SALT LAKE CITY — All eyes were on white evangelicals in the weeks leading up to Alabama's Dec. 12 special election. Would these "values voters" stand by a man accused of pursuing teenage girls while in his thirties?
The answer, according to exit polls, was yes. But when the race was called for Democrat Doug Jones, religious commentators were asking a different question: Why didn't we hear more about the religious voters who contributed to the unexpected outcome: black evangelicals?
"I think we've been hypnotized by white evangelicals," said the Rev. Mike McBride, a black pastor who helped get out the black vote in Alabama by visiting churches and universities. "We must appreciate what black churches and the black Christian religion have contributed" to the moral conversation.
Exit polls showed that 95 percent of black evangelicals voted for Jones, a former U.S. attorney known for prosecuting members of the KKK. They responded to his promise to address poverty and mass incarceration and, more importantly, rejected his competitor's slights against their community, the Rev. McBride said.
Alternatively, 8 in 10 white evangelical Christians voted for Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge who was twice removed from the bench for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the court building and defying federal orders to enforce the legalization of same-sex marriage. Some didn't believe the sexual misconduct allegations Moore faced, while others felt it would be more ethically problematic to vote for Jones, who supports abortion rights, analysts said.
White evangelicals fit the established definition of values voters, casting their ballots with opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage in mind. But Alabama's special election shows that there are other values voters who shouldn't be overlooked, who focus on issues like diversity and violence against women, said Michael Wear, who led religious outreach for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
"The idea used to be that it was Republicans who really understood values and attracted values voters," he said. "What we're seeing now is how morally charged both sides' arguments have become."
Although the battle for Alabama's open Senate seat included unique twists and turns, the Rev. McBride, Wear and others say it holds lessons for how to better understand the relationship between religion and politics moving forward. Here are three faith-related takeaways from the closely followed and contentious campaign:
1. Non-white evangelicals are a political force.
White evangelicals have been in the spotlight since the 2016 presidential election, when they defied expectations by supporting now-President Donald Trump in large numbers. Leaders from within this community continue to serve as his core defenders, praising him as a protector of Christian interests.
All this attention has made “evangelical Christian” seem like shorthand for “Trump supporter," which is unfair to many members of this faith group, noted Amy Sullivan, a longtime religion journalist and co-host of “Impolite Company,” a podcast on religion and politics.
“The idea that evangelical means white and Republican is just ignoring the idea that it’s a theological designation,” she said.
The label actually refers to a few core religious beliefs, including feeling called to share the gospel with others. Around 3 in 10 white Americans (29 percent), 14 percent of blacks, 11 percent of Asian Americans and 19 percent of Latinos are evangelical Christians, according to Pew Research Center.
Unlike their white counterparts, non-white evangelicals bring concerns to the voting booth that don’t align as neatly with the Republican Party, said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, on the NPR news show 1A.
"Our coalition very much laments that evangelicalism is solely identified in the press … with one political party,” he said.
In a sense, they’re also morally distinct, the Rev. McBride said. They do care about abortion law, but argue that pro-life should also embrace caring for the poor and people of color.
"We think fighting white supremacy is just as much of a fight over values as those (focused on) abortion and gay marriage," said the Rev. McBride, national director for urban strategies with PICO National Network, a collection of faith-based community organizations.
In August 2016, 16 percent of black Protestants said they’d heard clergy members address abortion during the last few months, compared to 37 percent of white evangelicals, Pew reported. Black Christians said they were more likely than white Christians to hear about economic equality and environmental issues.
When Moore was struggling with sexual misconduct allegations, political commentators focused on whether Jones could win votes of white evangelicals angered by the news. But the best approach for Democrats moving forward is to focus on non-white evangelicals from the beginning, the Rev. McBride said.
"The idea that (Democrats) have to chase the mythic white evangelical vote is a recipe for disaster," he said.
2. Political pursuits affect a faith group's public image.
Before the election results were in on Dec. 12, Christianity Today's Editor in Chief Mark Galli had already declared a loser in the contentious Senate race: the Christian faith. In an editorial for the evangelical magazine and website, he decried Christians' increasingly toxic relationship with politics.
"When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity's integrity is severely tarnished," Galli wrote.
He criticized liberal and conservative Christians, condemning in-fighting and name-calling. Although some observers took issue with his efforts to spread the blame, his words resonated with other white evangelical leaders who had called on Moore to exit the race.
"I am not ashamed of the gospel, but sometimes I am embarrassed by evangelicals," tweeted Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, on Tuesday night.
Stetzer, like the Rev. Salguero, was a guest on 1A this week. He spoke about white evangelicals' enduring support for Moore, noting that political ambitions are leading the community astray.
"What this comes down to is that when you mix politics and religion, you get politics," he said.
Faith groups that closely align with a political party risk compromising their moral authority, as the Deseret News reported last month. For example, white evangelical voters have been widely derided for changing their tune on sexual immorality in defense of Trump, a twice-divorced man, who appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine and was caught on tape discussing his sexual conquests.
In 2016, 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants said that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life, compared to 30 percent in 2011, according to surveys by Public Religion Research Institute.
In order to repair their image, the evangelical community will have to learn to speak out against wrongdoing on both sides of the aisle and offer praise when it's deserved to both parties, too, said the Rev. Salguero, a pastor at Calvario City Church in Orlando, on 1A.
"If we spoke as strongly against misogyny and sexual abuse as we did around abortion and marriage and religious liberty, I think we would overcome the credibility gap," he said. "People are looking for consistency from Christians."
3. There's no single approach to religious outreach in campaigns.
Jones defied the odds to win in Alabama. He'll be the first Democratic senator from the state in 25 years.
It's tempting to argue that any underdog candidates should model their campaign after his, but doing so would ignore the very special circumstances Jones found himself in, said Wear, author of "Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America."
"People are tweeting things like, 'This election proves you can have a proudly pro-choice candidate in the South.' No, it proves you can have a pro-choice candidate run against someone who explicitly denies that the First Amendment applies to broad swaths of Americans," he said.31 comments on this story
Jones greatly benefitted from Moore's missteps, winning the votes of those whom the former judge had alienated. Black evangelicals likely supported Jones as much for his own Christian convictions as for the fact that he wasn't Moore, Wear added.
Like Wear, the Rev. McBride says that the unique situation in Alabama likely won't crop up again anywhere soon. But he's hopeful that the importance of black, religious voters won't soon be forgotten.
"When in doubt about the country's moral compass, go to the black church," he said. "We are seeking to provide much more direction and hope for our country."