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Politics

Doug Jones Can Beat Roy Moore. But There’s One Big Problem …

He’s going to have to tone down his rhetoric on abortion if he wants to win over evangelicals.

White evangelicals aren’t garnering much sympathy these days, and it’s understandable. As a voting bloc, they were primarily responsible for the election of our highly unpopular, broadly controversial president. They accounted for more than a quarter of the total electorate, and 4 out of 5 of the white evangelicals who voted cast their ballot for Donald Trump. Now, the fate of Jeff Sessions’ former seat in the U.S. Senate rests largely with them as well, and, in a choice between a civil rights hero and a man accused of sexually abusing teenage girls, many white evangelicals are sticking by the latter. How did the voting bloc known for preaching family values become supporters of a candidate who seems better fit for Sodom and Gomorrah?

Conservatives with credibility among evangelicals have excoriated the rationalizations, cynicism and civic disregard of those who are supporting Roy Moore, the bombastic former judge who won the Republican nomination earlier this fall. New York Times columnist David Brooks has described evangelicals as taking on a “siege mentality.” Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, prior to the criminal allegations made against Moore earlier this month, wrote that Moore’s “study of divine law has led him, in the end, to the shabby, third-rate gospel of Stephen K. Bannon.” For National Review, David French argued that Moore’s “world is built on fear,” and that does not comport with Christian confidence. Pete Wehner, a former staffer for George W. Bush and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle that some of Moore’s comments border on “heresy,” and criticized evangelical support for Moore as a subordination of their faith. And, of course, nonevangelicals have also roundly lambasted evangelical support for Moore ahead of the Dec. 12 special Senate election, sharing the jaw-dropping quotations from Alabama preachers that excuse Moore’s behavior with a tone of disbelief and disgust. Should Moore win, evangelicals are in for scorn that will make the aftermath of Trump’s election seem tepid.

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Let’s be clear: Moore was already an embarrassment to Alabama prior to facing allegations of the sexual abuse of minors. This is a man who has made a career of using religion as a political weapon, insisting Christianity is under attack each and every step of his political career. He speaks of fellow Alabamians and Americans, those he’s running to represent, with utter contempt. For evangelicals, the fact that he identifies as a Christian should not obscure or absolve him of his actions. In fact, his constant attempt to claim God’s approval for his antics has meant that he has maligned not just our civic discourse, but the Christian faith itself. For the sake of Alabama, this nation and, for those who care about it, the American church, Moore should never have a seat in the United States Senate.

As for Jones, he is a true public servant who represents the very best of Alabama. If Alabamians want to move beyond the racism of their past, they can elect a man who prosecuted some of the most infamous racist Alabamians in the state’s history: Ku Klux Klan members who, in 1963, murdered little girls by planting sticks dynamite beneath the steps of an African-American church.

So, what can Jones do to ensure that Moore does not win in December? In a state where evangelical Protestants account for almost half the total population, it’s pretty clear he needs to win over some of his opponent’s evangelical supporters. But how?

Jones has the capacity to connect with religious voters in Alabama. He is a long-time member of Canterbury United Methodist Church in the Birmingham suburbs. In 2015—well before he became a political candidate—another Birmingham congregation, Avondale United Methodist Church, posted an interview with Jones on its website that was part of a series “examining real Christians who keep the faith seven days a week.” In the video, Jones, who was then an attorney in private practice, testifies that, for him, “faith commitments drive … professional commitments. It would be a sense of right and wrong that encompasses … justice, fairness, it encompasses respect. Because I believe that every individual has worth, and every individual ought to be treated as such.”

Jones also has the potential to positively and explicitly connect his policy platform with the faith-motivated values of Alabama evangelicals. He could tie his criminal justice platform to the work of evangelical organizations like Prison Fellowship and commit to working with faith groups to lead the way on reform. There is also a constituency of white evangelicals in Alabama who care deeply about civil rights and overcoming racism, and Jones could win some of them over by explicitly calling them in as partners, as opposed to allowing Moore to claim the evangelical voice on the subject. A positive policy message for evangelicals is key in reaching them. Without it, Jones is relying on enough of them to be disgusted with Moore that they’ll vote for a Democrat as a protest vote.

But there’s one potentially crippling problem for Jones: his extreme position on abortion. In a recent interview, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Jones, “[W]hat are the limitations that you believe should be in the law when it comes to abortion?” Jones responded that he is a “firm believer that a woman should have the freedom to choose what happens to her body,” and affirmed his support for contraception and for a woman’s right to “the abortion that they might need.” When Todd then asked whether that meant he would not support a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, Jones replied that he was “not in favor of anything that would infringe on a woman’s right to choose.” He continued, oddly, by assuring voters that “I want to make sure that people understand that once a baby is born, I’m gonna be there for that child. That’s where I become a right-to-lifer.” Jones has also indicated he supports federal funding for abortion, a position that would overturn 40 years of bipartisan policy on the matter.

Here’s what you need to know about Alabama: Fifty-eight percent of Alabamians believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases—making it one of the top five most pro-life states in the country. Evangelical voters care deeply about abortion policy, and Jones’ position on this issue could cost him the election.

It would be difficult for Jones to nuance his personal position on abortion through rhetoric alone at this point, because his public statements have been so strident and well-circulated by conservative media and the Moore campaign. Instead, the stakes of this election might justify an extraordinary step: He could pledge to vote “present” on abortion-related legislation and amendments. If he is unwilling to do this, he needs to find another way to give Alabama pro-life voters who are looking for a way to support him something to hold onto, something they can use as a response when their pro-life friends question their fidelity to the cause. It may not be enough in Alabama, a state that has up until now been virtually assured of electing a pro-lifer, but he could at the very least make solid commitments around supporting adoption and pursuing partnership with pro-life groups to find common ground ways to continue our national progress reducing the abortion rate.

Jones has also seemed unfamiliar with the state of, and diversity of opinion, regarding religious freedom. In the rare cases he’s spoken to one of the signature issues of his opponent, he has virtually ceded the ground. In an interview with The Economist, he seemed to argue simply that if you’re a good person, you’ll vote for him:

The Economist: How can you reassure his supporters that you are not out to take away their religious freedom or their guns, their culture

Jones: I don’t know if I can. I think actions have to speak louder than words, so once I get elected I can try to do it. But look, when you talk about their Christian beliefs and stuff, that’s one thing, but when you talk about their culture, I’m not sure what you mean by that. If culture means that you have to put down people, if your culture means that you would discriminate against somebody, that you would not treat anybody in the same way that Christ would do, then I’m not going to protect that. I’m not going to protect discrimination of any sort, in any way, whether it’s race, religion, sex orientation or whatever. So I’m not going to protect that culture if that’s what their culture is. What I’m hoping to see is that if they are truly religious and they are truly Christian in the same way that I am, that my faith is, well, we take care of everybody.

If you’re an Alabama voter who is repulsed by Moore but worried about religious freedom, this answer does not give you much assurance that Jones takes your concerns seriously. Granted, The Economist’s question was loaded, but Jones’ answer almost immediately dismisses the idea of legitimate religious freedom concerns and instead characterizes religious freedom negatively: If religious freedom means “discrimination,” then he won’t protect it. He never describes what he thinks religious freedom should protect. Is there a religious freedom decision Democrats have generally opposed that he supports? Does religious freedom end where Jones’ definition of “putting down people” and his own personal discomfort begins?

It is not just that Jones’ positions on abortion and religious freedom are out of step with Alabama voters—his answers suggest a lack of interest in understanding the legitimate concerns of many Alabamians. The Supreme Court has had to rule on religious freedom multiple times over just the past decade; clearly, concerns about religious freedom are not simply the result of evangelical fever dreams. In Houston, pastors’ sermons were subpoenaed by the mayor’s office (which backpedaled only after it became a political controversy). In New York City, churches were at risk of being kicked out of public schools where they had worshiped on Sundays for years as paying tenants, because of the mayor’s overly strict interpretation of the separation of church and state. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against the federal government’s position, and in favor of religious freedom. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Muslim employee of an Abercrombie & Fitch store who was told her hijab did not align with the companies “aesthetic,” and she would have to remove it or be fired.

And therein lies a possible path forward for Jones. Moore promises to be a champion for evangelicals, but there are few things that would be deadlier to evangelicals’ politics than to be represented in the United States Senate by a bomb-thrower like Moore. The religious freedom of Christian employees to follow their faith, or of Christian institutions to organize around their beliefs, is inextricably tied to the right of Muslims, Sikhs, Jewish Americans and other faiths to do the same. At what point has Moore proved successful in defending religious freedom? He has cynically used the issue to advance his own career, and constantly undermines it with his attacks on non-Christians. Jones should tell Alabamians that he, unlike Moore, understands that religious freedom is either going to be protected for everyone or it will fail to exist for anyone, and he should commit to applying the same skill and passion to the issue he employed in prosecuting the KKK.

Moore looks like a prophet to some, because he’s warned all along that Washington would force its values on places like Alabama. In 2006, 81 percent of Alabama voters supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and less than 10 years later their vote was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States. Jones should be able to affirm that decision, while also making clear that he does not think it mandates the government to exert pressure to change the teachings of Alabama’s churches or faithful. This may sound obvious, and it is, but that is exactly why Jones should say it: Demogogues like Moore prey on the fears of evangelical voters, relying on Democrats’ unwillingness to make even basic attempts to speak their language or appeal for their votes.

None of this would require Jones to compromise his integrity, though national Democrats and some activists might get queasy if, say, he does promise to vote “present” on abortion. If that happens, they should remember: Jones would represent another key vote on protecting Obamacare, the social safety net, voting rights and criminal justice reform. It would also mean that Alabama would no longer be sending two pro-life votes to the Senate, which would be extraordinary in itself and could play a deciding factor in key votes. And even more importantly, a morally repugnant candidate would be kept out of the world’s greatest deliberative body and denied a national platform to spread his noxious, divisive views.

In scripture, the phrase “stumbling block” refers to actions that might give reason for a Christian to not do what they ought to do anyway. Doug Jones appears to be a good man, with a sterling reputation and a history of fighting for justice. But to win, he’s going to have to remove obstacles that are preventing evangelical voters from embracing him. Being a better person than Roy Moore is not enough: He’s going to have to do everything he can, within the bounds of his own conscience, to reasssure Alabamians that he won’t be pushing an agenda on social issues that’s out of step with their values. We’re counting on him. As Jesus said in Luke 17:1, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!”