Report from Alabama: Roy Moore and the war to save America's mortal soul

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at a rally in September. He’s had no campaign events for several days.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Here in this rocket-powered city in the foothills of north Alabama, Kate Messervy,  just turned 30, is a lifelong Alabamian — and what you might call a stereotypical voter.

But only if you’re stereotyping voters from a leafy arugula-chomping suburb on the Eastern Seaboard, like Malvern or Cherry Hill — not in the red-clay hills of a state that bills itself as “the Heart of Dixie.” A former teacher turned stay-at-home mom, Messervy is an animal-rescue volunteer who occasionally jogs down to the Whole Foods where she does all her shopping. When Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton last fall, she was so depressed she had a hard time even showering and getting out of bed for a couple of days — and then she decided to do something.

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Kate Messervy

“I woke up after the presidential election last year shocked and horrified, and asked myself if I had done more would [Clinton] have won — and I never want to feel that way again, so here I am,” said Messervy. “Here” is a crowded back room in an office park on the edge of downtown Huntsville, where about 20 volunteers equipped with laptops — one with the sticker of top local employer NASA — are frantically dialing voters on behalf of Democrat Doug Jones, a few days before the most closely watched U.S. Senate election in recent memory.

Despite the energy of the Jones volunteers, the Democrat still faces a tough climb in Tuesday’s election against Republican former judge Roy Moore — even after the spate of allegations that once Moore preyed on teen girls as young as 14 when he was a 30-something prosecutor. And that’s because of the Alabamians you might expect to find — people like Pastor Tom Brown, who presides over the First Baptist Church in a tiny mountain-pass hamlet called Gallant, where Christmas lights on the smattering of homes illuminate the yard signs for Moore, who grew up around these parts.

Brown’s support for Moore isn’t surprising, since the Bible-toting ex-judge, wife Kayla, and even Moore’s mom regularly attend services underneath the tall white steeple that serves as the only landmark in isolated Gallant. Brown says the allegations against Moore aren’t the man he’s known –“a man of integrity, honesty, and character” — for the last 25 years, and that the election of his congregant on Tuesday is critical because America is “in a big mess.” And that, he said, is because the nation has turned away from God.

Moore “is not going to compromise his biblical beliefs for any price — and that sort of rubs some people the wrong way,” Brown said of how outsiders view the race. The genial pastor with a white goatee-style beard is not one of those people. “I think our country is built on Judeo-Christian principles,” he told me Thursday night. “We’ve got to a have a foundation. We’ve got to have a basis to live. That is the Bible.”

Messervy and Brown are the yin and yang of this 2017 Alabama special election. From 30,000 feet, most Americans care about the battle for ideological control of a U.S. Senate that reflects the bitter political divide of the nation in the Trump era. But on a surprisingly cold weekend in the Deep South, with a wintry mix of snow flurries adding to the hell-freezes-over vibe of the election, it feels more like a battle for the mortal soul of a state that’s so often been ground zero for America’s tangled history with race, religion, and heritage.

When the votes are finally counted Tuesday night, the outcome will be seen as one of two things. It will either be proof that Alabama will never loosen its Bible Belt, that its brand of white Christian identity politics is embedded so deep in the red soil that it cannot rise even from the muck of an accused child predator in its midst, or that the once-promised “New South” — defined by Jones’ coalition of black voters and whites in places like Huntsville and Birmingham — is finally here to rescue the state that once gave America cross-burning and the bloodshed on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge from one more walk of shame in the national spotlight.

The late Yogi Berra might call it deja vu all over again.

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Spending a couple of icy days on the Jones-Moore campaign train was a strange kind of homecoming for me. In March 1982, I set foot in Alabama for the first time, as a young journalist taking a job at the Birmingham News, with little clue of what I was getting into. I learned the state was at crossroads … yet again. There were glimpses of both the past — when voters returned wheelchair-bound, recovered segregationist George Wallace to yet another term as governor that fall — and the future, in the massive megachurches I saw rising in Birmingham’s new exurbs.

But the dominant vibe was that Alabama was entering a new era, that the 1960s foibles of Selma and Birmingham’s fire hoses were dead and buried like Confederate veterans in a church cemetery. Over grits and red-eye gravy, I watched Birmingham’s first black mayor, the late Richard Arrington, woo a room full of white business leaders, laughing with them that “y’all didn’t vote for me.” The journalists and other young professionals I knew in Alabama were — dare I say it — “cosmopolitans” who slam-danced to ’80s punk rock and saved up to eat at Birmingham’s first “foodie” restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill.

When I moved back north in 1985, I didn’t feel the changes that were in the humid atmosphere — literally. That would be the arrival of talk radio and then the Fox News Channel, here to reinforce a regressive orthodoxy that took root in those megachurches and gained steam as white Alabamians switched en mass from their “yellow-dog” Democratic Party of the Wallace era to the GOP, moving national Republicans further right. They created a dynasty of white identity politics on the scale of legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant‘s football dominance of yesteryear.

Yet today, GOP standard-bearer Moore is running a campaign that is literally invisible, with zero campaign appearances scheduled Thursday or Friday, and President Trump coming not here but to the neighboring Florida Panhandle on Friday night to plead Moore’s case. Yet polls show Moore locked in a close race — despite the scandals, not to mention his Old Testament extremism that has always put off college-educated Republicans — because while his campaign is nowhere, it is also everywhere, inundating the airways.

Hit your car radio’s search button along the woody stretch of I-65 between Birmingham and Huntsville and it’s a 50-50 split between the Ten Commandments and the Second Amendment, all sponsored by a flood of outside radio ads on Moore’s behalf, that say nothing good about the GOP hopeful but slam Jones as a “liberal Democrat” who won’t represent the true Alabama, lying about the record of Jones — a former U.S. attorney — to claim he supports “abortion up to birth.” (Spoiler alert: There’s no such thing, nor is that Jones’ position.)

The ads were no doubt music to the ears of the talk-radio caller who angrily intoned about the pending vote: “This is about states’ rights! We don’t want the federal government telling us what to do.” It felt as if the radio waves were bouncing backward from 1965 — but such is the invisible-yet-all-around-you nature of Roy Moore’s crusade.

Weirdly, the only road signs I saw between Birmingham and Huntsville were for Jones — a sign of the more openly enthusiastic support for the underdog. At the campaign’s call center in Huntsville, the telephone sales pitch that rose occasionally over the din was that “Doug was the attorney who took on the Klan when they killed those four little girls” — the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing he prosecuted decades later as U.S. attorney — “so he’s not afraid of a tough fight.”

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Doug Jones

The arrival of delayed justice in that civil rights murder had once seemed another sign that Alabama was moving forward — a symbol of everything that is at risk Tuesday. Then Jones himself strolled in through the back door with two big bags for the workers, filled with tins of cannoli — as if his campaign also wants to bust Alabama food stereotypes, too. Although the Democrat said he wanted Alabama voters to know he’s at one with the state’s traditions — talking up veterans on the Pearl Harbor anniversary, for example — he also sounded clear-eyed about the risk of how a Moore win might look to the rest of America.

I asked Jones about those stakes. He said he hopes the headlines on Wednesday morning will be “that we have shown the eyes of the country who we are as a people, that we are a loving, a caring people, that we respect everybody.” He added that a Democratic win in a deep red state like Alabama would also show the nation in yet another time of deep division “that you can find common ground.”

That won’t be easy. Jones’ support for women’s reproductive rights — while not as extreme as portrayed in the misleading ads — has given many voters here an easy one-word excuse for why they can stomach Moore despite the sexual-predator allegations. Brown, Moore’s pastor in rural Gallant, said Jones’ position on abortion “shows he stands for things that I’m completely against.”

But while the abortion opponents are sincere in their beliefs, the issue is also an easy shorthand for a brewing stew of fears about voting for a Democrat, that he’d appoint liberal judges and empower more rights for the LGBTQ community — or for white discomfort with a candidate who might get 90 percent of the black vote.

Changing the status quo is the mission of Jones backers like Huntsville’s Tim Miller, 67, a retired NASA scientist and Ohio native who moved to Alabama in 1982 — just as I did — but stayed. He said Moore’s suggestions that the First Amendment applies only to Christians convinced him to volunteer for the Democrat. Miller sees Moore’s support as “us vs. them,” that “there’s people like us, white conservative Christians — and then there’s others.”

The stakes are indeed high. The story of “us vs. them” may be as old as the Tennessee River meandering just south of here, but the unvarnished tribalism that can cause so many voters to excuse or ignore Moore’s now well-documented predilections, which seem so at odds with the fundamentalism that Pastor Brown and the others preach every Sunday, would mean that not just Alabama but America has finally crossed a flaming Rubicon of political indecency.

That’s not lost on the thousands of young and forward-looking Alabamians like Messervy who remind me of the people I met here 30-plus years ago, who still see the green shoots of hope in this ancient soil, now threatened by the early wintry mix of this very strange American season.

A Moore win “would really discourage me,” Messervy told me. “It would feel like we were taking a step backward. I feel like we’d be sort of a joke — and that’s sad because there’s a lot going on here.”