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Quandary for Alabama Pastors: What to Say About Roy Moore

The New York Times logo The New York Times 11/20/2017 By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and LAURIE GOODSTEIN

a sign over a grassy area with trees in the background: A tree served as an improvised signpost along Interstate 65 between Montgomery and Birmingham.

A tree served as an improvised signpost along Interstate 65 between Montgomery and Birmingham.
© William Widmer for The New York Times

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It was a trying week for the people of Alabama, a week of dueling pastoral statements, sinful allegations and claims of religious persecution. And so, on the seventh day, their preachers gave it a rest.

The pastor at the Freedom Church in Gadsden, Ala., who has been friends with the embattled Senate candidate Roy S. Moore for more than 20 years, spoke to his congregation about how God can use one who has failed. At the Living Stones Temple in Birmingham, the black pastor spoke of thanksgiving; at a campus of the Church of the Highlands across town, the white pastor talked of being lost but found by God. But from none of those pulpits was Mr. Moore’s name heard on Sunday morning.

Mr. Moore, one of the loudest and hardest-line voices on the religious right, has been battling a host of allegations that he hounded, harassed or sexually assaulted women as young as 14 when he was in his early 30s. He has denied all the accusations, and insisted that he was being attacked for his faith. In a statement on Saturday he called for his supporters to fight back against “the forces of evil who are attempting to relegate our conservative Christian values to the dustbin of history.”

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But Mr. Moore’s claim that the Senate race has become a religious war, and a Christian one at that, has put one group in an awkward position: Christians.

“All things being equal between two candidates, I probably vote for the pro-life candidate,” said Cody Bruce Wood, 27, a staff writer for a nondenominational church with campuses across the state. That might seem to rule out choosing Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, who has affirmed his support for women’s access to abortion. But Mr. Wood added: “Considering the allegations against Moore, and his subsequent response to them, all things are not equal.”

On Sunday morning, the Highland Park Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., alluded more than many others to the political turmoil in Alabama, if only obliquely. A brief video played on two giant screens in the sanctuary; speaking of a culture that is riddled with scandal, the video asked: “Is this life right now?”

Still, Brett Pitman, the senior pastor, did not address the scandals in his sermon. “I have people in my church who are strong liberal-leaning Democrats and strong right-leaning Republicans,” he said. “Politics in a church is a divider.”

There are three Sundays left before the special election on Dec. 12, though, and he has not ruled out talking about the matter head-on before the race is over.

The allegations surrounding Mr. Moore, a Southern Baptist, have elicited a number of clear public responses from Alabama pastors: Some declared their support for Mr. Moore, while others, in a public letter released on Saturday, declared he is “not fit for office.” A few have changed their minds about him.

National faith leaders have taken to the digital pulpit of Twitter to rebuke Mr. Moore:

Or to rebuke his critics:

But for many pastors, the allegations have created a dilemma. They want to denounce what Mr. Moore was accused of doing, but in many cases they want to do so without denouncing Mr. Moore himself.

In interviews over the past week, pastors said they did not want to alienate members of their congregation who still support Mr. Moore, and that as a rule, they never endorse or oppose political candidates so that anyone can feel welcome in their churches.

Yet they did not want to stay silent, because they did not want their congregants — or people watching Alabama from around the country — to think that evangelicals believe it is normal or acceptable for a man in his 30s to molest and sexually harass teenagers.

“We cannot ignore the allegations,” said the Rev. Ed Litton, senior pastor of the Redemption Church, which has more than 3,500 members in two locations near Mobile, Ala. “We can’t say, well, that doesn’t matter because some people in the other party do the same thing. These are serious allegations. And our faith, our worldview, demands that we take seriously the victimization of people.”

A group of Southern Baptist pastors in Alabama decided at their annual meeting in Huntsville last week to draft a declaration condemning “sexual abuse, assault, harassment and exploitation of women.” The declaration does not mention Mr. Moore by name, but it was prompted by the allegations against him, according to the Rev. Mat Alexander, one of the pastors who worked on writing it. As of Friday afternoon, it had been signed by more than 60 Southern Baptist pastors.

“None of us felt like — especially when this was being written — that we are able to speak yea or nay to his guilt; there’s not clarity on that right now,” said Mr. Alexander, who is pastor of the First Baptist Church Gadsden, Mr. Moore’s hometown. “But what we can say very clearly is that these things are not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our churches will be safe havens for victims.”

Mr. Moore certainly has strong backers in some Gadsden churches.

The Rev. Bruce Word of Freedom Church, who did not preach about Mr. Moore on Sunday and said he would keep his political opinions out of his sermons, said his heart went out to any woman who had been abused or molested. But he added, “Worse than a woman being abused or molested or anything like that, is for someone to lie about being abused or molested.”

He said he was not calling Mr. Moore’s accusers liars. Only a few know the truth, he said: “God, Roy Moore and those involved.” But he said he believed that Mr. Moore was being persecuted for the boldness of his stances.

At the Living Stones Temple, a mostly black church that started meeting seven years ago in the sanctuary of a Jewish synagogue in Birmingham, the Rev. A.B. Sutton Jr. has not yet spoken from the pulpit about the Senate race, but he said he intends to — and that he feels he must.

“We need direction, we need someone to talk to us about the strange things that are happening and how we respond to it,” Mr. Sutton said, sitting back in his church office after the morning service.

It is his practice to use a passage from the Bible to shed light on the issues of the moment. He has been mulling 1 Corinthians 14:8: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

“I think Roy Moore, and these allegations, and these women not being taken seriously — it is sending out in our community an uncertain sound,” Mr. Sutton said. “It is literally creating confusion.”

Campbell Robertson reported from Birmingham, Ala., and Laurie Goodstein from New York. Jess Bidgood contributed reporting from Gadsden, Ala., Katherine Webb-Hehn from Birmingham, and Jennifer Crossley Howard from Muscle Shoals, Ala.

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