Roy Moore was not on the official agenda Tuesday as 800 Southern Baptists met at Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville for the annual Alabama Baptist Convention.
But many people were talking about Moore, a Southern Baptist, member of Gallant First Baptist Church and U.S. Senate candidate who is the subject of intense national conversation after allegations from five women that he targeted them for romantic and sexual advances when they were teenagers and he was a county prosecutor in his thirties.
The latest accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, said Moore sexually assaulted her in his car when she was 16 and a waitress at a Gadsden restaurant. He offered her a ride home, then parked behind the restaurant and locked the door as he groped her "I was terrified," she said. "He was also trying to pull my shirt off. I thought that he was going to rape me. I was twisting, and I was struggling, and I was begging him to stop."
She said he told her, "'You're just a child ... I am the district attorney of Etowah County and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.'
The allegations have rattled pastors attending the Baptist convention.
"If he did it, we need to know that," said State Baptist President John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pell City. "We need to condemn it. If he didn't, then we need to know that too. There are probably some people who will believe him no matter what."
Thweatt, who has four daughters, said the denomination stands opposed to the abuse of women.
"Baptists have to stand against the abuse of women," he said. "It's not tolerable. There are no exceptions. We have to create a culture that treating women as sexual objects is not acceptable. There's no hesitance to speak against the abuse of women. But we're hesitant to speak out against Roy Moore because we don't know if it's true."
Many of the pastors here have had Moore speak in their churches or attended prayer rallies with him.
"He has denied it and I take him at his word," said the Rev. John Killian, director of the Fayette County Baptist Association, who hosted Moore speaking twice when he was pastor of Maytown Baptist Church. "I believe him. That's not the way he's lived his life for the last 25 years. It's been reputable and respectable. He's a godly man, a brilliant man. I know Roy Moore. He has a great relationship with (his wife) Kayla. That's not the guy that's (being portrayed) out there now. I believe he's a good man. I don't believe the allegations have been proven. When a brother in Christ speaks, you give him the benefit of the doubt."
The Rev. Chad Burdette, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Ranburne, said he attended a prayer rally at which Moore recited Psalm 103 from memory. "Until it's proven, pastors are holding their breath," Burdette said. "If it's not, then maybe they are so afraid of having a man that quotes scripture in government. Are they that afraid? Maybe they are scared of this guy who is so full of scripture. We can't cast a stone because we all have sinned. The truth always comes to the surface."
There's also the matter of two issues that always weigh heavily at Baptist conventions: abortion and gay marriage. Moore is strongly opposed to both. Many Baptists support him and other Republicans because of that stance.
"I'm skeptical of everything that goes on in politics," said the Rev. Joe Godfrey, a former state convention president who is now in charge of lobbying for Baptists as executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program. "I don't know what to believe. The dilemma is Christians and pastors are torn. We don't know if the accusations are true. I hope we'll know by Dec. 12. (Democratic Senate candidate) Doug jones is pro-abortion. That's weighing heavily on everybody."
Others too hope more light is shed on the reliability of the accusations by election day.
"Let the facts come out," said the Rev. Danny Wood, pastor of Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Vestavia Hills. "Let the process work itself out."
"We've supported Roy Moore over the years," said the Rev. Michael Brooks, pastor of Siluria Baptist Church in Alabaster. "We have compassion for people who fail. But leadership carries the weight of responsibility."
Still, he's nagged by doubts about the women's claims. "As the father of a daughter, these charges are very disturbing," he said. "I see the seriousness of the charges, but also wonder how you prove this?"
He listened to Moore's radio interview with Sean Hannity and was disappointed in Moore's explanations. "He needs to be open and honest with the people of Alabama," Brooks said. "Alabama people want to give Roy Moore the benefit of the doubt. The mounting evidence makes it hard."
Not everyone at the convention is a rock-solid Republican. Don Bennett, retired campus minister for the University of Alabama, said he's a Democrat and plans to vote for Doug Jones. "I believe in therapeutic abortion," Bennett said.
That's not a popular view in the convention, which passed a resolution Tuesday condemning abortion and affirming the sanctity of life from the moment of conception.
Many pastors declined comment for this story. One retired pastor who asked not to be identified said of Moore, "He's a religious demagogue and he's dangerous. I'm a conservative Republican and I've never voted for Roy Moore."...Read more