Alabama in the Mind of America

| December 2, 2017 | 0 Comments

I was recently the guest preacher at the First United Methodist Church of Montgomery, Alabama: a historic and key church in Alabama’s capital city. The invitation to preach came from Dr. Jeremy Pridgeon, the church’s senior minister. He had extended the invitation last spring, when he called to ask if I would come to Montgomery and preach on Laity Sunday? I was flattered to be invited.

I had been to Huntsville to speak to a couple of hundred Southern Baptist teenagers (you want to think about that, a Kennedy/Dukakis Democrat, speaking to Baptist youth down home in Alabama), but that was my one and only time in the state, before Montgomery.

Flying to Montgomery, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, Alabama being Alabama; a place viewed by many as dominated by right-wing, reactionary, racist, Republican politics and fundamentalist Christians (which media has cleaned up and labeled “evangelicals”).

But Dr. Pridgeon wasn’t inviting me to do politics, but preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and was satisfied my James Arminius/John Wesley centered theological beliefs were a fit for his church. How did he know? Because I’ve written numerous articles about theology for Good News, a conservative Methodist publication, (So, I’m out there, as they say).

Besides, I don’t do politics in the pulpit, especially someone else’s pulpit, which would be exceedingly bad form.

Is there a place for politics in the pulpit? Yes, when it concerns transcendent moral issues, but that would be, in this case, Dr. Prigdeon’s responsibility, not some outsider from California.

So, what did I preach about? It’s a sermon I’ve preached before, “Sticks & Stones and Broken Bones.” It’s about the hurt that comes into people’s lives and from which some never recover, including extremely successful and hugely famous people, like Susan Sonntag, Marilyn Monroe, and Mickey Mantle – the subjects of my three points on disappointment, deceit, and denial.

I have no intentions, however, to “preach it” here, but rather to put my Montgomery visit in a larger context – of both politics and faith.

As to the politics of it, the last time a Democratic candidate for president received a majority vote in Alabama, was Jimmy Carter, 41-years ago – 55.7 percent to Gerald Ford’s 42.6; but Carter had also been governor of neighboring Georgia, and was not viewed as a liberal, big city, northern Democrat. But Mr. Carter, notwithstanding, no Democrat has won Alabama since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; an Act that changed the politics of the South from overwhelmingly Democrat to overwhelmingly Republican — and, in a larger context, changed the politics of America.

Obviously, as someone caught up in politics since 1966, I wasn’t going to Montgomery oblivious of Roy Moore, the former State Supreme Court Justice and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. I knew his story, and there wasn’t anything about his story that appealed to me. Yes, Moore is a fellow Christian, but his understanding of what that means and mine are profoundly different – as different as Matthew 25 and Exodus 21.

I was prepared to find Moore and Trump supporters everywhere, but didn’t.

What I found was a graciousness and kindness dramatically different from the too often popular image of Alabamians as backward, red-necked and racist.

I think especially of the staff at the hotel where I stayed for three nights; of the Rite Aid I called on Saturday morning for help because of a serious case of food poisoning picked up in a bagel shop at Seattle’s airport the day before (it happened the Rite Aid pharmacist I spoke to belongs to First Methodist and devoted considerable time researching the medicine I needed to counteract the food poisoning, because I was in difficulty); of the Italian restaurant where I had dinner Saturday night (blessed to have the company of two African-American young women with Baptist Health, who happen to be sitting next to me and were not only wonderfully entertaining and deeply anti-Trump, but also paid for my dinner; and one of whom, seeing my 2013 Boston Red Sox World Series ring, asked, “What is that?” I told her, and she said, “Were you the water boy?”).

But this occurred before a woman accused Judge Moore of having sexually harassed her when she was 14 and he was 32, and an assistant district attorney. The allegation was a bombshell that turned what was thought a runaway race for Moore over Doug Jones, his Democratic opponent for the Senate, into what is now seen as a close contest.

When the allegations became public, revealed in an in-depth Washington Post story, no less than the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, called on Moore to resign from the race, while other Republicans said that if he stayed in and won they would refuse to seat him. (Can they do that? I’ve been asked. Yes.)

The first allegation of sexual misconduct was quickly followed by others. The accusations coming from women with wholly credible stories. Moore, stupidly, did not help himself when he admitted he often dated younger women, but always with their mother’s permission (which caused a friend of mine to ask, “Why didn’t he just date their mothers?”). Moore later said in a radio interview that the woman who became his wife, now Kayla Moore, he first noticed when she was 15.

A reasonable person might wonder why such serious accusations wouldn’t already have driven Moore from the race? But Alabama isn’t normal, as viewed by outsiders, and it would seem, as of this writing, that a self-admitted pedophile might still win the Senate race.

How is that possible? Because Moore and his advisors aren’t stupid, making the issue not Moore’s past predilection for young girls but the Washington Post, Mitch McConnell, who is conspiring with Democrats to keep Moore out of the Senate (that would be a first), and, of course, the lies being told about him by all these women; all of whom the judge says he can’t remember having met — including one whose high school yearbook he signed, claiming his signature is a forgery.

All of this outside of Alabama and the South, which H.L. Mencken once called “The Buckle on the Bible Belt,” would be ludicrous, but in states with large fundamentalist/evangelical voting populations, distrust of Democrats, feminists, liberals, gays, and national “fake news” media, especially the Washington Post and New York Times, runs deep, and many Alabamians see their man, Judge Moore, the victim of a witch hunt.

And, no small thing — an attitude of arrogance born of ignorance, which says to anyone not a true Alabamian, “Who are you to tell us how to vote?”

That Alabama exists, but that’s not the Alabama I experienced.

Dr. Pridgeon and his congregation, a truly important asset in the civic life of Montgomery, take their Christian faith seriously.

They believe and practice Matthew 25, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless. They believe John 3:16 and 1 John 4:20, that God’s love is for everyone — independent of class, color, or creed.

The Christian faith they embrace is the Christian faith I embrace; that faith that is a saving strand in the social tapestry of America —the absence of which would render America a dead society.

I did not ask Dr. Prigdeon or his staff or members of First Methodist I was privileged to meet if they’re voting for Roy Moore December 8.

I think I know the answer.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at gmitro35@gmail.com.

 

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