When historians write of Roy Moore, they will talk of a man devoted to arch-conservative principles who happened to have a dark personal life involving alleged statutory rape and sexual abuse of power. But that would be a mistake.
Moore’s politics and his personal life are not separate, but rather deeply interconnected. Both are rooted in defense of a specific subculture of evangelical conservatism that privileges an extreme form of patriarchy, gerontocracy and arranged child marriage.
This becomes obvious both from a study of the culture that Moore celebrates, as well as the particular words and phrases that Moore and his defenders choose to use. They’re subtle code, one that only those who grew up in and around a particular form of radically anti-government, largely homeschooled religious conservatism are attuned to hear. It is the politics of the Duggars, the Quiverfull movement, militia groups and the Duck Dynasty family. It is a politics that Kathryn Brightbill lays bare in a trenchant L.A. Times op-ed:
The evangelical world is overdue for a reckoning. Women raised in evangelicalism and fundamentalism have for years discussed the normalization of child sexual abuse. We’ve told our stories on social media and on our blogs and various online platforms, but until the Roy Moore story broke, mainstream American society barely paid attention. Everyone assumed this was an isolated, fringe issue. It isn’t.
When Moore says he never dated teenage girls “without their mother’s permission,” most commentators took that as a form of blame-shifting and misogyny. When state auditor Jim Ziegler disgustingly defended Moore as a “single man, early 30s, never been married, dating teenage girls–never been married and he liked younger girls,” most didn’t pay much attention to his curious emphasis on “single” and “never been married.” When Alabama County GOP Chair David Hall defended Moore’s alleged sexual predation on a 14-year-old girl with “she’s not saying that anything happened other than they kissed,” it was taken as a gross defense of repulsive behavior out of political expediency.
But these statements form a pattern drawn directly from the culture of Moore’s fanatical evangelical supporters: the age difference simply doesn’t bother them.
In their world, young women are a burden to their families, a constant temptation to sin, their bodies a Devil’s playground. For them, the goal of an upstanding parent is to raise sons who will defend their honor and their heritage by any means necessary, and to raise daughters who will keep their own honor pure via chastity until they can be transferred to the “care” of an approved man in an arrangement sanctioned by both sides and by their God. From this perspective, age of consent laws are an inconvenience merely allowing more time for young women to develop rebellious habits and engage in unbecoming conduct
It is disturbingly commonplace in this culture to see “understandings” in which older men from their late twenties on well into middle age are “given permission” to date much younger women and girls. In extreme cases, this can lead to polygynous arrangements as in many cults and fundamentalist groups. Nor is this phenomenon limited just to hardcore evangelical Christianity: this is the form of abusive patriarchy in conservative cultures with arranged marriage all around the globe. It is no surprise that some of Moore’s defenders have taken to using Biblical precedent to defend it.
This is not to say that liberal cultures don’t produce child abusers and even networks of abuse. But these are generally secreted away in cosmopolitan society, and when the perpetrators are discovered they tend to be shunned and jailed. In many evangelical cultures, however, it’s an unspoken norm and even celebrated. The two sides are not the same.
When Roy Moore rails against the government and demands that the Bible be the basis for all law and culture, this is the culture he is defending. He is promoting not the New Testament ethics of Jesus, but the Old Testament anthropology and social structure of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah. It is a world where young women’s bodies belong to their fathers and mothers until they can be safely transferred as soon as possible into the hands of a God-fearing man of faith–and free above all from the prying eyes of liberals and government officials who might take an interest in the self-actualization and personhood of the women being treated as sin-attracting chattel. It is the world where women and girls are expected above all to honor their father and mother, obey their husband, and commit no adultery.
Donald Trump may be an adulterer and a heathen, but evangelicals stuck by him even after the Access Hollywood tape for a reason. A rich white man who brooks no offense against his honor, stands up for his white nationalist heritage, and locks down attractive young women far his junior into a gilded cage, is ultimately more one of their own than a liberal, culturally decent man of the cloth.
Moore isn’t a troubled abuser who has besmirched his political agenda. His political creed and his personal affronts are one and the same.