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Published On: Mon, Nov 20th, 2017

Dispatch from Alabama: ‘Roy Moore plays into the stereotypes the rest of the world has about us’

Many Alabama Republicans remain loyal to the embattled Senate candidate but others resent the way Moores behaviour reinforces the cliches about their state

Two young boys in suits and ties, and two young girls in dresses, sang about the love of God. A woman turned to the person next to her and asked: How can you look at these children and not believe? On the back wall of the gym hung a huge stars and stripes; on the sides were two basketball hoops; and at the front a sign proclaimed: GOD SAVE AMERICA.

About 400 people had gathered for the religious revival in Jackson, deep in the countryside of southern Alabama, on Tuesday night. A male trio hymned back to the old-time Christian way. American and Christian flags were carried in as a choir of about 50 children sang of faith from sea to shining sea, punctuated by appreciative exclamations. Then a slick Texan preacher, tanned and without a hair out of place, warmed up the audience with some flattery: Anybody whos got a Walmart this close to church is not a small town.

The main act was Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in Alabama. Facing accusations of sexual misconduct toward women in their teens when he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s, his name is now anathema to the Washington political establishment. Moore denies the misconduct allegations. But here, in a rural outpost of the faithful south, he was seen as a martyr. After fortysomething years of fighting this battle, Im now facing allegations, and thats all the press want to talk about, said Moore, wearing a dark suit and red tie. I want to talk about the issues. I want to talk about where this countrys going, and if we dont come back to God, were not going anywhere.

This was the Observers first stop on a road trip through one of Americas poorest states, where mile after mile of grassy plains, woodlands and rivers are punctuated by modest towns and churches of every shape and size. The currents that swept Donald Trump to victory by 28 percentage points in last years presidential election here are keeping Moore afloat too. It is a fusion of patriotism and religion combined with contrariness, grievance and desire to repudiate meddling elites.

David Webb, pastor of the Walker Springs Road Baptist church, which hosted Tuesdays event with Moore, said: Im sure theres a lot of stereotypes about Alabama; I had them when I moved here from Texas. But its beautiful country and people are wonderful. We have faith, we believe God, we believe our Bible and we stand for truth. Just because somebody rises up, we get attacked and people think that were hatemongers, but were not. We hate sin but we love people and sometimes that gets misunderstood in society.

Moore has taken a hit in the polls but local Republican officials are standing by him, giving him a fighting chance of holding off Democratic rival Doug Jones on 12 December. For many here the maverick candidate, opposed to abortion and homosexuality, represents a courageous defender of values they regard as under siege from the liberal classes. William Wright, helping with logistics at the church, said: We see this as a scapegoat, a group of people that have come together because theyre scared of what hes going to do, and that includes Republicans.

Wright, 49, a former millwright, had an appearance from central casting: long grey beard and checked shirt beneath denim dungarees, finessed with a red carnation. The state of Alabama is in the middle of the Bible belt; theres a church on every corner, he continued. Its easy to judge from afar. Stereotyping has been going on since the civil war and were looked down on as second-rate citizens.

Race fans in US flag-themed shorts and a Donald Trump T-shirt attend Nascars Alabama 500 in Lincoln, Alabama. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Wright voted for Trump and describes himself ecstatic at the presidents performance so far. His hardline interpretation of the Bible did not shift when his daughter, Laci, now 28, came out as gay. We went through a long mourning period. You have hopes and dreams for your daughter, like marriage and children. She knows I love her and will always support her. I would die for my daughter in a split second. I love her girlfriend but that doesnt mean we have to agree: Im totally against lesbianism and homosexuality and would oppose them getting married.

Moore, 70, has long been a divisive figure. He was twice ousted as chief justice of the Alabama supreme court for defying court orders, first in 2003 over his insistence that a Ten Commandments monument be placed on the grounds of the state judicial building, and then last year for trying to defy the US supreme court ruling that legalised gay marriage. Even Trump endorsed his rival, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary. The avalanche of sex allegations including that he abused a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney has led Republican central command to ostracise him.

Quick Guide

Gay bans and praise for Putin: the world according to Roy Moore

Homosexuality should be illegal

In 2005, Moore said: Homosexual conduct should be illegal. Inan interview televised on C-Span, Moore added: It is immoral. It is defined by the law as detestable. During a debate in September 2017, he went out of his way to bemoan the fact that sodomy [and] sexual perversion sweep the land.

September 11 attacks as divine punishment

In a speech in February, Moore appeared tosuggest that the terrorist attacks of September 11were the result of divine retribution against the United States and prophesized in the Book of Isaiah. In comments first reported by CNN, Moore quoted Isaiah 30:12-13, saying: Because you have despised His word and trust in perverseness and oppression, and say thereon ... therefore this iniquity will be to you as a breach ready to fall, swell out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instance. Moore then noted: Sounds a little bit like the Pentagon, whose breaking came suddenly at an instance, doesnt it? He added: If you think thats coincidence, if you go to verse 25: There should be up on every high mountain and upon every hill, rivers and streams of water in the day of the great slaughter when the towers will fall."

Praise for Putin

Inan interview with the Guardianin August, Moore praised Putin for his views on gay rights. Maybe Putin is right. Maybe hes more akin to me than I know. The comments came after Moore suggested the United States could be described as the focus of evil in the world because we promote a lot of bad things. Moore specifically named gay marriage as one of those bad things.

'Reds and yellows

At a rally earlier in September, Moore talked about reds and yellows fighting while discussing racial division in the United States. Moore justified thison Twitterby citing lyrics from the song Jesus Loves the Little Children. He wrote Red, yellow, black and white they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. This is the Gospel.

Tracking livestock is communism

In 2006, Moore condemned a proposal for a national ID system for animals as more identifiable with communism than free enterprise. The proposal received attention after a cow in Alabama had been diagnosed with mad cow disease. Moore, who was then running for governor, was skeptical that the outbreak was real. Instead, Moore suggested it was a ruse intended to promote the tracking system.

Yet Alabama Republicans, some local evangelicals and many voters there remain loyal. On Friday, his wife Kayla spoke at a Women for Moore rally, describing the Vietnam veteran as an officer and a gentleman. Supporters have blamed a witch-hunt and, drawing from Trumps playbook, sought to blame the media. In a crude attempt to discredit journalists, a fake robo-caller named Bernie Bernstein, complete with Jewish New York accent, claims to be a Washington Post reporter seeking women willing to make damaging remarks about Moore in exchange for money.

It is a baffling business to much of the nation and does little to challenge cliches of Alabama as redneck, backward and bigoted. Indeed, in the Trump era, the state has become something of a punchbag for frustrated liberals. Last weekend the TV comedy show Saturday Night Lives opening sketch featured a parody of Moore and Jeff Beauregard Sessions, Trumps attorney general, who told him: Im Alabama, but you you, sir, are too Alabama. Sessions then pulled out a stuffed possum that he called papa and sought its advice.

Ambrosia Starling, an Alabama drag queen whom Moore named as his nemesis over LGBT rights, caught the sketch. I laughed the first time I watched it and I cried the second time I watched it, she said. It hit me they were telling the naked truth about how these people behave.

We have a lot of insecure people who desperately need someone to look down on and they will support any politician who gives them a licence to hate. Alabamas problems are indicative of the Americas problems. Ive always said discrimination in America will not end until it ends in Alabama.

Map of Gadsden

But Starling, 45, is living proof of what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the danger of a single story, whether applied to a state, country or continent. She lives in Dothan in the county where Moore performed best in the Republican primary. But she often goes out in half-drag and can count on one hand in 23 years the number of times someone has given me a dirty look and only once has someone said anything.

Starling, who is Christian, added: There are a lot of Christians in Alabama who believe the same I do, but I feel that people like Roy Moore drown them out. He has made a very good living for a very long time feeding off the insecurities and motivations of hatred and bigotry.

Since its humiliation during post-civil war Reconstruction, Alabama has had a reputation for rebelliousness and defiance of Washington. It was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold where, in 1963, demagogic governor George Wallace called for segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. But it was also the crucible of the civil rights struggle. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded bus in Montgomery in 1955; freedom riders protesting Jim Crow laws were attacked in Anniston in 1961; four young African American girls were killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963 (Jones, as US attorney for North Alabama, brought murder charges against the last two living suspects); hundreds braved police violence to march for voting rights in Selma in 1965.

Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham and is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, noted the citys history as the industrial centre of the south and the related rise of trade unionism. What made Alabama different from other deep south states is that it did have this pesky progressive tradition, she said.

For the state to have gone through so much agony and now be in this position is deeply heartbreaking, McWhorter added, describing Alabama as something of a bellwether for the nation. Looking back at George Wallace, we thought he was a fading and terrible relic, but hes now in the White House, effectively. After Trump, were all Alabamians now.

Today Birmingham named after the UK city has shaken off its reputation as Bombingham, though not the legacy of racial segregation. It is enjoying cultural and economic rejuvenation with downtown loft developments, a new baseball stadium and thriving restaurant scene. Like Austin in Texas or Nashville in Tennessee, it is an island of urban Democratic blue surrounded by rural Republican red.

Drinking in the Atomic Bar & Lounge, which opened earlier this year featuring a Sgt Pepper collage incorporating local personalities, and a jungle section complete with sounds from the wild, Brent Boyd reflected: Were cannon fodder. Unfortunately our politics get talked about more loudly than the positive things that go on here. People love the sensationalism that goes on in the south: attitudes that seem so foreign to the rest of the nation, but Im not sure the last election didnt prove those attitudes persist across the nation and just need to be seen under the microscope.

Boyd, 51, is all too aware of the way Alabamians with their distinctive southern drawl are regarded by the rest of the country. Many of us resent it because many times its based on the way we sound. I worked after college to train my accent because of the perception that, if I talk more slowly, Im not as intelligent as other people.

Boyds past job for a candle manufacturer took him to 24 states. Almost everywhere I would go in the late 1990s, early 2000s, I would say Im from Birmingham, Alabama, and they would either apologise or go: What was that like? When I decided to start my own business, that question stuck in my head. I decided to change the perception of what Birmingham is for those visiting.

In 2004 Boyd set up a media company including a TV station, city guide and annual magazine distributed to 13,000 hotel rooms. It really was my small attempt to take control of the narrative and shine a light on the amazing culinary scene here.

Boyd and others are frustrated that Moores behaviour reverts the narrative to type. Larisa Thomason, owner and administrator of the Left in Alabama blog, said: Roy Moore represents the very worst of Alabama: not everybody here is like him. Its really embarrassing to us all. He plays into the stereotypes the rest of the world has about the state and he knows hes doing it.

Patricia Riley Jones attends a Women For Moore rally in Montgomery on Friday. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But she understands the appeal of figures such as Trump and Moore to voters who lack services, such as broadband, that many Americans now take for granted. People in the rural areas dont have opportunities for decent jobs and the schools are not good. You watch TV and see the world passing you by and the next moment youre voting for Donald Trump.

Thomason has also been on the receiving end of prejudice when she travels out of state. It comes as a shock to people that I can speak in complete sentences, I have teeth and Im not married to my cousin. They say, You dont sound like youre from Alabama, as if thats a cool thing. They see the stereotypes on TV and, unfortunately, those stereotypes are a real thing in the sense that politicians play on them to get elected.

If theres one stereotype that seems a good bet, its that Christianity (along with American football) is all pervasive here. Thomason lives near Huntsville, where you cant swing a pillow case without hitting a church. But again, its not so simple. She is Jewish and on the board of a synagogue. And over in Gadsden, Moores hometown, Chad Gowens, is a non-believer. Thats usually a no-go in this part of the country, the 33-year-old acknowledged. People look at you like you have horns coming out of your head the moment you say youre an atheist. They dont have much to say to you.

This state produced Wallace and Moore but it also produced Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the fictional tired old town of Maycomb, Alabama. Barack Obama cited the classic novel in his farewell address as president earlier this year. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, he said. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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Dispatch from Alabama: ‘Roy Moore plays into the stereotypes the rest of the world has about us’