BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- For many evangelicals, fiery Alabama politician and judge Roy Moore has been a longtime hero. Others have sometimes cringed at his heated rhetoric and bellicose style.
Now, as Moore's Republican U.S. Senate campaign is imperiled by allegations of sexual overtures to a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s, there's an outpouring of impassioned and soul-searching discussion in evangelical ranks.
"This is one of those excruciating decision moments for evangelicals," Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a telephone interview. "These allegations, if true, are devastating. If true, this is a very big deal."
Mohler said Alabama voters face a potentially wrenching task of trying to determine if the allegations - Moore has emphatically denied them - are credible.
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According the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of Alabama adults are evangelical Protestants. For some of them, the Moore allegations echo the quandary they faced last year, wrestling over whether to support Donald Trump in the presidential race despite his crude sexual boasts.
The Rev. Robert Franklin, professor of moral leadership at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, said The Washington Post's report about the Moore allegations represents a test of "moral consistency" for evangelicals.
"Evangelicals are steadily losing their moral authority in the larger public square by intensifying their uncritical loyalty to Donald Trump," Franklin wrote in an email. "Since this is Roy Moore and not Donald Trump, I think there may be significant disaffection with him, and increased demands for his removal from the ballot."
As for Moore himself, Franklin suggested there were "classic evangelical remedies" such as confession, prayer and remorse and isolation.
"Election to higher office is not one of them," Franklin wrote.
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Although Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in his presidential victory, his candidacy exposed and hardened rifts among conservative Christians about partisan politics, the personal character of government leaders and the Gospel. Surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the percentage of white evangelicals who said they still trusted the leadership of a politician who commits an immoral act rose from 30 percent in 2011 to 72 percent last year.
Still, a solid minority of conservative Christians adopted the NeverTrump hashtag on social media and joined those outside evangelicalism who said "values voters" had lost their values. Women and black evangelicals especially emerged as critics of Trump's remarks about women, immigrants, African-Americans and Muslims. Many of these same critics of Trump's behavior and rhetoric condemned Moore in recent days and bemoaned the fact that some evangelicals were standing by him.
"Okay, seriously, we elected a man president who bragged about using his power and authority to sexually assault women," tweeted Kyle James Howard, an African-American student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Why are we surprised that members of his party would now be defending a party member's sexual assault of a minor?"
One of the Southern Baptist Convention's leading public policy experts, the Rev. Russell Moore, expressed dismay after the allegations against Judge Moore - no relation - surfaced on Thursday.
"Whether in the hills of Hollywood or the halls of power, it doesn't matter," the Rev. Moore tweeted. "This is true: sexual assault and child molestation are evil, unjust, satanic."
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Roy Moore embraced controversy as he built his evangelical following. He was twice removed from his post as Alabama's chief justice, once for disobeying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building, and later for urging probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
Among those declining to break with Moore in the wake of the sex allegations was Jerry Falwell Jr., president of evangelical Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
"It comes down to a question of who is more credible in the eyes of the voters - the candidate or the accuser," Falwell told Religion News Service. "And I believe the judge is telling the truth."
Mohler, the seminary president, said many evangelical Alabama voters will find themselves facing a difficult choice when ballots are cast in the Dec. 12 special election.
"There's so much at stake," he said. "Those of us who are pro-life have got to be very concerned about losing even one seat in the U.S. Senate."
The Democratic candidate in the special election, Doug Jones, has said that a decision on whether to have an abortion should generally be left to the woman in question.
Abortion policy also was evoked by Ed Cyzewski, a Kentucky-based seminary graduate and author, in a series of Twitter posts Friday questioning why some of his fellow evangelicals would continue to stand by Moore.
"Right now there are evangelicals who feel trapped," Cyzewski wrote. "They think Moore did something reprehensible, but believe abortion is evil."
Katelyn Beaty, an editor at large with the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, suggested that among many of Moore's evangelical supporters, there's a "presumption of innocence" because of their mistrust of national media such as The Washington Post.
"Many Christian communities have trouble appropriately responding to sex abuse allegations," Beaty wrote in an email. "There is a default trust in powerful, charismatic male leaders, coupled with a discomfort with women who use their story or voice to challenge the status quo or power structures."
However, Beaty said more moderate evangelicals - notably those critical of Trump - were likely dismayed by the allegations against Moore.
"For them, the defense of Moore is another sign that both evangelicalism and the GOP have lost their credibility and their souls in the pursuit of power," she wrote.
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Sexual allegations against Roy Moore stir up American evangelicals