I first heard about Roy Moore when I was in high school. I didn’t live in Alabama, but I was in the orbit of conservative evangelical politics. Moore was the famed judge who’d defied the liberal establishment by refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his court room. I first heard about the claims that Moore pursued and assaulted teen girls when I was the mother of a teen girl myself and Moore was running for a seat in the United States’ Senate.
In light of the accusations (and Moore’s own claim they are false), the evangelical political community finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. Some have called for Moore to step aside; others have suggested voters write-in an alternative GOP candidate; still others have hinted that Moore is necessary to get the tax bill passed. But the most telling response, I believe, comes from Dr. Richard Land, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and a longstanding leader in evangelical politics. In a piece at the Christian Post, Land has called for Moore to take a polygraph test in order to set the record straight.
Setting aside the fact that Land appears to be putting more stock in Moore’s physiological responses than in the credible claims of multiple women, Land’s call for a lie detector test reveals the extent to which evangelical political community needs resolution around Moore. This crisis strikes at the heart of the Religious Right in ways that Trump candidacy and presidency didn’t. It was easy enough to reconcile Trump’s moral failings (including his own history of sexual assault) because he was not one of us. At best, he was a “baby Christian;” at worst, he was the only available means to secure conservative judges. So many held their noses and voted for him.
Moore is different. He is an icon of the Religious Right. His influence and status extend far beyond Alabama politics—so much so that it’s a pretense to suggest that this is simply a matter for the voters of Alabama. Because Moore has courted and cultivated a national presence, accusations against his character are of national significance, at least for the Religious Right. For them, he has been a token of truth and decency in a society going to hell. But now he stands accused of lying and grossly indecent behavior—the kind of behavior that were you a contemporary of Dante Alighieri would get you consigned to a circle of hell.
The easy response to all this is to decry evangelical hypocrisy and partisanship. But something deeper in happening within the evangelical political community: Dr. Land and others need Moore to take a polygraph because they have lost a shared sense of reality. They have lost the ability to establish what is true and what is not. In calling for a polygraph, they reveal that they realize Moore will never confess so they must find a way to get him to confess against his will.
In the 2nd season of Broadchurch, the critically acclaimed murder mystery drama, a sleepy seaside community is thrown into epistemological crisis when a killer refuses to acknowledge his guilt in the face of irrefutable proof. The crime itself was shocking enough, but his refusal to plead guilty forces a trial where everything they know to be true is put in question. Evidence is thrown out; motives are suspect; and witness testimony dismissed. As reality becomes less clear, the community begins to tear apart. Without a shared sense of what is true and what is not, they cannot survive.
As I write in another piece,
confession of sin serves a purpose similar to that of the confession of faith: It creates and maintains the bonds of community. When we confess the creeds, we speak together about the nature of God and his world. When we confess our sins, we align ourselves with a shared reality about what is right and what is wrong. We align ourselves with the truth that the community holds in common.
But when we refuse to confess our sin—even in the face of the most damning evidence—we destroy the bonds of community because we deny the very truth that has bound us together in the first place.
Evangelicals like Land need Moore to confess—if only through a polygraph–because they need resolution. They need a way to re-establish truth in order to keep their community from fracturing. In this sense, Moore’s stubborn refusal to own his guilt is destroying the religious right from the inside out.
At the end of Broadchurch, season 2, the trial ends with a not guilty verdict–not because the killer is innocent but because he had successfully destroyed a sense of shared reality. His refusal to confess combined with his lawyer’s machinations threw truth itself into question; and without a clear sense of what was right and what was wrong, he could not be convicted.
But without a sense of what was right and what was wrong, he also jeopardized the community itself; his very presence a threat to their existence. They had only one choice: Allow him stay and the community would collapse or expel him and re-establish some semblance of reality. They could not punish him for his crimes, but they could save themselves from the consequences of his assault on truth.
Make no mistake: What we’re watching play out in Alabama much bigger than the potential loss of power or a Senate seat. We’re watching a community in epistemological crisis. We’re watching a community pull apart at the seams. Roy Moore will never confess and he will never step aside. For the evangelical political community to survive, they must expel him and stand against him. They cannot simply leave it up to the voters. Because if they do, they’ll never re-establish a shared sense of right and wrong. And if they lose a shared sense of what is right and what is wrong, they will lose themselves.