Thursday's Washington Post exposé of Roy Moore, the Republican candidate expected to fill the U.S. Senate seat left open by Jeff Sessions, has a lot of Democrats fantasizing about what was previously unimaginable: The election of Democratic nominee Doug Jones in one of the nation's reddest states. The Post piece, written by Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites, shares the tale of four women who say that Moore tried to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers. One woman, Leigh Corfman, said that when she was 14 years old, Moore literally used the pretext of babysitting her in order to meet her and then molested her while taking her on a "date."
It's understandable that this story would cause people who aren't overly familiar with right-wing evangelical culture to believe that Moore's alleged behavior would repulse his supporters and torpedo his candidacy. These are the folks who have assigned themselves to be the sex police, after all, and are always waxing on about family values and premarital chastity and the innocence of children. Those people will find Moore's alleged past conduct and turn against him, right?
The answer is, unfortunately, probably not. As some reporters have detailed — most notably Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star — Alabama Republicans are making excuses for Moore, some of them quite gladly and in tones that suggest it's silly to suggest that touching 14-year-olds in a sexual manner is any big deal. Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler colorfully defended Moore by pointing out that the Virgin Mary was a young teenager and noting that Moore's wife, whose name was Kayla Kisor when he met her, was "one of the younger women."
Here's the thing to remember here: Alabamians already knew that Moore was a far-right evangelical who is deeply enmeshed in an extremist form of patriarchal Christianity. Republicans in that state are likely familiar with the fetish that far-right evangelicals have for young teenagers. They aren't going to be all that surprised by any of this, let alone interested in holding Moore accountable.
Take, for instance, evangelical hero and "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson. In 2009, he gave a speech advising men to prioritize servility and obedience in women, noting that submissive women are "getting hard to find, mainly because these boys are waiting ‘til they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ‘em."
“Look, you wait ‘til they get to be 20 years old the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket," he added. "You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.”
Kathryn Brightbill, a writer and legal analyst who grew up in the homeschooling Christian conservative world and sometimes writes about it, shared some observations on Twitter regarding the hardcore evangelical attitudes about young women.
One example cited by Brightbill is the story of an evangelical couple who became a minor sensation on the homeschooling circuit. This partly happened, she says, because the story of their marriage was held up as an exemplar of the push to replace dating, which is self-directed, with "courtship," where the father and would-be husband arrange the marriage and the young couple is not allowed any private contact until their wedding day. But a community of bloggers who have escaped fundamentalism came forward with claims that the wife was only 15 when married to her 27-year-old husband and only 13 when they started "courting." The couple then withdrew from the professional speaking circuit.
Child marriage is a tiny percentage of marriages in the U.S., but it's common enough — and concentrated in fundamentalist communities — to have raised some alarms in recent years. As Nicholas Kristof reported in May, the Tahirih Justice Center recorded 167,000 marriages of children under 17 in 38 states between 2000 and 2010. Alabama ranked number 4 on the list of states with the most child marriages, with more than 7,600 during that period. In most cases, the bride is a child and the groom an adult man.
Moore's wife, who is roughly the same age as the women who have come forward, married him in 1985, when she was 24 and he was 38. In his autobiography, "So Help Me God," Moore recounts that while he formally met Kayla Kisor when she was 23, he first noticed her "many years before" when she was doing "a special dance" during a dance recital at Gadsden State College. Moore, in other words, talks openly about leering at his wife when he was a grown man and she was almost certainly a teenager. He clearly didn't worry that people would hold it against him.
Hardline fundamentalists who don't bat an eye at this stuff are a subgroup within a subculture, few in number. However, as University of North Florida religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll noted on Twitter, "there is this obscure, and unfathomable to the rest of us, subculture within evangelicalism that is more influential than its numbers would indicate."
Moore's baffling popularity in Alabama is an example of what Ingersoll is talking about. To be clear, most conservatives, even those who identify with the religious right, don't live the comically exaggerated patriarchal values that Moore preaches. But many are forgiving of it, and may admire someone like Moore for his willingness to push for complete male dominance over women.
And make no mistake: It's patriarchy, not morality, that is the animating force behind the Christian right that has elevated Moore. Evangelicals may talk a big game about chastity, but their overwhelming support for Donald Trump is a reminder that "chastity" is just the cover story for the true agenda, which is bringing women firmly under the control of men. Men's unchaste behavior isn't really considered a problem, even when it's criminal. It's female bodies and female sexuality the Christian right is interested in controlling — and dating young girls in no way conflicts with that goal. If anything, as the above examples show, locking them down young is considered a handy way to achieve these patriarchal objectives.
None of which should discourage Democrats from going all-out in support of Doug Jones. Donate, volunteer and ring doorbells until you pass out. But if Jones wins, it will only be if the combination of disgust with Moore and investment in Jones, who is a civil rights hero, turns out Alabama Democrats in record numbers. It won't be because Moore loses support in the conservative community. They already understand who and what he is.