The humiliating defeat of one of its longtime political favorites, Judge Roy Moore, in heavily Evangelical Alabama, has been a real blow to the Christian right. And that’s not just because he lost. The fact that so many conservative Christians brushed aside the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at Moore is an indication of a less than discerning moral lens for some highly moralistic people. As Sarah Jones at The New Republic observes, many of them have thrown themselves off-balance by an obsessive focus on the abortion issue:
Most of Roy Moore’s voters didn’t think they supported an accused pedophile; they simply didn’t believe the allegations that he molested and preyed on teenage girls when he was in his thirties. They decided it was a cruel myth, invented by D.C. wheelers-and-dealers to destroy a godly man. A strong thread connects this delusion to Moore’s anti-abortion rhetoric: If someone would kill an unborn baby, can you really believe anything they say?
The pro-life movement now finds itself inside a trap that it built. Its claim to moral superiority rests on the totalizing depravity of the opposition…. And now it’s becoming more difficult than ever to uphold this dichotomy between the righteous and the fallen, and to pretend that pro-life candidates belong firmly to the former camp.
You’d think conservative Evangelicals in this particular place might have known better. After all, another of their heroes proved very recently to have feet of clay: disgraced former governor Robert Bentley.
The saga of Bentley, dubbed the “Love Gov” or even “The Horndog Governor,” went on for so long that it is easy to forget that when he was first elected in 2010, the Southern Baptist deacon was a Christian right figure staffed by veterans of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign (including campaign manager Bryan Sanders, who was married to Huck’s now-famous daughter). Indeed, Bentley undoubtedly drew crucial support in defeating Establishment Republican figure Bradley Byrne in a GOP runoff from supporters of fourth-place finisher Roy Moore. It wasn’t until his second term, though, that a lurid sex and corruption scandal came to light when the First Lady of Alabama surreptitiously recorded her husband having a torrid phone conversation with a much younger woman who worked for him.
Bentley hung onto power, however, for more than a year after the scandal broke. An Alabama historian explained Bentley’s durability in words that seemed prophetic of Roy Moore’s campaign this year:
“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”
Not long before Bentley resigned as part of a plea deal to keep himself out of the hoosegow on charges of misappropriating public funds, he appointed Alabama’s attorney general, Luther Strange, to the recently vacated Senate seat of Jeff Sessions under the strong suspicion that it was part of an arrangement made earlier when Big Luther helped the Love Gov avoid impeachment. That in turn had a lot to do with Strange’s loss to Roy Moore, which in due time led to the election of a pro-choice, relatively progressive Democrat to Sessions’s Senate seat.
I’m not saying that politicians with the worldview shared by Bentley and Moore are necessarily more prone to sins of the flesh and abuses of power than other pols (though the patriarchal tendencies of conservative Evangelicals certainly make it easier for them to ignore or even attack women who bear witness to their misconduct). But having been burned twice in a relatively short period of time, perhaps Alabama’s conservative Christians should reflect on the tendency of the Good Lord to punish the self-righteous with particular speed.