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LETTER FROM AMERICA: New alliances

February 2018 | by Ben Wilkerson

Doug Jones
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Alabama, a state known to be a stronghold of conservatism and evangelicalism, has voted in Doug Jones, a member of the Democratic party, to fill the empty chair for Alabama in the United States Senate.

For the first time in 25 years, Alabama will have a Democrat senator. It is one of the few times a senate seat has ‘flipped parties’ during a special election. This outcome is the more surprising when considering the role of Alabama’s ‘evangelical’ voters.

Background

On 8 February 2017, Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, took up President Donald Trump’s nomination as Attorney General, leaving his seat for Alabama open. The United States Senate is made of 100 senators (two from each state), with the Vice President serving as the Senate’s president.

The Senate makes up one of the legislative bodies of US government (the other being the House of Representatives) and is responsible for many tasks, including the ratification of treaties, confirmation of federal appointees and passing of bills.

Upon Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General, Governor Bentley of Alabama appointed Luther Strange, a Republican, to hold the seat until a special election could take place in November. During the next few months, many political candidates came forward for both Democrat and Republican parties, with Strange at that time being Trump’s favourite.

Despite heavy endorsement and Trump’s approval, Roy S. Moore defeated Strange in the Republican primary and was slated to run against Doug Jones for the seat in the Senate. Jones, a former US attorney, won his primary outright in August. In the early fall, it looked as if the Republicans would win the senatorial seat for Alabama again.

Roy Moore

Former judge Roy S. Moore has been a favourite among evangelicals and conservatives in Alabama for many years. His positions on same-sex marriage and prayer in politics and his refusal to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments have made him a definite favourite in the eyes of conservatives.

During his tenure as a circuit court judge, Moore was faced with lawsuits because he kept a homemade, wooden copy of the Ten Commandments in the courtroom and prayed before each session in court.

When he ran as justice in the Alabama Supreme Court, he built his platform on religious principles and installed a massive monolith of the Ten Commandments outside the courthouse. His reputation as a political representative for evangelicals was further defined by his removal from office because he refused to take the monument down.

In the eyes of many white evangelicals, this sort of record made him a saint if not a martyr. That is why, prior to 9 November, Moore was on track to win a seat in the US Senate.

However, on 9 November, a total of nine women came forward making allegations against the former judge, stating that Moore had either sexually assaulted them or made unwanted sexual advances toward them when they were teenagers. The age of consent in Alabama is 16, and many of the women stated that they had been under that age when Moore allegedly made these advances.

Moore denied the allegations, stating he had never made any advances toward them and the allegations were ‘a result of ‘dirty politics’ (‘Alabama to certify Democrat Jones winner of Senate election’, Reuters, 22 Dec. 2017).

On hearing of the allegations, several prominent Republicans, including John McCain, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, withdrew their endorsements and urged Moore to withdraw from the election. However, by the time the accusations were made public, it was too late for him to withdraw his name from the ballot.

Other Republicans accepted his denials and continued to support him. By this point Trump was an avid Moore supporter and stated on Twitter: ‘Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive tax cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!’

Democrat victory

While the Republican party seemed torn on whether to support or withdraw from Moore, the voting citizenry of Alabama decided whom they wanted as senator. In a surprising but narrow victory, liberal, Democrat Doug Jones won the election by a narrow 1.5 per cent margin (Reuters, Ibid.).

However, when one looks at the demographics of the 40.5 per cent of Alabama citizens who voted, the statistics are surprising. Of those who identified as ‘white, born again evangelicals’, 18 per cent voted for Jones over Moore (Washington Post, ‘Exit poll results’, 13 Dec. 2017).

Those with more liberal views voted with Jones, while mostly white evangelicals over the age of 45 voted for Moore. However, those from the younger age brackets (18-29 and 30-44 years) voted over 60 per cent in favour of Jones. All in all, it showed a turning of the political tide in Alabama from those traditionally aligned with conservatism and evangelicals.

Simply put, ‘white Christian America’ is in decline, according to Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and author of The end of white Christian America (Vox, ‘What Roy Moore’s loss can tell us about American evangelicals’ future’, 14 Dec. 2017).

In his interview with Vox, Jones cautioned against seeing Moore’s loss as justification of the idea that there’s been ‘a pullback among evangelicals’. Rather, voting patterns among white evangelicals ‘confirms the trajectory white evangelicals were on when they elected Trump’ (Vox, Ibid.).

Vox’s explanation was that ‘half of all new Southern Baptist churches — to name just one prominent evangelical umbrella group — are primarily non-white. Likewise, while seven in 10 seniors identify as white Christians, that demographic flips to just three in 10 for young adults. Demographic shifting, in other words, means that while white evangelicals might still vote for candidates like Moore, there will be fewer and fewer of them to vote’ (Ibid.).

Another interesting thing to note is that Doug Jones is a Methodist and was elected in a state that is unique, because 80 per cent of both Democrats and Republicans identify as Christians (Vox, Ibid.). Evangelical Christians were most likely the majority of those voting in the polls, but they weren’t white.

Changed meaning

Evangelicalism was once considered a strong bastion against the theological liberalism of mainline Protestant denominations. It was associated with belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and the deity of Christ, and a strong insistence on the identifier ‘born again’. It meant you were passionate about sharing your faith, and it was not inherently associated with politics.

However, the term ‘evangelical’ does not carry the same meaning for many as it once did. Tim Keller in an article in The New Yorker differentiated between the ‘smaller, let’s call it “big-E Evangelicalism”, which gets much media attention, and a much larger, “little-e evangelicalism”, which does not’ (Keller, ‘Can Evangelicalism survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?’, 19 Dec. 2017).

Sadly, the big E evangelical is synonymous with the one who voted for Trump and Moore and is associated with the church at large. But Keller makes the point: ‘In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity.

‘So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. And, because of the enormous amount of attention the media pays to the Evangelical vote, the term now has a decisively political meaning in popular usage’.

The little-e evangelicalism is scattered across the globe. These are the churches that are popping up all over the globe and are seeing tens of thousands come to know Christ in areas of the world like Asia, Latin America and Africa. They are marked by true repentance and faith, sharing the gospel and adhering to the doctrines of the faith.

Many little-e churches are of multi-ethnic composition within large American cities and are more likely to be more moderate, when it comes to social issues, than white Protestant churches. This is becoming the new face of Christianity in America and is decidedly not on board with the white, big-E evangelicalism associated with its political agenda. This was blatantly the message driven home by the Alabama senatorial election.

Obstacle

Unfortunately, the ‘white Evangelical’ agenda has become so closely aligned with Republican political agendas that it is standing in the way of the gospel. A Mr Will Hinton from Atlanta stated in an interview for New York Times: ‘I have dozens of conservative evangelical friends who were so happy that Roy Moore did not win, because the evangelical support for Trump and Roy Moore is ruining the witness for Christ for generations in this country’ (‘Has support for Moore stained Evangelicals? Some are worried’, 14 Dec. 2017).

Our political agendas should not hamper our relationship with others nor get in the way of the gospel. The way in which we vote definitely shows where our hearts are. Surely we should not place our political agendas higher than our moral compass? I would call upon my brothers and sisters in Christ not to stand where their political agendas alienate themselves from others, but rather to love their neighbours and love Christ most of all.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA