When Kenneth Frost, a Baptist deacon, first heard that a woman had accused Roy Moore of sexual abuse, he was skeptical. Not only did the allegation stem from nearly 40 years ago, but Moore — a figure he admires and believes to be a man of God — denied the woman’s claims.
The 79-year-old Republican vowed to support Moore, whether or not he was guilty.
“I believe in innocent until proven guilty, but even if he’s guilty, I’ll back him all the way,” said Frost, a member of Macedonia Baptist Church in Ranburne, a town of about 400 in eastern Alabama. “I still feel he’s a Christian man — and nobody’s perfect.”
The thorny issue of Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate who faces accusations of sexual assault weeks before voters go to the polls, was not on the agenda as hundreds of church leaders gathered at the Whitesburg Baptist Church here this week for the annual meeting of the Alabama Baptist State Convention.
Yet up and down corridors and inside meeting rooms, pastors and deacons grappled with what to make of the allegations from women who say Moore, 70, a Baptist and former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, sexually assaulted or attempted a relationship with them when they were teenagers.
In a report published last week, four women told the Washington Post that Moore pursued them when he was in his 30s and they were in their teens. One said she was 14 when Moore molested her. A fifth woman stepped forward Monday, alleging Moore sexually assaulted her in a car in the late 1970s when she was 16, leaving her neck covered with bruises.
On Wednesday, an Alabama newspaper published an interview with a woman who said Moore grabbed her buttocks while she was in his law office in 1991. She was 28.
“It’s a real predicament for Alabama and Southern Baptists,” said the Rev. Michael Brooks, pastor of Siluria Baptist Church in Alabaster, a suburban city south of Birmingham. “As a father of a daughter, these charges are very disturbing.… I wonder how in the world do you corroborate them?”
Across Alabama, where nearly half of voting-age adults are evangelical Protestants, the accusations have stirred sermons from the pulpit and charged discussions about the extent to which conservative Christians should judge and condemn political leaders for alleged personal moral failings and misconduct.
Some admit the allegations are shaking their faith in Moore, forcing them to question whether to vote for him in the special election Dec. 12 to fill U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ former Senate seat.
“As Alabama Baptists, we strongly come out against any abuse of women,” said John Thweatt, president of the Alabama State Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pell City. “God created us both in his image and women are not sexual objects. I certainly don’t want a pedophile as a senator for Alabama.”
Yet Thweatt, the father of four daughters, said he would hold judgment on Moore until he had more proof.
“The fact we have not spoken publicly is not because we’re hesitant to speak against the abuse of women,” he said. “We’re hesitant to speak out against Roy Moore because we believe in innocent until proven guilty and we don’t know if the allegations are true.”
Brooks, however, said he was less than impressed after listening to Moore’s interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, in which Moore said he “generally” did not date teens as young as 16 when he was older than 30.
“His response has been less than stellar,” Brooks said. “We have compassion for people who fail, but leadership carries the weight of responsibility.… Alabama is in a very terrible plight for these next four weeks.”
Many Southern Baptists have long championed Moore for his strident stance over the years on hot-button issues such as abortion, the Ten Commandments and same-sex marriage. Last year, Moore was removed from his position as chief justice after he ordered probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing such unions across all states.
It was not the first time. In 2003, Moore was ousted from the bench after he refused to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of Alabama’s judicial building.
The Rev. John Killian, 61, director of missions for the Fayette County Baptist Association and a past president of the Alabama State Baptist Convention, said he was dismayed by the allegations. But he remained loyal to Moore, who spoke many times at his church when he was pastor of Maytown Baptist Church in Mulga, a small town about 10 miles west of Birmingham.
“I believe he’s a godly man,” he said. “When a brother in Christ speaks, you give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Yet some evangelicals — mostly those who already opposed Moore or were skeptical about him — were not hesitant to condemn him or question those who continued to support him.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Wallace Steele, 62, a pastor of New Birth Missionary church here, who said he and most in his congregation had little doubt Moore was guilty. “It’s too blatant.”
Steele, a Democrat, said he found it hard to understand how his more conservative brethren were continuing to trust and support Moore.
“That’s the bit that scares me,” he said. “You can’t just trust him. Blind faith is not faith.”
Many who filled the wooden pews at Whitesburg Baptist Church questioned Moore’s accusers, asking why they waited so long to come forward.
Sitting under a banner proclaiming a line from Corinthians — “For Christ’s love compels us” — Rodna Smith, 57, whose husband is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Remlap, just outside Birmingham, said she doubted the women’s accusations were completely true.
“Why are they just now coming forward?” she asked. “It’s just a ploy to destroy his credibility and get the Democrats back in control.”
In an era of increasing political partisanship, and antipathy to those with opposing views, evangelical Christians seem to have become more accepting of their favored political leaders’ personal transgressions.
A 2016 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts research on religion and public policy, found that the number of white evangelical protestants who believe that an elected official who has committed an immoral act in their personal life can behave ethically and fulfill their public duties more than doubled in five years, from 30% in 2011 to 72% in 2016.
Some evangelicals have pushed back against their fellow believers’ willingness to overlook their leaders’ moral failings. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has long berated evangelicals who supported President Trump despite his “misogynistic statements,” “racist invective” and “crazed conspiracy theorizing.”
“Evangelical Christians ought to be the most dogged opponents of sexual predation and violence in the universe,” Moore posted on Monday on Twitter. “If you cannot say definitively, no matter what, that adults creeping on teenage girls is wrong, do not tell me you stand against moral relativism.”
There is a sentiment among some evangelicals that Moore’s personal behavior is less important than his stalwart opposition to abortion and gay marriage. They express reluctance to vote for Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, noting that he opposes any ban on abortions after the 20th week of gestation.
“I don’t want to vote for a creep, but I also don’t vote for Democrats,” said Charlene Buttram, 60, a resident of Sylacauga, whose husband is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Oak Grove, southeast of Birmingham. “I don’t believe in abortion.”
Frost and others have focused on forgiveness, pointing out that all men and women sin and can find redemption.