Dear reporters: Please read the New Yorker essay about evangelical realities in Alabama

Now, here is a sentence that I didn't expect to write this week.

Here goes. If you really want to understand what has been going on in the hearts and minds of many evangelical voters in Alabama, then you really need to grab (digitally speaking, perhaps) a copy of The New Yorker. To be specific, you need to read a Benjamin Wallace-Wells piece with this headline: "Roy Moore and the Invisible Religious Right."

Trigger warning: If you are the kind of person whose worldview includes simplistic stereotypes of evangelical Protestants, especially white evangelicals, you may not want to read that piece.

Let's start with this passage, which comes right after a discussion of a campaign letter that falsely claimed to contain an up-to-date list of pastors backing Roy Moore. This is long, but essential: 

A few days ago, I started calling around Alabama, trying to track down the rest of the pastors who had been listed on Kayla Moore’s letter. Some of them were easy to find, but others were elusive. I tried William Green, at the Fresh Anointing House of Worship, in Montgomery. A receptionist told me that she had never heard of Green. I tried Steve Sanders, at the Victory Baptist Church, in Millbrook. The current pastor told me that Sanders retired two years ago. I did not reach Earl Wise, also of Millbrook, but the Boston Globe did, and, though he still emphatically supported Moore, he had also left the pastoral life and was working as a real-estate agent.
Once you got beyond the ghosts and the real-estate agents, what was most notable about the pastors on Moore’s list was their obscurity. I found a list of the pastors of the thirty-six largest churches in Alabama, assembled this summer by the Web site of the Birmingham News; no pastor on that list appeared on Moore’s. I called leaders within the deeply conservative Southern Baptist Church -- the largest denomination in Alabama and, for decades, the core of the religious right -- and was told that not a single affiliated Southern Baptist pastor in the state was openly allied with Moore. The churches that appeared on Moore’s list tended to be tiny and situated in small towns, and some of the pastors on it held subsidiary roles within their churches.

Yes, I saw the word "openly." However, after reading the article this is how I would summarize the different kinds of evangelicals who were involved in this Alabama train wreck. Friends and neighbors, we are not talking about a monolith.

* There were evangelicals who backed Moore, big time, and they were crucial to his primary base.

* There were some evangelicals who backed other candidates in the primaries and then they reluctantly backed Moore. Some did this publicly, while others did so silently -- so that's really two different camps in there.

* There were evangelicals who opposed Moore from Day 1, but bit their lips and voted for him rather than casting a vote for Doug Jones, a Hillary Clinton-empire Democrat who could be described as a member of the Planned Parent All-Star team.

* There were evangelicals who could not cast a vote for Moore, so they wrote in another conservative name.

* There appear to have been lots of evangelicals who were so depressed by the whole drama that they stayed home.

* There were some white evangelicals who voted for Jones, along with waves of African-American evangelicals.

So that's about seven different groups of evangelicals in 'Bama and you can hear lots of those voices in the New Yorker piece.

The one thing you WILL NOT find here is a lot of evangelical believers who fit the shallow stereotypes featured in a pre-election piece at The Daily Beast, which ran with this massive double-decker headline:

Alabama Evangelicals Find It Easy to Forgive Roy Moore
The string of child-molestation allegations against the Republican Senate candidate has only affirmed for evangelical conservatives that Moore is the right man for the seat.

Just skip that one. Meanwhile, let's go back to the think piece at The New Yorker. It's clear, you see, that all of these painful fractures in evangelicalism were also seen in the 2016 White House voting.

Many evangelical leaders experienced Donald Trump’s ascendance as a personal emergency. Some pastors watched, with dismay and confusion, as members of their congregations defended the moral character of a flamboyantly immoral casino mogul turned politician. During the primaries, the major evangelical pastors were generally allied with other candidates (polls tended to find that they preferred Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), but, as the campaign developed, and as polls continued to find that evangelical voters held a strong preference for Trump, that general resistance began to weaken. Some pastors talked themselves into Donald Trump, while others remained horrified but kept quiet. “I was flabbergasted that pastors would get up and talk about the goodness of Donald Trump,” John Thweatt, who is the president of the conservative Alabama Baptist Convention, told me this week. “I was really flabbergasted that we were going to throw away Biblical values and dictates because he’s going to fit our party line.”

Yes, there is more to that, including a quote from a Southern Baptist patriarch:

For those pastors in Alabama who had been horrified by Trump, Moore represented an escalation of the same challenge, of whether partisanship was a convincing reason to upend the normal moral categories. “I don’t think you could have the current situation with Roy Moore without the 2016 election,” Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary, said to me. “One of the long-term concerns I would have is how evangelicals are thinking through issues of personal character.” Another anxiety was whether the evangelical leadership still had the authority to define morality for the followers of its own movement, or whether it had ceded this power to the Republican Party and Fox News.
I spoke with one young pastor of a prominent Southern Baptist congregation in Alabama who was willing to explain his thinking to me, so long as I did not mention his name. “I did not get the whole Trump thing, and I do not get this,” the pastor told me. Members of his congregation tended to be older and conservative, and over the past two years it has often seemed that he was watching them disappear down “this ever-deepening, soul-sucking rabbit hole of identity politics.”

Now, it will surprise few GetReligion readers to know that you can find also find must-read Alabama and national reporting on these issues under the Washington Post byline of Sarah Pulliam Bailey (a former scribe at this blog). See: " ‘A spiritual battle:’ How Roy Moore tested white evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party."

Note, in particular, her discussion of the role that "Christian nationalism" appears to have played in the division between solid Moore supporters and the rest of the state's evangelical community. Surf this Google material for some background on that term, mostly from sources on the political and cultural left.

Thus, Bailey reports:

For many white evangelicals, voting for a Democrat is a nonnegotiable. It would mean electing someone who supports abortion rights and helps appoint left-leaning judges who could chip away at their religious freedom. But not all evangelicals support Christian nationalism. Evangelicals in Alabama were divided on whether to support Moore, said Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor based in Montgomery. Young evangelicals especially are looking to move past partisan politics, he said.
“Earlier evangelical support wasn’t ‘Everybody loves Roy Moore,’” said Cross, who has written a book on race and evangelicals. “He has a devoted base that shows up, but there have been mixed feelings about him among evangelicals in the state, even before the latest allegations.”

Obviously, a must-visit evangelical site today is Christianity Today. Look for this article in particular, by Jeremy Weber: "Roy Moore Was ‘a Bridge Too Far’ for Alabama Evangelicals." It's singing a tune that harmonizes well with The New Yorker piece.

Now, one more stop -- at the website of Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher. In his post-election piece he has a quote from an anonymous "GOP insider" who, in a few blunt sentences, notes why the choices in these kinds of elections are so agonizing for small-o orthodox believers in a number of faiths:

It’s hard to be a Republican sometimes given how stupid and ham-fisted we can be, but what’s the choice? Yesterday the House Committee handling the new Higher Ed bill met for mark-up. The bill includes language prohibiting the government from taking adverse action against religious schools that receive Title IV funding (student loans) because the government disagrees with the religious mission/practice of the school. The ranking Democrat voted to strip out the language and it stayed in on a party line vote.

So there you go. Once again, there is that question that keeps popping up these days, causing old-school First Amendment liberals to shudder: Under what conditions do government officials get to decide what is good religious doctrine and what is bad religious doctrine?

Now, obtain a glass of a legal stimulant and read the pieces referenced in this post. Then file away the URL for that essential piece in The New Yorker.

YOUTUBE video: Care of Yellowhammer News, a culturally conservative news portal in Alabama. Note the wide range of views found among these Alabama voters and the numbers who were displeased with the options on both sides of the ballot. By the way, a Yellowhammer is a bird -- the state bird of Alabama.

Please respect our Commenting Policy