Last Thursday, late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel found himself in a Twitter spat with Roy Moore, Alabama’s Republican Senate nominee. The night before, Kimmel had dispatched a comedian from his show to heckle Moore, a former judge and evangelical Christian, during a worship service.
“But the whole town says you did it!” The comedian Tony Barbieri shouted as Moore attempted to address the church on the allegations of sexual misconduct against him. “The entire town? All the girls are lying?” he peppered. Police escorted Barbieri off the property; Roy Moore seized the opportunity.
He took to Twitter to articulate the message that has driven his campaign ever since women accused him of molesting them as teenagers. “If you want to mock our Christian values,” he wrote to Kimmel, “come down here to Alabama and do it man to man.” The meaning was clear: Kimmel’s stunt was motivated by his elite disdain for Alabamians and their love of Jesus. (86% of adults in Alabama identify as Christian.) And if Kimmel could pull such a malicious stunt, who’s to say that the Washington Post hadn’t acted in the same bad faith when they originally rolled out the allegations against Moore?
Kimmel responded on his show: “It doesn’t fit your stereotype, but I happen to be a Christian, too,” he said. “So if you’re open to, when we sit down, I will share with you what I learned at my church. At my church, forcing yourself on underage girls is a no-no.”
Yet Moore had already won, at least in terms of what matters at the polls. The moment crystallized one of the key ways in which Moore has maintained his base of support even as sexual assault allegations have brought down far more powerful men across America. Moore has successfully reframed this race as, quite simply, God versus Everyone Else.
In 2016, Trump captured the imaginations of Americans in both red and blue states not with policy prescriptions or lofty rhetoric, but by distilling his candidacy into the tidy narrative of us versus them. Gone were the days of pretending our politics were anything but tribal. Trump leveraged the power of victimhood, convincing many that the so-called establishment—in Washington, in the media—had been betting against them, and that only he could settle the score. It was basic, primal, and easy to digest. It was brilliant, if it wasn’t also unnerving.
Moore has copied Trump’s us versus them playbook, but he’s also raised the stakes for believers. In a November interview after the allegations surfaced, Moore’s brother claimed that the candidate was being persecuted “like Jesus Christ was.” Roy Moore was a godly man pursuing the Lord’s work, batting down lies from the media and Democrats and women who were probably “being paid,” as his brother put it. Indeed, Moore couldn’t have hoped for a better dust-up than the one with Kimmel: a Manhattan actor intent on disrupting a small-town church service. It didn’t matter that the actor had shouted questions about the sexual assault allegations, and nothing about Moore’s religion—this was an attack from an outsider on Christian values in such a visceral, literally made-for-TV way.
To understand why Moore is still the hero of the show, it’s important to revisit the last sex scandal to shake the state.
In the fall of 2015, Alabamians learned that then-Governor Robert Bentley had cheated on his wife with a member of staff. It was bombshell news. When Bentley ran for governor five years earlier, he was exactly the kind of outsider evangelical voters had been craving—a small-business owner, a deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. Ultimately, someone of ironclad faith who could rescue the state’s corrupt politics.
Yet Bentley was no different, it turned out. Armed with fifty-plus years of marriage and a devotion to God, he still fell prey to temptation.And for many Alabama evangelicals, a collective fatigue took hold. Had they expected too much from their leaders? Was it time to drop these saint-like standards for candidates? Donald Trump’s soaring victory in Alabama suggested that electoral priorities were shifting. As one evangelical pastor rationalised his support of Trump just before the election, “I think as Christians we should vote for the platform and not the person.”
It’s tough to understate just how shocking a departure in tone this was from elections prior, when, among evangelicals, the best thing you could say about a candidate was that he was a “good man.” It wasn’t easy to start putting the platform over the person. Enthusiastic as Trump’s supporters in Alabama are, it’s hard to meet devout Christians here who didn’t struggle, even slightly, with their votes. Trump is a thrice-married adulterer, someone who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Important as his posture against the elites was, many would say privately, there was still something unsettling about the trade-off they were making.
This is what made Roy Moore such a blessing. For Alabama evangelicals, it was nice not to feel so tired, so compromised. Moore had long been something of a martyr in the state: in 2003, as Alabama’s chief justice, he defied a federal order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments outside the state’s judicial building. He was removed from his seat for it. He won the judgeship back in 2013, only to be kicked out again in 2016, when he ordered probate judges to ignore a federal ruling that legalised same-sex marriage.
In the minds of evangelicals, Moore was a man who’d lived his convictions in the public square, someone who always chose Jesus over political power. And there were no Access Hollywood-like comments lurking, no affairs to reconcile. Voters had a terrific platform and person in Moore; casting their ballot, for the first time in years, would feel good.
When the Washington Post report of Leigh Corfman’s allegation that Moore had molested her when she was 14 years old dropped, voters I interviewed from Gadsden – Moore’s hometown – sounded less shocked than they did exhausted. Slumped shoulders, long sighs.
“Well, you do have to wonder why this didn’t come out sooner,” said Craig Heald, the brother of Moore’s wife’s ex-husband. He sounded as though he were trying to convince himself that this all might, in fact, be a scam of sorts. A New York Times reporter had parked in front of his house for over an hour, even after his wife told the reporter they weren’t interested in talking. The reporter kept asking whether Moore’s wife had divorced her first husband because she was having an affair. Heald was upset by this: that hadn’t been the case at all, he said. But he interpreted the reporter as wanting it to be true. “It’s almost like they get more excited when they think something bad’s happened,” he told me.
Moore has exploited that suspicion to astonishing success. In the same way my conversation with Heald unfolded, Moore’s talking points have shifted from the veracity of the allegations to how much people outside Alabama hate the people inside Alabama. He’s waging a bigger war now, promoting his campaign as a vehicle for Christ. Communicating with his base as though they are disciples, imploring them to remember how heathens tried to obstruct Jesus’s path forward, too. “My soul is being tried and many of you have souls that are being tried,” he said during that Thursday rally. “…But Christians have a special courage.” In doing so he has symbolically flitted his hand at his accusers’ stories: who has time to debate those, his message goes, when there is much more urgent work to be done on behalf of Christianity?
Moore understands that his voters are tired, and that when voters are tired, they crave something that doesn’t take a whole lot of work to grab hold of. It’s God versus Everyone Else, Christian values versus sneering comedians, evangelicals versus the reporters who mock them, who stalk their front doors. And for many of Roy Moore’s supporters, that may sound suspect, just a little bit off, but they’ll flock to the polls on December 12th anyway, because one thing is for certain: No Alabama evangelical wants to feel like Judas.