Two young boys in suits and ties, and two young girls in dresses, sang about the love of God. A woman turned to the person next to her and asked: “How can you look at these children and not believe?” On the back wall of the gym hung a huge stars and stripes; on the sides were two basketball hoops; and at the front a sign proclaimed: “GOD SAVE AMERICA.”
About 400 people had gathered for the religious revival in Jackson, deep in the countryside of southern Alabama, on Tuesday night. A male trio hymned “back to the old-time Christian way”. American and Christian flags were carried in as a choir of about 50 children sang of faith from sea to shining sea, punctuated by appreciative exclamations. Then a slick Texan preacher, tanned and without a hair out of place, warmed up the audience with some flattery: “Anybody who’s got a Walmart this close to church is not a small town.”
The main act was Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in Alabama. Facing accusations of sexual misconduct toward women in their teens when he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s, his name is now anathema to the Washington political establishment. Moore denies the misconduct allegations. But here, in a rural outpost of the faithful south, he was seen as a martyr. “After fortysomething years of fighting this battle, I’m now facing allegations, and that’s all the press want to talk about,” said Moore, wearing a dark suit and red tie. “I want to talk about the issues. I want to talk about where this country’s going, and if we don’t come back to God, we’re not going anywhere.”
This was the Observer’s first stop on a road trip through one of America’s poorest states, where mile after mile of grassy plains, woodlands and rivers are punctuated by modest towns and churches of every shape and size. The currents that swept Donald Trump to victory by 28 percentage points in last year’s presidential election here are keeping Moore afloat too. It is a fusion of patriotism and religion combined with contrariness, grievance and desire to repudiate meddling elites.
David Webb, pastor of the Walker Springs Road Baptist church, which hosted Tuesday’s event with Moore, said: “I’m sure there’s a lot of stereotypes about Alabama; I had them when I moved here from Texas. But it’s beautiful country and people are wonderful. We have faith, we believe God, we believe our Bible and we stand for truth. Just because somebody rises up, we get attacked and people think that we’re hatemongers, but we’re not. We hate sin but we love people and sometimes that gets misunderstood in society.”
Moore has taken a hit in the polls but local Republican officials are standing by him, giving him a fighting chance of holding off Democratic rival Doug Jones on 12 December. For many here the maverick candidate, opposed to abortion and homosexuality, represents a courageous defender of values they regard as under siege from the liberal classes. William Wright, helping with logistics at the church, said: “We see this as a scapegoat, a group of people that have come together because they’re scared of what he’s going to do, and that includes Republicans.”
Wright, 49, a former millwright, had an appearance from central casting: long grey beard and checked shirt beneath denim dungarees, finessed with a red carnation. “The state of Alabama is in the middle of the Bible belt; there’s a church on every corner,” he continued. “It’s easy to judge from afar. Stereotyping has been going on since the civil war and we’re looked down on as second-rate citizens.”
Wright voted for Trump and describes himself “ecstatic” at the president’s performance so far. His hardline interpretation of the Bible did not shift when his daughter, Laci, now 28, came out as gay. “We went through a long mourning period. You have hopes and dreams for your daughter, like marriage and children. She knows I love her and will always support her. I would die for my daughter in a split second. I love her girlfriend but that doesn’t mean we have to agree: I’m totally against lesbianism and homosexuality and would oppose them getting married.”
Moore, 70, has long been a divisive figure. He was twice ousted as chief justice of the Alabama supreme court for defying court orders, first in 2003 over his insistence that a Ten Commandments monument be placed on the grounds of the state judicial building, and then last year for trying to defy the US supreme court ruling that legalised gay marriage. Even Trump endorsed his rival, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary. The avalanche of sex allegations – including that he abused a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney – has led Republican central command to ostracise him.
Yet Alabama Republicans, some local evangelicals and many voters there remain loyal. On Friday, his wife Kayla spoke at a “Women for Moore” rally, describing the Vietnam veteran as “an officer and a gentleman”. Supporters have blamed a witch-hunt and, drawing from Trump’s playbook, sought to blame the media. In a crude attempt to discredit journalists, a fake robo-caller named “Bernie Bernstein”, complete with Jewish New York accent, claims to be a Washington Post reporter seeking women “willing to make damaging remarks” about Moore in exchange for money.
It is a baffling business to much of the nation and does little to challenge cliches of Alabama as redneck, backward and bigoted. Indeed, in the Trump era, the state has become something of a punchbag for frustrated liberals. Last weekend the TV comedy show Saturday Night Live’s opening sketch featured a parody of Moore and Jeff Beauregard Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, who told him: “I’m Alabama, but you – you, sir, are too Alabama.” Sessions then pulled out a stuffed possum that he called “papa” and sought its advice.
Ambrosia Starling, an Alabama drag queen whom Moore named as his nemesis over LGBT rights, caught the sketch. “I laughed the first time I watched it and I cried the second time I watched it,” she said. “It hit me they were telling the naked truth about how these people behave.
“We have a lot of insecure people who desperately need someone to look down on and they will support any politician who gives them a licence to hate. Alabama’s problems are indicative of the America’s problems. I’ve always said discrimination in America will not end until it ends in Alabama.”
But Starling, 45, is living proof of what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “the danger of a single story”, whether applied to a state, country or continent. She lives in Dothan in the county where Moore performed best in the Republican primary. But she often goes out in “half-drag” and “can count on one hand in 23 years the number of times someone has given me a dirty look and only once has someone said anything”.
Starling, who is Christian, added: “There are a lot of Christians in Alabama who believe the same I do, but I feel that people like Roy Moore drown them out. He has made a very good living for a very long time feeding off the insecurities and motivations of hatred and bigotry.”
Since its humiliation during post-civil war Reconstruction, Alabama has had a reputation for rebelliousness and defiance of Washington. It was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold where, in 1963, demagogic governor George Wallace called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. But it was also the crucible of the civil rights struggle. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded bus in Montgomery in 1955; “freedom riders” protesting Jim Crow laws were attacked in Anniston in 1961; four young African American girls were killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963 (Jones, as US attorney for North Alabama, brought murder charges against the last two living suspects); hundreds braved police violence to march for voting rights in Selma in 1965.
Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham and is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, noted the city’s history as the industrial centre of the south and the related rise of trade unionism. “What made Alabama different from other deep south states is that it did have this pesky progressive tradition,” she said.
For the state to have gone through so much agony and now be in this position is “deeply heartbreaking”, McWhorter added, describing Alabama as something of a bellwether for the nation. “Looking back at George Wallace, we thought he was a fading and terrible relic, but he’s now in the White House, effectively. After Trump, we’re all Alabamans now.”
Today Birmingham – named after the UK city – has shaken off its reputation as “Bombingham”, though not the legacy of racial segregation. It is enjoying cultural and economic rejuvenation with downtown loft developments, a new baseball stadium and thriving restaurant scene. Like Austin in Texas or Nashville in Tennessee, it is an island of urban Democratic blue surrounded by rural Republican red.
Drinking in the Atomic Bar & Lounge, which opened earlier this year featuring a Sgt Pepper collage incorporating local personalities, and a “jungle” section complete with sounds from the wild, Brent Boyd reflected: “We’re cannon fodder. Unfortunately our politics get talked about more loudly than the positive things that go on here. People love the sensationalism that goes on in the south: attitudes that seem so foreign to the rest of the nation, but I’m not sure the last election didn’t prove those attitudes persist across the nation and just need to be seen under the microscope.”
Boyd, 51, is all too aware of the way Alabamans – with their distinctive southern drawl – are regarded by the rest of the country. “Many of us resent it because many times it’s based on the way we sound. I worked after college to train my accent because of the perception that, if I talk more slowly, I’m not as intelligent as other people.”
Boyd’s past job for a candle manufacturer took him to 24 states. “Almost everywhere I would go in the late 1990s, early 2000s, I would say I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, and they would either apologise or go: ‘What was that like?’ When I decided to start my own business, that question stuck in my head. I decided to change the perception of what Birmingham is for those visiting.”
In 2004 Boyd set up a media company including a TV station, city guide and annual magazine distributed to 13,000 hotel rooms. “It really was my small attempt to take control of the narrative and shine a light on the amazing culinary scene here.”
Boyd and others are frustrated that Moore’s behaviour reverts the narrative to type. Larisa Thomason, owner and administrator of the Left in Alabama blog, said: “Roy Moore represents the very worst of Alabama: not everybody here is like him. It’s really embarrassing to us all. He plays into the stereotypes the rest of the world has about the state and he knows he’s doing it.”
But she understands the appeal of figures such as Trump and Moore to voters who lack services, such as broadband, that many Americans now take for granted. “People in the rural areas don’t have opportunities for decent jobs and the schools are not good. You watch TV and see the world passing you by and the next moment you’re voting for Donald Trump.”
Thomason has also been on the receiving end of prejudice when she travels out of state. “It comes as a shock to people that I can speak in complete sentences, I have teeth and I’m not married to my cousin. They say, ‘You don’t sound like you’re from Alabama’, as if that’s a cool thing. They see the stereotypes on TV and, unfortunately, those stereotypes are a real thing in the sense that politicians play on them to get elected.”
If there’s one stereotype that seems a good bet, it’s that Christianity (along with American football) is all pervasive here. Thomason lives near Huntsville, where “you can’t swing a pillow case without hitting a church”. But again, it’s not so simple. She is Jewish and on the board of a synagogue. And over in Gadsden, Moore’s hometown, Chad Gowens, is a non-believer. “That’s usually a no-go in this part of the country,” the 33-year-old acknowledged. “People look at you like you have horns coming out of your head the moment you say you’re an atheist. They don’t have much to say to you.”
This state produced Wallace and Moore but it also produced Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama. Barack Obama cited the classic novel in his farewell address as president earlier this year. “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch,” he said. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”