For those who didn’t grow up in Alabama, Roy Moore might be an unfamiliar name. Googling, one might find the sight of a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat funny: his accent, his boots, his Alabama-ness. Well, we’re all watching Roy Moore now. All eyes are on Alabama and, as usual, it’s not looking good.
Late Tuesday evening, Roy Moore was named the Republican nominee in Alabama’s special election for Senate, and is like to occupy the seat Jeff Sessions vacated when he became our attorney general. People tend to disregard Alabama and other states nestled down in the Deep South, even going as far as to actively hate us, because they think of us as “Trump Country.” But the possible (probable) election of Roy Moore to a senate seat is everyone’s problem. He is an evangelical zealot, a bigot, a homophobe. I know; I grew up hearing his name and watching his tireless crusades.
The Alabama special election received national attention for a variety of reasons. First of all, this election was to fill the space left open when Jeff Sessions was affirmed as the Attorney General this year. Secondly, the Republican candidates — who will win, there will be no Democrat victor here — running in this special election were not ordinary men. Luther Strange, who I admittedly knew nothing about before the election, was a Trump-backed nominee and supported financially by Mitch McConnell’s Super Pac, and the assumed winner of the primary. His opponent, Roy Moore, is an Alabama judge who stepped down from his judicial seat in the state supreme court to run for Senate with the support of Breitbart editor Steve Bannon. Most people were worried that Luther Strange would take the primary, and that worry stemmed — rightly so — from the fact that he was backed by Trump. From that perspective Roy Moore looks like a victory — one less Trump acolyte on the road to an already corrupt Senate. But Roy Moore is not a man we want making any decisions on a federal level, and you only need to look at his history in Alabama to see that.
I love my home state, although I spent my childhood and adolescence itching to leave, and for good reason. I grew up in the Southernmost part of the state, close to the Florida stateline; swamp country, where the air is thick and muggy and there are only two real seasons: spring and summer. I was spared the pain of growing up in a truly closed-off small Southern town by the grace of having a military base nearby, which meant that our population was slightly more diverse. It also meant that the military was a godlike entity, worthy of praise and only praise. I grew up in a town where unconditional support for the troops was trumped only by unwavering devotion to Jesus Christ, and the two intertwined every Sunday in the pews. Football was a lesser god and together they formed a particularly Southern trinity.
I left Alabama when I was 23, and started graduate school in New York at 25. New York was my second home, a place I left when I was very young that carried with it echoes of my family line going back a hundred years, when my great-grandparents arrived in Brooklyn from Syria to start a new life. The politics of living in New York were easier, to say the least. I felt safe there. It was more secular, more multicultural. Explaining the politics back home, in Alabama, to my New York friends and family was difficult.
Anyone from the South can understand this. If you have relatives up North, friends who grew up in more liberal areas, they bring with them a morbid fascination with Southern culture. They ask about churches “down there” (so many churches), do people speak in tongues? (yes, sometimes) do they hate the gays? (many of them do, yes). They think “y’all” is absolutely hilarious (it’s the best gender neutral pronoun!). What they want, more than anything else, is gratification. The seek confirmation that the South really is as backwards, dumb, and racist as they think it is. Really, they want to be told that what they know is better, more advanced, more progressive.
But I love the South. I moved back down here for a reason. It’s a horribly complicated place, difficult to understand and hard to reckon with. People like Roy Moore make it harder.
My most vivid memory of Judge Roy Moore isn’t his refusal to uphold the marriage ruling, for which he was suspended and gained national attention, but of his determination to violate the separation of church and state in 2003, along with a decade of hearing his remarks about the LGBT community and the sin of homosexuality.
In 2003, I was twelve and starting middle school. Between a Nixon-worshipping moderate Republican father and a former hippie Syrian mother, I was very political at a very young age. At twelve, I was extremely interested in the world around me, and nothing fascinated me more than the microcosm of my hometown. So I remember, vividly, when the Moses tablets started to appear in people’s perfectly manicured front lawns.
This, rather than from my sixth grade civics textbook, was when I understood the meaning of “separation of Church and State.” This was 2003’s hot-button debate in Alabama. This was Judge Roy Moore, who erected a hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench when he was the Etowah County circuit court judge. For this, we called him “The Ten Commandments Judge.” The Southern Poverty Law Center sued Moore for this, citing a violation of separation of Church and State, which earned Moore statewide attention. Eventually, the case was dismissed. When Moore was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, he took this a step further, with a two-and-a-half ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments to be placed in front of the court in Montgomery, the state’s capital. He recorded the installation of the monument and then later sold tapes of the event to pay for his legal defense fund, because Moore was immediately sued by the federal government and forced to step down from his bench.
But this was not the end of Moore’s judiciary career, because in Alabama, judges at every judicial level are elected, unlike in most other states where they are appointed. This is the only way a man who violated the constitution twice could serve as judge a second time, and with more power. In 2012, almost a decade after his removal, Roy Moore returned to the bench after his election to the Alabama Supreme Court.
I use the example of the Ten Commandments rather than a slew of other options such as his 2005 speech calling for the re-criminalization of homosexuality, or his decades of Islamophobic tirades for a reason. The fight to keep a two-ton tribute to religious law in a secular state building was a fight Roy Moore fought for years, even after his removal. He stands by it to this day. When he was sworn in as circuit court judge in 2000, he said, “My mind has been opened to the spiritual war occurring in our state and our nation that was slowly removing the knowledge of that relationship between God and law.” Last month, during a campaign speech, Moore said, “Now we have blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting, Democrats and Republicans fighting, men and women fighting. What’s going to unite us? What’s going to bring us back together? A president? A Congress? No. It’s going to be God.”
If you didn’t live in Alabama at the time, the “Ten Commandments Judge” controversy may seem funny. It confirms everything people want to believe about Alabama: the crooked judge in the cowboy boots who loves Jesus. It wasn’t funny. Driving around town and seeing the Commandments sign in my neighbor’s yards, my teachers’ yards, was terrifying for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. I understood them a bit more later, when I was 14 and Roy Moore once again sparked debate in my state for an interview he did with C-SPAN to promote his book, when he argued that homosexuality should be illegal. A week later, in my junior high debate class, my teacher asked us to divide the class in half and argue on one side or the other for the re-criminalization of homosexuality. To be a closeted lesbian in that room was to be terrified — of my peers, of my teacher, of a state whose legislature obviously hated me and wanted to throw me in jail or worse.
When I was 25 and far away from Alabama and Judge Roy Moore, my girlfriend and I celebrated the news that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality. The next day, I once again had to confront Roy Moore when he made headlines for issuing an administrative order for judges in Alabama to disobey the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.
Any history of Roy Moore begins with him hand-carving wooden Moses tablets because Roy Moore’s theocracy will follow him through to the United States Senate. It isn’t enough to call him a bigot, or a homophobe, or a racist, though he is undoubtedly all of those things. He is a religious zealot, a God-fearing demagogue, and the devotion to evangelical absolutism that poisons his supposed neutral judicial practices will likewise toxicate an already corrupt Senate. Though I grew up about 200 miles from the center of Roy Moore’s power in Northern Alabama, his reaches surely extended across the state; he was a spectre that haunted my state, especially if you were anything other than a God-fearing straight white cis-man. Watch him closely.