In handing reactionary Roy Moore a primary victory over business-first Republican and temporary Senator Luther Strange, white Alabamians have conformed to a long habit of rejecting meddling outsiders and Washington, DC insiders.
If a fundamentalist is someone who reads only one book, Roy Moore’s parsing of the Bible reveals a bigoted, pinched-down, punitive theocrat. Should he ascend to the Senate, Moore will make right wingers such as Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) seem more libertines than libertarians.
Alabama’s defiant attitude, which extends back to secessionist firebrand and slave master William Lowndes Yancey, includes a genealogy of assorted demagogues capped off by arch-segregationist George Wallace. From Wallace’s nose-thumbing of federal judges descends a generation of emulators.
Lest recent times be forgotten, in the mid-1990s Gov. Fob James reinstated the chain gang, a decision supported by current U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at the time the state attorney general. James cut higher education spending while mocking the teaching of evolution. He also vowed to call out the Alabama National Guard to fight court rulings against school prayer and to remove a wooden Ten Commandments plaque from the courtroom of Roy Moore, then a circuit court judge.
Moore found his calling and political career in a state where white evangelical Protestants make up the largest religious group. Elected twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore was also twice suspended from that office. First was in 2003, when he refused to remove the 2.5-ton Ten Commandments monument he had placed in the state judiciary building, and then in 2016 for ordering probate judges not to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
An advocate for “personhood” from the moment of conception, Moore is a vehement opponent of LGBTQ rights, has equated homosexuality with bestiality, and was a diehard Obama birther. He has called Islam a “false religion” and suggested that the Newtown, Conn. Sandy Hook Elementary School killings can be attributed to Americans’ having “forgotten the law of God.”
Moore defeated Strange by tying him first to Robert Bentley, the governor who appointed Strange to fill the Senate seat vacated when Sessions became President Donald Trump’s attorney general. Moore played upon speculation that Bentley had awarded state attorney general Strange the Senate seat as a way of trying to give the slip to a sex scandal investigation that ultimately forced the governor from office.
More foundational to Moore’s success is the hardshell enthusiasm that stirs his true believers against the feds, the mealy-mouthed, and secular modernity in general. Endorsements of Strange by Trump and by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (ironically, an Alabama native) played into the hands of Moore, who painted the support as coming from outside agitators.
Moore faces Democrat Doug Jones in the general election on Dec. 12. Jones, a former U.S. attorney now in private practice, is especially remembered for his successful 2001–02 prosecution of two Ku Klux Klansmen for participating in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four African American girls. Jones’s long odds have improved only slightly with extremist Moore’s victory. To win will require a strong black turnout combined with whatever white Democrats remain in this deeply red state—plus a sufficient crossover of suburban Republicans who recoil at the prospect of Moore representing their state in the capital.
How would a Senator Moore behave? It’s hard to predict. But he’d certainly become the Senate’s most reactionary member, pressing for his hate-filled version of evangelical fundamentalism to become the law of the land.
Allen Tullos is a professor of history at Emory University, the author of Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie, and editor of the online journal Southern Spaces.