In the philosophy of language, we learn the simple truth that the meaning of a word is how it’s used in a sentence. The same lesson can be applied to religion—with the meaning of religious language best understood by how it is being used.
I recalled this lesson this past week as I listened to some evangelical Christians defending Judge Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Alabama. Moore has been charged with sexually assaulting and abusing at least seven girls when he was in his 30’s and they were between 14 and 18 years old. The stories the women tell are painful to hear and, given the preponderance of other evidence against Moore, clearly believable.
In the face of all this, Moore has plummeted in recent statewide polls with the most recent Fox News poll showing him losing to the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, by a 50% to 41% margin. What I found disturbing, however, was that white voters who self-describe as “evangelical Christians” continuing to support Moore by a 73% to 20% margin.
After the women came forward with their charges of abuse and assault, Moore’s “Christian” defenders went overboard using religious imagery to describe his situation. One bizarrely attempted to justify Moore’s abuse of a 14-year-old by comparing it to the biblical narrative: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became the parents of Jesus“. And Moore’s brother said the judge was being “persecuted like Jesus Christ was“.
I was in Alabama this past week where I saw a televised Moore event at a church and listened to a group of pastors passionately defending their candidate. The religious language and imagery used by Moore and his supporters is both disturbing and confounding.
At the event, called “God Save America“, Moore compared his election to “a spiritual battle” for the soul of America. Moore’s remarks that “If we don’t come back to God, we’re not going anywhere” were echoed by his supporters. When asked how they could continue to vote for him, two women offered that Moore was “doing God’s work…We took a path away from God…We need someone open to bring God back“.
In a series of tweets, Moore decried the charges against him saying “the forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal—even inflict physical harm—if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me…[We] have a duty to stand up against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values“.
Using God language and appealing to “Christian values” has long been Moore’s modus operandi. As a judge, he had the Ten Commandments hung in his courtroom. He later famously had a 5000-pound granite carving of the Commandments placed outside the courthouse, which—after refusing an order to have it removed—resulted in his being stripped of his position and removed from the bench.
During his primary campaign, Moore was endorsed by a number of pastors who issued a statement saying, in part, “dishonesty, fear of man, and immorality are an affront to our convictions and our Savior and we won’t put up with it anymore…join us at the polls to cast your vote for Roy Moore“.
Steve Bannon, the former White House advisor, came to Alabama to work for Moore saying that “Judge Moore knows the Ten Commandments is the basis for the Judeo-Christian West“. A Trump administration official echoed this, saying “He (Moore) is truly someone who reflects the Judeo-Christian values that were so important to the establishment of our country“.
The lessons I learned about language have taught me not to take this rhetoric at face value. Rather, to discern the meaning that lies behind these words, we must wade through this God-talk and dig below the surface to understand what Moore and his supporters are really saying—what issues they are embracing when they speak of “Christian values“.
On closer examination, the “Christian values” that emerge are often tied up with sex. Moore is: anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-sex education in schools, and pro-censorship laws. These concerns reflect the general discomfort that some middle-aged, middle-class Americans have, with a changing social order and evolving social mores. But that’s not all. Their “Christian agenda” also includes healthy doses of: hyper-chauvinism (Moore claims that America is a “Christian nation” that dare not turn against God. He blames 9/11 on “our turning away from God”); Islamophobia (Moore has said that “Islam is a false religion“, “Islamic law is incompatible with our law“, and falsely claimed that some US cities were already under Sharia); anti-immigrant (he has called for the US military to block migrants crossing the border); and the racial inferiority of blacks and Hispanics (Moore’s Facebook page is filled with disgraceful portrayals of both groups).
What emerges from a review of Moore’s use of language is that keeping America “Christian” ultimately means keeping America white and protecting a lifestyle that exists mostly as a mythic 1950’s construct of our popular culture. It is God language masking a profoundly disturbing political agenda. It’s this same mindset that motivated Trump voters in 2016—although Trump used far less religious imagery to make much the same case.
The bottom line is that as much as I believe that Roy Moore is guilty of sex assault and abuse, he is also guilty of abusing Christianity and language about God. The former is a crime and he should be charged. There is no law against the latter—but that doesn’t diminish the shame he and his supporters should feel at this abuse.