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Insight: Pondering Harper Lee, Roy Moore and Alabama values

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Roy Moore speaks at Angel Grove Baptist Church

Roy Moore speaks at the Angel Grove Baptist Church in Jacksonville. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/file)

After reading a copy of my book, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, novelist Harper Lee wrote me a letter on Feb. 18, 2005, expressing her fears about the direction her beloved state was headed based on its past: “It looks like to hell if we don't get some things changed. . . . I dread the advent of Roy Moore's administration but its coming sure as doomsday. What is wrong with us? Are you old enough to remember when people were less ignorant? I am.”

Eighteen months later, on the day she received the Birmingham Pledge Foundation award for a lifetime devoted to racial reconciliation and justice, I arranged for her to talk with high school students, half of them black and half white, half from one of the poorest schools in western Birmingham, and the other half from Mountain Brook High School in one of America's wealthiest suburbs. They had joined their remarkable musical and acting talents to produce the play “To Kill a Mockingbird.” What she perceived of their kindness toward each other, their mutual respect, and their genuine friendship forged in months of rehearsals changed her pessimism about the state's future.

She wrote me on Sept. 17, 2006, that she had seen “a side of Alabama that didn't exist a quarter century ago: determination to face up to our history, to claim it and profit from it. If our generation can't rise to the challenge of change, perhaps those young people and their generation can.”

Those young people are grown now, and the ones who remain in Alabama are no doubt registered to vote if only because of that transformational time spent with one of our exiled prophets, of reading and performing her vision of the beloved and just society. And because they understand the stakes in the U. S. Senate race between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore. And make no mistake about it: that election on Dec. 12 is not just a meaningless backdrop to national politics played out in a provincial state. It is a window through which we will gaze into America's soul, understand its deepest anxieties and its most confused religious and moral values.

Based on my continuing contact with those students now grown up, none of them will vote for Roy Moore. To them, he represents the old Alabama of Robert E. Lee Ewell, of lynching and the sexual abuse of women. Law to Moore is merely an instrument of exclusion and oppression, whether of women, teenage girls, African Americans, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, or homosexuals. He is a deluded theocrat who believes that God's conversations with him determine the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, not the words written by the Founding Fathers or their interpretation by the U. S. Supreme Court.

The choice for Alabama Methodists (such as Harper Lee) or Baptists (such as me), Pentecostals and members of independent megachurches, is to determine in this election whether white evangelicals retain the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven proclaimed by Jesus, the establishment of a just and righteous nation, or whether that evangelical tradition is now ethically, morally, intellectually, and (most tragic of all) Biblically bankrupt.

Hundreds of Alabama religious leaders have signed a letter denouncing the conduct of Roy Moore and his anti-Christian values.

My name as a Baptist minister/professor is on the list despite Harper Lee's humorous dismissal of my Baptist identity as being inappropriate to so intelligent an historian. I believe that our understanding of our people and their understanding of the Bible and personal moral character will prevail on December 12. But if not, then the churches should turn off the lights and nail up the doors, for they stand for nothing better than misogyny, religious and racial bigotry, and discrimination. And so far as the state's G.O.P. is concerned (in 1960 I was chairman of Alabama College Students for Nixon/Lodge), it might as well change its acronym to Grand Old Pedophile.

And the national party's cowardice in this Alabama uncivil war will swamp any pretensions it may have to the moral high ground of American politics.

Dr. Wayne Flynt is professor emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University and the author of several books including “Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee.” This column originally appeared in AL.com.