A state in bondage to its past confronts a difficult choice for Senate

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Campaign signs on display in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

CHOCCOLOCCO, ALA. — One at a time, or sometimes in pairs, worshipers walked to the front of the large sanctuary, knelt, and placed their head or hand on the stage.

“Are you hurting and broken within?” the congregation sang. “Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling.”

Most who came to the front were young men. As one of them knelt, visibly distraught, an older black man standing near the stage approached and put his hand on the young white man’s shoulder, a gesture of support and prayer.

“O come to the altar,” the church sang in 6/8 time, as a full rock band repeated the chorus several times. “The Father’s arms are open wide.”

When the young man rose a few minutes later, tears in his eyes, he embraced the older man. Pastor Michael Cox stood a few feet away, giving thanks to God.

But religion only goes so far to unify, especially in the South, as I saw firsthand traveling through the state recently to understand how one of the most religious states in the Union could be on the verge of sending an accused molester of teenaged girls to the United States Senate.

Worshipers kneel in front of the stage at Cornerstone Church in Choccolocco, Ala., as the congregation sings, “O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide.” (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

In the pastor’s office, Cox and I talked about Roy Moore, the controversial Republican, who has denied charges of sexual impropriety that date back some 40 years. Moore, who was born and raised 35 miles north of Cox’s church, in the town of Gadsden, recently said he thought America’s greatest days were before the Civil War.

Cox, a 62-year-old former nightclub musician who rides a Harley-Davidson and has two stuffed black bears on display in his office (he shot them while hunting in Canada), didn’t say who he’ll vote for. But his description of the race could be seen as a way of — to borrow a common term here these days — giving himself permission to vote for Moore.

“We are still a nation that you’re innocent until proven guilty. If it’s what he did, it’s deplorable. It’s deplorable,” Cox said. “If he didn’t … I would hate to go back 40 years and try to remember everything that I did. I think I’d remember some things.”

Cox added that if Moore is elected, “There needs to be a vetting process to investigate, and if he’s not found worthy to be in that office, remove him.”

The most venerated conservative political figures in the state, including U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have said they believe Moore’s accusers. But Cox said that Moore has “40 or more years of pretty stellar service. He’s a West Point graduate, honorable in Vietnam.”

“I was around when all of the Ten Commandments fight was going on,” said Cox, referring to the removal of Moore from his post as chief justice of the state over his refusal to remove a religious monument from the grounds of his courthouse. “This nation was founded on the word of God.” A painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer hangs over Cox’s desk.

Cox was more ambivalent about Democrat Doug Jones. “I have learned that he was a tough prosecutor, that he stood for the laws of the land. I have heard that he was pro late-term abortion. He has come out with an ad that says that is not true. So I do not know about that,” Cox said. “He says he’s a hunter and pro Second Amendment. Again, I have no idea.”

Pastor Michael Cox of Cornerstone Church in Choccolocco, Ala. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

When I asked Cox how he’d explain evangelicals voting for Moore to people outside the state, he paused, and then said, “Evangelicals are not dumb.” Many are “troubled” by the allegations against Moore, Cox said, just as “they were troubled by a lot of the allegations with Trump.” But they are also committed, he said, to “conservative values.”

Some voters in his part of the state might be so turned off by the allegations against Moore that they don’t vote at all, Cox said. But, he said definitively, “In the South they still believe in the rule of law. … Some things can never be proven.”

 

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Michael Bullington also believes in conservative and “biblical” values. But that has led the 23-year-old Republican to a very different place than Cox.

Bullington was one of the leaders of the Birmingham chapter of the Alabama Young Republicans, which a month ago passed a near-unanimous resolution censuring Moore and openly denouncing his candidacy.

An Auburn graduate who works in logistics for an industrial supply company, Bullington is bright and politically connected. But he and others in the state have distanced themselves from some in the Alabama GOP by decisively standing against President Trump and now Moore. When Sessions endorsed Trump during the 2016 election, Bullington called the then-senator’s chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, on his cellphone and asked for an explanation. (Dearborn is now deputy White House chief of staff, which has not kept his wife, Gina, from openly campaigning for the Democrat Jones against Moore on social media.)

Roy Moore, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, speaks during a campaign rally in Fairhope, Ala., in December 2017. (Photo: Nicole Craine/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Bullington says Dearborn encouraged him to “jump on in” with Trump. When I met Bullington at a coffee shop in the Highlands neighborhood of Birmingham, he said, “I didn’t jump in and I’m glad I didn’t.”

He said he has sought to personally confront state Auditor Jim Ziegler over his infamous comparison of Moore’s liaisons with teenagers to the marriage of Jesus’s own parents Joseph and Mary. Bullington says he would tell Ziegler that he is unqualified to serve, drawing on the model for resolving interpersonal conflict many Christians look to in the 18th chapter of the book of Matthew.

“Biblically if you have a problem with someone you should try to address that with them privately,” Bullington said. “And if it can’t be handled that way you can go more public with it … It’s just good ethics because sometimes there’s stuff you don’t know.”

He sipped a coffee while Arcade Fire played over the coffee shop’s speakers. “I would call myself theologically evangelical, but politically I don’t really even understand what that means anymore.”

Bullington was disturbed by the message of support for Moore from Republicans and from Christians. ““There’s an opportunity for the church to stand up for victims and say there’s a better way and we can be better people. But many haven’t done that because there’s this idea that there’s a cultural battle and we have to focus on the bigger battles, and that’s a shame,” he said.

Bullington is the kind of urban young voter whom Jones, the Democrat, badly needs in his corner. But for all of Bullington’s conviction that Moore should not be elected, he told me he was still not going to vote for Jones. He planned to write in Del Marsh, the third-ranking state Senate Republican.

“If I’m not going to vote for Roy Moore because he doesn’t fulfill my list of needs from a candidate, I won’t vote for any candidate that fails in that way,” Bullington said. “Jones and I don’t agree on a few issues, most notably abortion.”

 

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The abortion issue has helped keep conservative voters aligned with Moore, or at least away from Jones. And that dynamic extends into the African-American community in Alabama, where “there are a number of Democrats that are pro-life,” according to House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels.

Jones has said he favors keeping in place Alabama’s ban on abortions after 22 weeks and opposes a proposal in the Alabama legislature to roll it back to 20 weeks.

Daniels is the first person of color to hold the House minority leadership position in Alabama history. The 35-year-old rising Democratic star said his party has “not figured out how to message” on abortion. But he predicted “higher than normal” turnout for Jones among African-American voters, a constituency that the Democrat badly needs to turn out.

Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones and Sen. Cory Booker attend a campaign rally in Birmingham, Ala., in December 2017. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

But Rev. Oscar Montgomery, pastor of Union Hill Primitive Baptist Church in Huntsville, expressed concern that longstanding disillusionment among black voters in Alabama will keep many from voting.

“There are some who refuse to believe that our vote can make a difference,” Montgomery said. “There’s this prevailing belief among many that the majority are totally spiritually and morally bankrupt. Those whites, if they had an ounce of morality, would be forced to vote for Jones.”

“No matter how right we are, if 100 percent of us go out and vote, we only make up 27 percent of the population. That’s the disillusionment,” the pastor said in a phone interview, his voice rising.

Montgomery lamented what he considers the black community’s complacency following President Obama’s election and reelection. “Many of them felt we had arrived. But … evil never dies. It only metamorphosizes itself and reanimates itself in another form. The racism in this country is recalcitrant in this country, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in Alabama.”

“You only have two choices, Jones or Moore. And Moore is certainly not a choice. His desire along with Trump is to take African-Americans back to slavery,” Montgomery said, referencing a comment Moore made in September: “I think [America] 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.”

Montgomery said he “agonizes” over “apathy” in the African-American community but is hoping that whites will heed their consciences when they vote: “I am praying that there is a flicker of morality in the majority that will make a difference at the polls, that they will do the right thing when they get into the booth and they realize that the only person there is them and God.”

 

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Back in Birmingham on Sunday afternoon, Hatton Smith was grieving over the failure to stop Moore earlier this year in the Republican primary. Smith, a wealthy businessman, was the finance chair and a senior adviser to Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Sessions’s seat earlier this year but lost to Moore in the primary.

Smith, 67, welcomed me to his home in the posh Highlands neighborhood. He wore a starched white dress shirt and a red Waffle House neck tie. We sat in his sunroom drinking freshly brewed Royal Cup coffee. Smith is the CEO emeritus of the coffee company.

He reflected on how until recently, “Moore seemed to have diminished in power.” Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2016, for the second time in his career. But Sessions’s appointment as attorney general opened up his seat, giving Moore an opening.

“The thinking was he would never win,” Smith said. But national Republicans in Washington didn’t take advice on the need to reach out to religious conservatives in Alabama, and the small turnout in the special election primary gave an outsized influence to Moore’s small but intense base.

Smith, one of the few establishment Republicans in Alabama willing to go on the record about Moore, said he is “disgusted” with the Republican nominee. He said he “would be not just disappointed but ashamed” if Moore is elected.

Patricia Riley Jones attends a Women for Moore rally in support of Roy Moore’s candidacy in front of the Alabama State Capitol in November 2017 in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But he has friends in the business community who are scared of Democrats taking control of the Senate and reinstating government regulations that the Trump administration has begun to roll back. Smith had his own story of what he felt was overbearing federal regulation during the Obama administration, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requested information about Royal Cup’s hiring practices and opportunities for minorities.

“What people are missing is the extreme anti-Washington feeling,” Smith said. “That defeated us and it may end up carrying Moore to victory.”

For the African-American community, of course, talk of states rights and anti-Washington sentiment has a very different ring. “The state of Alabama has never done anything progressive for blacks without federal intervention. That’s the real reason they don’t want federal intervention,” Montgomery said.

And for white conservative evangelicals like Cox, there is a feeling that soon this sordid affair will be past and they can move on. “The biggest thing I kept hearing was, ‘I’ll be glad when this is over,’” Cox said. “Because Alabamians really do not like all of the negativity, the mudslinging, the name calling. Most people are just glad when it’s done.”

During his sermon on Sunday, Cox told a story about resting after a hike through the woods. “I’d been setting on the edge of a rock and I’d was looking back into the forest, and to me I think all of God’s things are beautiful, but if there were ever a tree that got the ugly stick, this tree got it. It was like, bent, warped, gnarly,” he said.

“And then I turned around and here was all of this beauty,” he said, as a keyboard played softly to set the mood. “I just kinda glanced back over my shoulder at that ugly tree. … The Lord spoke to my heart and said, ‘You have that choice every day of your life. You can choose what you’re going to look at. You can choose what you’re going to focus on.”

Cox said he took a dead branch from the gnarled tree and put it in his office to remind himself of the lesson. “I choose to remember to look at what’s good,” he said. “I make a choice. The problem’s still there … but I choose to focus on God.”

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