, the pastor’s arm draped around her during the call to prayer, both of their hands raised to the nave ceiling in thanks to the Lord, and their call for His protection from this sinful world that leads young people into a life of carnal immorality. I think about that sermon more often lately, because if there are any demons from which the world needs to be protected, it is the people who most fervently and publicly claim to be of His flock.
Last week, scandal erupted in the United States Senate by-election in Alabama. Four women came forward to accuse Republican candidate Roy Moore of initiating sexual contact while he was an assistant district attorney in Gadsden, Ala., and they were local teenagers. Of the four, Leigh Corfman was the youngest at the time Moore allegedly made contact. She was 14 years old when Moore allegedly offered to wait with her outside a courtroom while her mother attended a child-custody hearing. While waiting with her, Corfman said, Moore asked for her phone number, and later picked her up around the corner from her home to initiate two sexual encounters at his home in the woods.
After these allegations came to light, the right-wing spin machine burned white-hot in its attempt to run interference for Moore. Breitbart News not only tried to pre-empt the breaking news by categorizing the Washington Post story as a smear-job, it later sent two reporters to Alabama to dig up information on the accusers, and to cast doubt on Corfman’s story. Fox News host Sean Hannity at first suggested Moore’s accusers could be lying on behalf of “the establishment.” He later softballed an interview with Moore, in which the candidate stopped short of outright denying his habit of preying on teenagers.
But the most vile news, in light of the allegations, came in the form of a JMC poll conducted after they were made public. According to the poll results, 37 per cent of self-identified evangelicals in Alabama were now more likely to cast a ballot for Moore. For 34 per cent of them, the allegations made no difference at all. Only 28 per cent of evangelicals indicated the allegations would make them less likely to vote for a man who, by multiple accounts, not only hung out outside of high schools and shopping-mall theatres to solicit teenage girls, not only developed a reputation among police and his colleagues for dating high schoolers, but stands accused by two women of having sexually assaulted them while they were younger than Alabama’s legal age of consent.
There is a narrative of evangelical influence in politics that goes something like this: after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Roe v. Wade case, which legalized abortion in the country, evangelicals established themselves as one of the country’s most powerful voting blocs when they rallied to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then, the political influence of the Jerry Falwell-founded Moral Majority spread through the media reach of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, the conservative political lobbying of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and Falwell’s own educational reach in founding Liberty University. Evangelicals have consistently positioned themselves as America’s moral centre, the conscience needed in a country whose leaders so often stray in their failure to rebuke sexual and personal vices, and without which the country could fall into a state of permanent moral decay.
But this narrative falls apart under the slightest inspection. Never mind the Roe v. Wade decision came six years before evangelicals left one of their own, Jimmy Carter, to take up arms for Reagan. Falwell was a segregationist who built a high school for the explicit purpose of offering white students an enclave from the imminent end of Virginia’s “massive resistance” campaign against integrated schools. Robertson consistently finds himself embroiled in controversy over his financial entanglements, including those with brutal dictators, such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Liberia’s Charles Johnson, under whose regime Robertson owned an $8-million investment in a gold mine. And Dobson’s Focus on the Family was, at the time that my church received a sermon from a woman who identified as a “reformed lesbian,” promoting the junk science of conversion therapy. The therapy, which was dubbed “pray the gay away” by its opponents, would later become linked by the Human Rights Campaign to depression, drug abuse, and suicide among its patients.
In almost every instance where the evangelical right has had an opportunity to exhibit moral leadership in the face of social crisis, it has failed. Miserably.
Instead, in post-9/11 America, evangelical preachers gleefully whipped up the flames of Islamophobia, and blamed the attack on America’s decadent acceptance of feminism and homosexuality. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, a renewed call to the prosperity gospel, which held that God would deliver personal riches to those who showed their faith through tithing and confession. This doctrine was preached beneath the same roofs whose holy texts taught that Jesus once scattered the merchants and money changers from the temple in anger. And when given the option to defect or abstain from the Republican party when it nominated Donald Trump—who not only displayed none of the ethical qualifications necessary to lead the country, but was himself accused by multiple women of sexual assault—evangelicals chose to vote for Trump and hew themselves to perhaps the most immoral presidency since Woodrow Wilson’s segregationist government.
Of a similar piece with Donald Trump, Roy Moore managed to skate by his prior controversies with his evangelical support intact. He did so by positioning himself as a Christian crusader, through performative declarations of faith that passed the borders of obnoxiousness and should have labeled him unfit for office. He promoted the false idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and was secretly a Muslim. As a family court judge in Alabama, Moore ruled that a mother who had been involved in a lesbian relationship should lose custody of her child, as her affair had gone against “the laws of the State of Alabama and the Laws of Nature.” In 2001, Moore commissioned a Ten Commandments monument for the Alabama Judicial building, and refused to remove it even when ordered by the U.S. District Court.
And while Roy Moore was preaching hellfire and damnation for the enemies of God, he managed to get himself suspended twice from the Alabama bench for abuse of his authority as a judge. On top of the controversies he managed to pile up, Moore was also found to have hosted events attended white nationalists, celebrating Alabama’s 1861 secession from the union. And yet, not only have evangelicals remained his base throughout his ignominious career, the vast majority profess their faith in him has either not wavered, or has actually increased since multiple women alleged he has harassed and assaulted them.
It’s not clear whether the latest round of accusations against Roy Moore—that he once trapped a 15-year-old waitress in his car and assaulted her behind the restaurant where she worked, and that he was reportedly banned from the Gadsden Mall for being a creep—will finally shake evangelical support for him. At a minimum, of the 53 pastors who signed an August letter in support of Moore, only three have since distanced themselves from the letter. But the fact he’s even made it this far with their support should be damning enough on its own. If there is indeed an evil influence at work in America, and evangelicals have thus far been unable to extinguish it, then perhaps they ought to redouble their efforts with the one they see in the mirror.
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