Although Alabama politics usually runs a deep crimson red (sorry, Auburn fans), on Tuesday night the tide turned a light blue when Democrat Doug Jones upset Republican Roy Moore in the special election race for the state’s open Senate seat. Deep in the heart of the Bible belt, all eyes were on Alabama’s white evangelical voters. But it was African-American Christians who would save the day – not the first time they have served as the moral conscience of the South.
If ever there were an election that was lost rather than won, it was this one. In what should have been a cakewalk for the Republicans – Donald Trump won the state by twenty-eight points in 2016, after all, and Alabama hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 (and that Democrat ultimately switched to the GOP) – Roy Moore proved that even in the Trump era there were limits to the outrageousness American voters would accept from their leaders. Voter turnout in Alabama’s reddest counties dropped by 45 percent from just a year ago. Combined with an unexpectedly strong showing from African Americans – black voters made up 29 percent of the electorate on Tuesday and 96 percent of them chose Jones – the numbers spelled Moore’s doom.
Yet one group held strong and steady for Moore despite – or perhaps because of – the credible allegations of child molestation that swirled around the former judge throughout the last month of the campaign: white evangelicals, 80 percent of whom voted for Moore. Tellingly, that number almost exactly repeats the 81 percent of white evangelicals nationwide who supported Donald Trump in 2016.
Given those trends, there may be nothing new to say about such voters now. The shocking spectacle of white evangelicals lining up behind a thrice-married casino magnate who has little knowledge of the Bible or Constitution seems quaint in light of the recent developments in Alabama. But there’s no more reason to be surprised at this point.
However, it’s worth considering the claim by Alabama’s white evangelicals that abortion was a determining factor for them in the race, even if only to dismiss it. Had Jones taken a more moderate abortion stance – or kept quiet on the issue altogether – he might have cruised to a bigger victory. Or not. It’s just as likely Moore’s evangelical apologists would have found another issue – opposing gay marriage seems an obvious one – to justify voting for the man. For all the Bible’s warnings against self-rationalization, Christian conservatives of late have seemed remarkably comfortable with justifying the inexcusable for political gain. Forty years ago when the Religious Right was beginning to form, evangelicals worried engaging in politics would lead them into compromises that would weaken their faith. Nowadays, aside from a view holdout voices, white evangelicals seem most concerned with electing Republicans, whatever compromise is required.
In any event, maybe we should reevaluate our terminology. We could start with how we talk about “Christian voters,” especially in places like Alabama. While in recent years both journalists and scholars have begun to add the descriptor “white” to the “evangelical” label to specify exactly who they are writing about, the persistent habit of treating only these voters as religious actors endures. As the most religious group in America, African Americans ought to have their faith taken as seriously as a shaper of their political decisions as white evangelicals have. At the very least, we might reconsider who gets called “values voters.” Every vote – just like every action – is an expression of some set of values, of course. But pronouncing certain voters rather than others as value-driven is not a neutral act, nor does it seem like a very accurate one when those who are boasting the “values” badge are busy backing sexual predators.
As of this writing, Roy Moore has not conceded his loss, perhaps not surprising for a man who also seems unwilling to accept the Confederacy’s defeat. In typical fashion, Moore positioned his selfishness as religious humility, telling his supporters they would all have to “wait on God and let this process play out.” For now, Moore will have to look to the heavens for a miracle, but given the state’s normal political leanings Alabama Republicans probably won’t need divine intervention when Doug Jones faces his first reelection bid in 2020.
Still, in Sweet Home Alabama, for the moment at least, right now the skies are so blue.
Neil J. Young is a historian and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics.