In a “major upset,” Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in yesterday’s Senate election in Alabama. This was the fiftieth Senate special election in my lifetime. None has been remotely as controversial as this campaign.
The Denison Forum is nonpartisan and does not endorse or oppose political candidates. As a result, my intention today is not to support or criticize the candidates or their parties. Rather, it is to explore the cultural significance of the election in the context of biblical truth.
It seems to me that four factors influenced the outcome. I predict that these same factors will continue to be relevant to American elections for the foreseeable future.
One: Personal qualifications
Doug Jones has been working for civil rights and reconciliation since high school. He served as an assistant US attorney and private lawyer before being appointed US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama by President Clinton in 1997. As a result of his work in racial reconciliation, he received 96 percent of the African American vote in yesterday’s election.
Roy Moore graduated from West Point and served in Vietnam. He was elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000 but was removed in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. He was reelected in 2012 but was charged with violations of legal ethics in 2016 and suspended; he retired the next year.
In recent months, he faced allegations of sexual impropriety from at least eight women. These allegations apparently played a role in Jones’s upset victory, the first time Alabama has elected a Democrat to the Senate in twenty-five years.
As supporters of both candidates would agree, personal qualifications are obviously significant for elective office. Just as an overseer must be qualified for leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-7), so a political leader should be qualified to serve.
Two: Political positions
A candidate’s political agenda is always relevant to an election. But this factor was especially important in the Alabama race, causing many conservative voters to support Judge Moore despite the personal allegations against him.
In 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals agreed that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Last year, 72 percent agreed with this statement, a far larger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.
I believe that one reason for this change is the opposition evangelicals feel from the culture. With the legalization of same-sex marriage and the rising hostility to biblical morality in our society, it’s not surprising that 83 percent of evangelicals believe religious liberty is under attack.
In this environment, many conservative voters are more concerned about a candidate’s political party and agenda than his or her personal qualifications. For instance, some Republicans who are troubled by personal accusations against Donald Trump nonetheless celebrated his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
In addition, recent allegations of sexual impropriety against political leaders show that we do not always know the private character of those we elect to office. And it is possible for God to use people who live unbiblically to advance his Kingdom agenda. The pagan king Darius issued a proclamation honoring the one true God (Daniel 6:25-27); Caesar Augustus ordered the census that fulfilled Scripture (Luke 2:1-7; Micah 5:2).
In today’s bitterly partisan environment, we will continue to see many voters support a candidate more because of party and position than because of personal qualifications. Scripture teaches that we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). What a candidate will do in office is obviously a vital question for voters and constituents.
Three: “Fake news”
The Alabama election saw widespread complaints that criticisms of Roy Moore were “fake news.” According to exit polls, 51 percent of voters said the allegations against Moore were probably or definitely true, while 44 percent said they were probably or definitely false.
There have been several high-profile journalistic mistakes in recent weeks that have fueled widespread distrust of the media. “Fake news” will continue to be a major factor in our political climate for some time to come. The ninth commandment is clear: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). We are to “put away falsehood” (Ephesians 4:25) and reject slander (1 Peter 2:1).
Four: Write-ins and no-shows
Several newspapers in Alabama urged conservatives to write in a Republican rather than cast their vote for Moore. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby says he “voted for a distinguished Republican write-in” rather than vote for Moore.
According to Newsweek, Jones’s margin of victory was a little under 21,000 votes, while there were close to 23,000 write-in votes cast. Assuming most would otherwise have gone to Moore, “write-in votes had a decisive impact.”
In addition, only 1.3 million votes were cast out of 3.2 million eligible voters, meaning that nearly two million people chose not to vote rather than support either candidate. No-shows were especially significant on the Republican side. As The Atlantic reports today, “Although many white voters weren’t convinced to vote for Jones, the allegations against Moore persuaded many of them to stay home.”
Some Christians believe that we should focus more on building authentic Christian community and less on engagement with the secular culture. There are times when we must “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Corinthians 6:17, citing Isaiah 52:11). One way to do so is to view an election not as a binary choice between two nominated candidates but as an opportunity to write in a candidate or to protest the process by refusing to vote.
In our contentious, polarized society, we can expect more divisive elections. The mid-term elections next year are shaping up to be especially contentious. There are clearly no perfect candidates (or voters).
If Christians are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), we must be engaged in the cultural and political issues of our day. But we must always act with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). No matter how we or our candidates are treated, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is an imperative for us.
Shane Claiborne: “I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination.” How will you spread your faith today?