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Why evangelicals might keep supporting Roy Moore after his sex abuse scandal

How the culture wars might help Moore survive.

President Trump, Conservative Leaders Address Value Voters Summit
Roy Moore was the Alabama Senate frontrunner.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Washington Post revealed that throughout the late 1970s, Alabama Republican Senate frontrunner (and Christian theocrat) Roy Moore — then in his early 30s — had allegedly made sexual advances on or engaged in sexual activity with a number of teenage girls as young as 14.

Moore might be seen as just one of many powerful men affected by the wave of stories behind the #MeToo movement. His actions were lent particularly potent irony by his intense public religiosity (he’s suggested that he believes homosexuality should be a capital crime). Politicians on the left and right are calling for him to step down from the Senate race against Democrat Doug Jones.

But the way some evangelical politicians are reacting to the story — from disbelief to “well, at least he’s not a Democrat” to implying Moore’s acts aren’t that bad because, well, Mary married Joseph when she was a teenager — is significant. These reactions speak to longstanding tensions in the evangelical community over its treatment of powerful men, its forgiveness of male sexual sins, and its approach to male sexuality as a whole.

It’s important to note that these tensions aren’t new. They have, however, been brought to a head in the Trump era, which has forced many evangelical voters to contend with the idea that having a “pro-evangelical” candidate in power might mean accepting compromises when it comes to that candidate’s personal morality. Over the past few years, a number of excellent writers from or deeply familiar with the evangelical community have been covering these tensions, and have been speaking out about how and why the evangelical community seems to protect those who fall short of its moral standards. Just check out #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear for a wealth of (mostly evangelical) voices speaking out about their experience of how church communities handle sex abuse and more.

But if you want to understand how and why evangelicals are still defending Moore now, it’s vital to read these four pieces on evangelicals, dominionism, gender politics, and sexual morality, which explain how evangelicals have dealt with (almost) every alleged abuser that has preceded him.

Laura Turner, Politico: “How Long Can Evangelical Women Stay Behind Donald Trump?”

The election of Donald Trump was a watershed moment for many evangelicals. During the Bill Clinton years, any suggestion of impropriety in a politician’s personal life was seen, particularly by evangelicals, as a referendum on his character. But in the wake of Trump’s campaign, all that seemed to change.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll released soon before the election found that the percentage of white evangelicals who thought immoral personal acts should disqualify a candidate from office fell from 64 percent in 2011 to 49 percent in 2016. In other words, Trump has changed the game. The culture wars have gotten so toxic that many evangelicals see getting “their guy” in power as more important than ensuring that “their guy” is, in fact, living up to evangelical Christian standards of sexual morality. At the same time, other, particularly younger, evangelicals are turned off by what they see as hypocrisy within their community — a division that, some evangelical leaders worry, may lead to full-on schism.

Laura Turner’s excellent Politico article, written between Trump’s Access Hollywood scandal and the election itself, takes us behind the scenes of these tensions, showing how, for some evangelical women, Trump’s boasts about being able to grope women are something to be swept under the rug in favor of a perceived greater good. Writing of one voter, Turner says:

She wants a president who will “protect the unborn,” a value that stems from her Christian faith and that she has heard Trump espouse. And she believes that “the system we live under is the greatest one in the world,” a sentiment I’ve heard many times from evangelicals who value the individualism of democracy and capitalism in the same way their faith values the individualism of conversion.

Turner’s article is prescient when it comes to helping us understand how evangelicals are dealing with the jarring accusations against Moore now. Just one response of many is that of Alabama Bibb County Republican Chair Jerry Pow, reported by the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale:

In other words, he might have molested a child, but hey, at least he’s not a Democrat.

Katelyn Beaty, New York Times: The Mistake Christians Made in Defending Bill O’Reilly”

Moore is hardly the first man beloved in evangelical circles to be the focus of a sex scandal in recent years. There was Josh Duggar, Christian reality TV show star. There was Trump. And there was conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly.

In her op-ed for the New York Times, Beaty explores two more angles crucial to understanding the tolerance of sexual abuse in evangelical communities: insularity — the idea that a community must protect its own — and a cheapened, shallow ideology of “forgiveness” (something I also wrote about earlier this week in the aftermath of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting).

Often in evangelical circles, the perfectly understandable theology of repentance — that people who genuinely regret their sins and make honest attempts at amends will be forgiven by God — takes the form of a perverse performance that elides actual justice. Sexual abusers will say, “I’ve already repented! God forgives me!” and those they have abused may be pressured to show that they are sufficiently Christian by publicly forgiving their abusers.

Beaty’s money quote:

If conservative Christians want to protect the faith — especially in a time when they fear loss of cultural power — they must show preferential care not for the powerful but for victims. They must be just as quick to extend empathy to women who have been harassed as they are to extend forgiveness to harassers.

Now, it’s important to note that Moore has denied any wrongdoing at this stage. But it’s not out of the realm of the possibility that should he later admit to sexual contact with any of the women who have come forward, he will adopt precisely this narrative, saying that he has sinned but repented. And chances are the evangelical community will forgive him accordingly.

Brandy Zadrozny, Daily Beast: "How the Duggars' Church Encourages Young Women to Submit"

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with sexual abuse in the evangelical community is navigating “purity culture.” When extramarital sex is seen as spiritually toxic, the lines between “I was tempted” (to do something consensual) and “I was tempted” (to do something exploitative) begin to blur.

We can see this in some of the reaction to the Moore scandal, most notably of Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who compared Moore’s alleged assault of a 14-year-old to the biblical Joseph marrying the teenage Mary. (Just for the record, there’s no Christian tradition that teaches that Mary had premarital sex with Joseph, nor that the age difference was beyond the norm for marriages of that time, and Catholics and many Protestants believe she never had sex with Joseph or anybody else, so it’s a particularly odd and ahistorical example).

In her piece for the Daily Beast, written in the aftermath of the Duggar scandal, in which evangelical reality TV star Josh Duggar was alleged to have molested several of his sisters as a teenager, Zadrozny explores and critiques extreme evangelical purity culture. She highlights how it lets men off the hook for their actions (since women are supposed to be the gatekeepers of sexual morality) as well as how, in such a paradigm, women might not be able to understand or identify abuse. She writes:

Not only are women taught to guard their own sexual purity, it is ingrained that women are responsible for the purity of men. Their dress, their behavior, their inherent womanliness are all stumbling blocks for hapless men.

In such a paradigm, it’s easy to see why evangelical supporters might dismiss Moore’s alleged crimes. Many of Moore’s supporters are highlighting that the majority of his accusers were of legal age (the age of consent in Alabama was and still is 16), suggesting Moore’s desire and behavior were normal. The subtext is clear: What man wouldn’t want to sleep with a 16-year-old girl? It’s on the girls to refuse.

Kieryn Darkwater, Autostraddle: “I Was Trained for the Culture Wars in Home School, Awaiting Someone Like Mike Pence as a Messiah”

Moore isn’t just your average evangelical. He’s a Christian theocrat, associated with an extreme politicized Christian umbrella movement known as dominionism, which sees the restoration of biblical law as its ultimate end. (Moore is famous among evangelicals for refusing to take down Ten Commandments monuments he erected in front of his courthouse, even after he was stripped of his state Supreme Court judgeship for his refusal.)

For Moore, the political arena is the site of a cosmic battle between good and evil. Anything that gets in the way of his ultimate agenda must, therefore, be diabolical in nature. It’s unsurprising that, for example, Moore refers to the accusations against him as a “spiritual battle” waged by “forces of evil”:

Meanwhile, Moore’s brother is telling the news media that Moore is being “persecuted” and comparing his persecution to that of Jesus Christ.

To understand Moore and a certain subset of his supporters, it’s vital to read the first-person narrative of Kieryn Darkwater, who grew up home-schooled in a dominionist environment. Darkwater writes about how they were taught to see politics as a battleground for spiritual forces, and to see anything that might prevent a Christian theocracy from taking hold in America as the result of diabolical intervention.

Writes Darkwater:

Evangelical conservatives are convinced that their agenda will save the country from God-ordained death. Pat Robertson and many others believe that natural disasters are sent from God specifically to punish America for letting marginalized people have rights and be alive. This motivates them to do everything in their power to “save” the country from the ungodly — even, maybe especially — if it involves stripping others of the freedoms they deem to be against God’s wishes.

For someone like the young Darkwater, Moore’s election is incredibly significant on a cosmic level. If Moore steps aside because of these allegations, or if a Democrat wins the Senate seat, it is a wrench in God’s plan for the world. It makes sense, therefore, that supporters would be very, very reticent to believe or take seriously the women who have come forward. After all, the stakes are just too high.

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