By now, most Americans are probably convinced that 40 years ago, when he was 32, Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, molested 14-year-old Leigh Corfman. Convinced they should be, not because we should “#BelieveWomen” but because the evidence is strong. The victim told her story to the Washington Post in compelling detail. (Though others have made allegations against Moore, I’ll focus on Corfman, since her charges have legal ramifications; adult sexual contact with a person under 15 is a misdemeanor under Alabama law, as it was in the 1970s, when the incident was said to occur.) She described how, on two occasions, Moore took her from the courthouse where he was a prosecutor to his “house in the woods.” During the first visit, he kissed her. On the second, he stripped off both of their clothes, down to their underwear, touched her privates, and guided her hand to touch his. Two of Corfman’s childhood friends said that she had told them she was seeing an older man around that time; she told one of those friends that the man was Moore.
Corfman seems credible for other reasons. She has no apparent motive to lie. She never worked for or gave money to Moore’s election rivals. Now 52, she has voted Republican in the last three elections, including in 2016, when she cast a vote for Donald Trump, suggesting that she is not part of a partisan witch hunt or looking to cash in on a sexual-harassment legal settlement. Her mother corroborated the circumstances of Moore and Leigh’s first meeting in the rural Alabama courthouse where Moore then worked. Three other women say that Moore pursued them when they were between 16 and 18 years old. A former colleague told CNN that it was “common knowledge” that Moore dated “high school girls” and “hung out at high school football games and the mall,” presumably looking for “dates” (and other reports suggest that Moore was in fact banned from the mall in question because of this behavior). The women did not know one another, and all were reluctant to talk to the Post. Yes, we should be persuaded.
But if we’re being honest, a lot of people also believe the story because Moore conforms to a broad stereotype those of us in a Northern, secular bubble feel no need to interrogate—the backward, Southern, holier-than-thou hypocrite. Moore’s phony morality evokes the snake-oil preachers who pervade American popular culture, practicing the opposite of the morality they preach, like Elmer Gantry or the man of the cloth in Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Of course Moore wanted a 2.6-ton stone monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse—he needed something massive to disguise his toxic lusts.
The stereotype has its real-life examples, as stereotypes often do. The televangelist Jim Bakker was accused of drugging and raping his secretary; he paid her off with church funds. Colorado Springs megachurch pastor Ted Haggard resigned in 2006 when the news hit that he had hired a male prostitute, used crystal meth, and masturbated in front of a young male parishioner. In 2010, Eddie Long, bishop of an Atlanta megachurch and a married man with four children, was charged with putting four teenaged boys on the church payroll in return for sexual favors. Such behavior isn’t widespread, but it gives those predisposed to the stereotype more than enough to go on.
Recognizing the ubiquity of these characterizations doesn’t reduce the strength of the evidence against Moore. Leigh Corfman should be believed, regardless of whether someone has a strong confirmation bias in her favor. Still, that bias does put the otherwise incomprehensible irrationality of the judge’s stalwart supporters in a more comprehensible light. Moore-loving Alabamans know that outsiders, especially the establishment media, see their religiosity through the filter of ugly clichés.
Steve Bannon, who backed Moore in the primaries (unlike President Trump, who supported Luther Strange), and Moore himself may be trying to fuel Alabamans’ paranoia by suggesting a plot between Jeff Bezos’s newspaper and Mitch McConnell to pervert the people’s will in the Heart of Dixie. But Alabamans don’t have to be in the throes of conspiracy theories to believe that the press is an alien, hostile tribe; they had only to follow the press coverage this weekend. Religion is “an elaborate system to dominate women,” columnist Neil Stein wrote in the Chicago Sun Times. Saturday Night Live added to the popular-culture pantheon of pervert Southerners; “SNL’s Roy Moore Sketch is One Big Joke about Alabama Being Backward,” the Washington Post wrote of last weekend’s show. Former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines wrote of “Alabama embarrassment syndrome.” Remembering how the establishment circled its wagons around Bill Clinton when he was accused of assault proves that Moore’s defenders have a point: sexual-assault charges sure look like a political weapon to bludgeon people whom the media dislike.
With a growing number of Republicans fleeing his sinking candidacy, it seems likely that Roy Moore will be stopped from serving in the United States Senate. A judge who defied a federal court order and was suspended from the bench, and who we now know was willing to use his position as a defender of the law to accost teenagers, is probably not the best person to represent Alabama in the Senate. But this sordid episode is yet another symptom of our dangerously polarized country. Regardless of the outcome, no one should be cheering.
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