The Alabama Senate Race: A Religious Experience

Both campaigns tap into religious networks to turn out voters

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones speaks, flanked, from left, by Selma Mayor Darrio Melton, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Alabama Rep. Terri A. Sewell, outside the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

GALLANT, Ala. — At Roy Moore’s home church here on Sunday, there wasn’t much talk of the upcoming Senate election — even though throngs of cameras waited outside to catch a glimpse of the elusive Republican candidate.

After the Sunday service began at Gallant First Baptist Church, Rev. Tom Brown offered a prayer.

“Lift up brother Roy and his family,” Brown said. Earlier, he had also reminded the worshippers that a bus for Montgomery was leaving at 4 p.m. Tuesday. (He told reporters afterward that it was bound for Moore’s election night rally.)

Fifty-five miles south of Gallant, Rev. Arthur Price did reference the race, telling his flock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, “There’s too much at stake for us to stay home,” according to The Associated Press.

Price did not endorse Democrat Doug Jones at the service, but the message was likely clear. As a prosecutor, Jones convicted members of the Ku Klux Klan responsible for a 1963 bombing in that very church, which killed four young African-American girls

Talk of politics at church is not a new phenomenon in Alabama. And religion has permeated the Senate contest, which at times seems to be a fight over the soul of the Yellowhammer State.

After Moore was accused last month of pursuing, and in two cases assaulting, teenage girls when he was in his 30s, his first public appearance came at the Walker Springs Road Baptist Church in Jackson.

“This is a spiritual battle,” the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice said. He’s denied any wrongdoing.

Jones and his allies have argued that Alabama deserves better, and Alabamians should show the world they reject Moore’s divisive rhetoric.

Watch: In Alabama Race, Jones Has Funding, Moore Has Trump, Bannon Support

For both campaigns, the religious community is key to boosting turnout ahead of Tuesday’s election, especially with black voters for Jones, and rural, white voters for Moore.

While Moore has been absent from the campaign trail in the days leading up to the election, Jones has traversed the state, stopping at a number of African-American churches.

“This is the Bible Belt. And we take very seriously our religion and our faith,” said Democratic Rep. Terri A. Sewell as she stood outside the historic Brown Chapel AME Church in her hometown of Selma.

“Faith guides us and that’s really important for all Alabamians,” Sewell said. “So I think going to visit churches is a way to connect with people and a way to remind people of the Tuesday election.”

Pews to polls

Both campaigns have been using their connections in the religious community to boost turnout heading into the special election.

Since the primary, the Moore campaign has touted its grass-roots network which is based largely in churches.

“We’ve been going from church door to church door,” Moore adviser Brett Doster said in September.

He said the campaign had a network of supporters in more than 600 churches throughout the state. Doster also noted earlier this month that the campaign has church coordinators in all 67 counties. He did not respond to recent requests for comment.

Moore has traveled to churches throughout his campaign, speaking about the importance of returning to God and protecting the Constitution.

Suzelle Josey, who works with the Moore campaign and volunteered for his first campaign for state Supreme Court, said his base comprises people whose values are “faith, family and freedom.”

“Are you going to find a lot of them in the churches? Absolutely,” she said.

Jones has also made the rounds at churches.

“People of faith tend to vote and it’s a good opportunity for Doug Jones to talk about his own faith and the fact that he is a regular churchgoer,” Jones campaign chairman Giles Perkins said.

A Jones campaign source said the team had volunteers and supporters in churches throughout the state, likely in every county as well.

Alabama GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne said it was not unusual for campaigns to tap into church networks and designate volunteers in various churches to help get people to the polls.

“In a low turnout race — pretty smart,” he said.

Religious outreach is certainly not the only priority for the campaigns.

“There’s a tendency to oversimplify what the turnout operation needs to look like in African-American communities,” said Montgomery-based pollster Zac McCrary, who is doing polling for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

McCrary said the Jones campaign has to use other tools, such as ads, mailers and community organizing, to turn out voters.

But churches provide the opportunity for candidates to be in front of a lot of people at once.

Eighty-six percent of Alabamians identify as Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, and 77 percent described religion as very important. Eighty-four percent said they attend services at least once or twice a week.

Churches in Alabama also have a strong tradition of political organizing.

“Church is what got us the Voting Rights Act,” said Juanda Maxwell, 59, as she left an event with Jones, Sewell, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma.

“We started from here at Brown Chapel and that got it for us in ’65,” Maxwell said. “If you target the religious community, the community that has character … then you’re more likely to succeed. That’s where our base is.”

But people on both sides noted that churches have to be careful about not overtly endorsing or opposing one candidate. Doing so would jeopardize their tax-exempt statuses as nonprofit groups. 

One church in rural Opelika experienced an internet backlash when a photo of its sign circulated online.

“They falsely accused Jesus! Vote Roy Moore,” read the sign in front of Living Way ministries, a small brick building.

The sign outside of the Living Ways Ministries church in Opelika, Ala., reads "They Falsely Accuses Jesus!" (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A sign outside the Living Ways Ministries church in Opelika, Ala., with the reference to Roy Moore removed. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On Monday, the eve of the election, the explicit reference to Moore was gone, but the words, “They falsely accused Jesus!” remained.

Religious rhetoric

Both sides have employed religious references.

Moore typically refers to God and the Founding Fathers — not surprising for someone dubbed the Ten Commandments judge. (Moore was removed as chief justice for defying a federal order to remove a statue of the Commandments from the courthouse.)

He has not appeared in public often since the allegations surfaced, but when he has, it’s largely been at churches.

There he’ll employ a similar stump speech that includes the argument that straying from God, and embracing issues like same-sex marriage, has caused devastation (including the  9/11 terrorist attacks).

Moore’s supporters admire his convictions and willingness to talk about their shared Christian faith.

“I just believe he’s the right guy,” said one older woman leaving Moore’s home church Sunday. “The Christian person.”

The allegations against Moore led to a mixed reaction from evangelicals. Some pastors asked to be removed from a previous list of supporters.

Dana Hall McCain, 44, wrote an op-ed in the Dothan Eagle calling on evangelicals to reject Moore and recognize that engaging in partisan politics is not an effective way to improve society.

“I feel like we have believed this lie that we can bring the world to Christ from the ballot box,” McCain said. “And I think scripture is clear that we bring the world to Christ through Gospel and through love.”

Other faith leaders came to Moore’s side, with some flying in from across the country for a press conference defending the former judge after the allegations were published.

Brown, who leads Moore’s home church, is sticking by him. He said he would consider voting for Moore even if the allegations were true, due to Jones’ pro-abortion rights position.

Abortion is an issue that has energized conservative voters in recent decades, and could cause some Republicans who don’t like Moore to vote for him anyway.

Moore has made it central to his closing argument.

On Sunday, he released a new video ad in an email to his supporters. The 90-second video includes images of a baby growing in the womb and ends with the phrase, “We dare to defend life,” a nod to the state motto, “We dare defend our rights.”

Jones has made his campaign about “kitchen table issues” such as jobs, education and health care, and emphasized that he is the candidate who can bring people together.

The Democrat has discussed his own Christian faith along the way. Rev. Bill Morgan,  his former pastor at the Canterbury United Methodist Church, described Jones and his family as “ordinary church people” who “don’t wear their religion on their sleeves.”

One of his high-profile surrogates did not shy away from drawing on religion in the final days of the race.

Sen. Cory Booker traveled to Alabama over the weekend to headline a rally for Jones on Saturday, and to attend predominantly African-American churches with Jones and Sewell on Sunday.

The New Jersey Democrat brought that same energy from church to a campaign field office in Birmingham on Sunday afternoon. His stump speech at times morphed into a sermon, calling on volunteers to show that Alabama is a place of love and mercy.

And it resonated with the Jones supporters crammed into the office.

“We’ve got to remind people that faith without works …” Booker said, beginning a Bible verse. But the volunteers finished it for him, saying together, “is dead.”

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