For decades, one of the most sanctimonious moralizers in U.S. politics has been Roy Moore, the longtime Bible-thumper in Alabama who crusaded against gays, transgender people, Islam and “sexual perversion.”
Moore suggested just this year that the 9/11 terror attacks were God’s punishment because “we legitimize sodomy.” He has said homosexuality is “the same thing” as sex with a cow and should be criminalized, and argued that Rep. Keith Ellison should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he is a Muslim.
All the while, Moore seems to have been the king of hypocrisy. The Washington Post published a devastating account of how he initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old schoolgirl.
The victim said that Moore, then a 32-year-old assistant district attorney, drove the girl to his house, removed her clothes and touched her sexually. Under Alabama law, that apparently constitutes sexual abuse in the second degree. If you want an example of a politician who lost support and was arrested for less egregious behavior, consider Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic member of Congress, who is now in prison for sexting a 15-year-old girl.
The Post found three other women who said that Moore pursued them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers. The women did not contact The Post and were initially reluctant to speak.
Moore denies the accusations as “completely false” — and promptly tried to use them for fundraising. My reaction was that Moore should have spent less time thundering about the Ten Commandments and more time reading them.
This is of course a larger pattern in American life. As one reader put it on my Facebook page: “Those who moralize most, sin most.”
That’s not always true, and sanctimonious hypocrites inhabit the left as well as the right: Harvey Weinstein participated in a “women’s march.” But we’re at a watershed moment in the aftermath of the Weinstein case, trying to end impunity for sexual assault, and allegations against our leaders are even more serious than those against our entertainers. And, frankly, it’s just staggering to see “family values” conservatives making excuses for child molestation.
The Alabama state auditor, a Republican named Jim Ziegler, defended Moore as “clean as a hound’s tooth” and offered a bizarre defense of child abuse: He asserted that the Virgin Mary was a teenager when Joseph married her (in fact, the Bible does not indicate her age), adding: “They became parents of Jesus.”
Sigh. When Christians cite the Bible to defend child molestation, Jesus should sue for defamation.
Meanwhile, an Alabama Republican legislator, Ed Henry, went even further: He said that the women accusing Moore should be prosecuted for waiting to make their allegations.
Looking back, some of the grossest immorality of the late 20th century had nothing to do with gay bath houses, as preachers sometimes suggested, but rather with the blowhard televangelists who suggested that AIDS was God’s punishment of gay men. This smirking moralizing slowed the response to AIDS and arguably resulted in millions dying unnecessarily all over the world.
In my columns, I’ve repeatedly defended evangelical Christians and protested that they are one of the few groups that it’s socially acceptable for liberals to mock, stereotype and discriminate against. Some liberals still haven’t forgiven me for my “Hug an Evangelical” column 13 years ago. But I find it infuriating to see some evangelicals now downplaying child molestation or our president’s boasts of sexual assault.
We all make compromises — I supported Bill Clinton in 1992 over George H.W. Bush, whom I thought was personally more moral — but that doesn’t require downplaying the inexcusable. I used to complain that conservatives believe that morality is about only personal behavior, while liberals believe it is only about policy positions, while actually it’s about both. Sadly, some of the “family values” conservatives now don’t seem to care about either private or public morality.
If evangelical Christians want to engage in activism, they needn’t support hypocrites and bigots; they can support lifesaving organizations like World Vision or African Mission Healthcare Foundation, or fight human trafficking by supporting International Justice Mission, or reduce abortions by backing the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
As it happened, just before the revelations about Moore became public, I visited leaders of an inspiring tri-faith project in Omaha, Nebraska, where a church, a synagogue and a mosque are partnering on a shared site to build empathy and understanding. I asked the pastor involved, the Rev. Eric Elnes, for his reaction to Moore.
“Blazing with self-righteous indignation toward others is often what people use to hide their own sins in the shadows,” Elnes said. “This is probably why Jesus’ biggest problem — by far — was with the self-righteous. When it came to those whom society cast away as ‘sinners,’ Jesus was repeatedly gentle, gracious, encouraging and forgiving, but he continually castigated the self-righteous.”
Elnes added: “I’ve never understood why certain Christians are so eager to turn the United States into a Christian country when their time would be so much better spent turning their churches into Christian churches.”
Roy Moore today is a challenge for those who see themselves as good and decent people of faith: If you find yourself excusing child molestation, then you are driven not by morality or faith, but simply by the emptiest kind of tribalism.
Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The Times since 2001, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who grew up on a sheep farm in Yamhill, Oregon.