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MONTGOMERY, Ala.— The race for a U.S. Senate seat here has become a battle between good and evil.
For many across the country and some in this Deep South state, Republican Roy Moore is the bad guy.
Before accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls surfaced, he had twice lost his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court for defying federal orders to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he'd built at his courthouse and to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. And his commentary on a range of issues — from homosexuality to slavery — has offended Democrats and some moderate Republicans here.
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But for many white evangelical Christians, a dominant political force in the state, Moore is the hero in the latest high-stakes chapter of a centuries-long American morality play, a "godly" man beset by evil persecutors from outside the faith, outside the state and outside a value system in which Christianity, patriotism and the Republican Party are inextricably tied. Their views are so vital to Moore's chances because they account for 49 percent of adult Alabamians.
"They’ve taken evil and tried to redefine it as good and they’ve taken good in our society and redefined it as evil," said Franklin Raddish, the South Carolina-based founder of Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries, a Moore supporter who set up a Bible study group at the Alabama Supreme Court. "It’s a culture war of right and wrong."
For Raddish, the "they" refers to "socialists," and, he said, "the Democrat Party is the party of socialists."
Raddish said pastors who support Moore in Alabama have become reluctant to talk to reporters for fear of being misquoted and receiving the kinds of harassing calls and emails he said he has fielded. NBC's requests to interview several evangelical pastors in the state went unanswered.
At a Pensacola, Fla., campaign rally Friday night in which President Donald Trump issued a full-throated endorsement of Moore, the president explained the us-versus-them mentality as a conflict between God and secularism.
"We've stopped the government's attacks on our Judeo-Christian values," Trump said. "We don't worship government, we worship God."
To Moore's supporters, Democrat Doug Jones — the former prosecutor who won decades-overdue convictions against men who participated in the 16th Street church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham in 1963 — has become an embodiment of evil. Not only does he represent a party that supports abortion rights, but he told NBC's Chuck Todd in September that he does not back efforts to restrict abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
There is no social or political issue of greater import to white evangelical Christians than abortion, and the Senate's role in confirming federal judges makes it the single-most galvanizing issue for them in this race. Federal judges hold the power to rule on whether state-level restrictions violate the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and, at the Supreme Court level, to potentially overturn that ruling.
"I don't think you'll be very successful in Alabama ... being a person who supports abortion through the ninth month," said Abraham Hamilton, general counsel and public policy analyst for the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss.
Hamilton said it's not all about abortion, noting that the bill of particulars against Jones is much longer:
Jones was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where President Barack Obama was unanimously re-nominated; he talks about defending the Second Amendment and his affinity for hunting, but also about the idea that some limitations on gun-owners' rights are consistent with the Constitution; and he opposes Trump's border wall — an issue with great support among Moore's faithful but on which white evangelical Christians are not monolithic.
And Jones backs same-sex marriage, the issue over which Moore lost his state Supreme Court post the second time and which ranks a close second to abortion as a hot button for religious conservatives.
But much of it boils down to the notion that Jones — who was born in Fairfield, and educated at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Samford University in Homewood — represents the kind of outsider that Moore and many white evangelical Christians here have been fighting not only on modern social matters but since the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era.
At a rally in Florence in September, Moore was asked when the United States was last great. His response, as reported by The Los Angeles Times: "I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another. ... Our families were strong, our country had a direction."
Almost every line of argument against Jones starts with his connections to politicians and groups outside Alabama that are perceived by evangelical Christians to be hostile to their cause.
On Friday, Trump called him a "puppet" of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. And when former Vice President Joe Biden came to the state to support Jones last month, Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan said she'd welcome national Democrats and their allies — the abortion-rights group Planned Parenthood specifically — because of the backlash that would rally the evangelical-laden GOP.
No matter who attacks Moore, whether it's Democrats or Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said he believed the GOP candidate's accusers and called on him to drop out of the race, the critic is cast in the role of outsider persecutor. The fact that the attacks come from Washington, where the federal government sent troops to fight the Confederacy and integrate schools only adds to the familiarity of the battle lines.
Heath Carter, a historian at Indiana's Valparaiso University who studies evangelical Christianity in political reform movements, said that Moore's supporters see him as the protagonist fighting against those seeking to undermine their faith and culture.
"It fits right into a narrative that's been up and running for a long time: These types of attacks will come," Carter said. "It’s part of being a true believer.
A 'Godly' man
In mid-November, at a firehouse in northeastern Alabama, the candidate's wife, Kayla Moore, called her husband a "godly" man. "He has never one time lifted a finger to me. He is the most gentle, most kind man that I have ever known in my life. He's godly. He's loving, and everybody in this community knows it," she said.
It can be hard for some to reconcile that description with the allegations of sexual misconduct with teenagers decades ago — which Moore has repeatedly denied — and with the support that Trump enjoys from evangelical Christian voters despite the many women who have said the president physically accosted them before he was elected.
Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of political communicatiions at Southern Methodist University who studies conservative political movements, said Kayla Moore is trying to telegraph the idea that her husband "sits as sort of the God-head of his family and he’s a protector and a provider and he is a leader and he takes his responsibilities to be masculine very seriously."
In that telling, Martin said, the view is that women should trust Moore.
"It is kind of an anti-feminist supposition and it is a pro-traditional feminine notion," she said. "So it says, 'OK, so he was interested in women who were much younger than him, but he never did it without her parents' permission.'"
Many of Moore's backers don't believe the allegations, some will support him despite the claims, and a handful have sought to justify his alleged pursuit of girls and young women as Christian.
"Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus," Jim Ziegler, the Alabama state auditor told The Washington Examiner last month, noting that Moore isn't accused of having had sex with any underage girls. "There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. ... Maybe just a little bit unusual."
The common response among voters has been that it's not up to them to judge Moore, only God can do that, and that they know him as a man of integrity.
Divisions within the faith
Trump remains popular with Alabamians. A Morning Consult survey in October pegged his approval rating at 59 percent in a state he won with 62 percent of the vote. His recent declaration that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, mentioned by Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., at Trump's Friday night rally, was immensely popular with evangelicals who believe that Jewish control of Jerusalem is a predicate for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
But there are signs of wear in his relationship with white evangelical Christians across the country.
A Pew Research poll released this week shows that Trump's approval rating among white evangelical Christians dropped from 78 percent in February to 61 percent now.
Some evangelical leaders, particularly those outside the Deep South, have been vocal in their criticism of the president and of Moore. They worry about the faith's connection to partisan politics — that the desire to elect certain candidates and promote certain policies has led religious leaders to turn a blind eye.
Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has risked his post in part by being critical of Trump and Moore. "The religious right," he said in an October 2016 speech, "turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about."
And, after the allegations against Moore surfaced, he took to Twitter to denounce evangelicals who gave him a pass.
Historically, there's been a divide between northern and southern white evangelicals, with the former having often been deeply involved in social reform movements, such as abolition, civil rights and labor rights efforts, that were resisted in the Deep South.
Carter, the Valparaiso professor, described the modern divide as more of clash between religious intellectual elites and rank-and-file pastors and their flocks. Like Russell Moore, the elites want to define morality more along religious lines and less around politics.
He said that for many adherents to the various denominations that make up evangelicalism religion "mixes very freely" with nationalism and Republicanism.
That helps explain why Roy Moore's supporters frame Tuesday's election as an assault on their faith, their party and their country.
"The stakes in this particular race can appear to be cosmic and eternal," Carter said, "and that gets people pretty motivated."