MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Reed DePace doesn’t preach about politics from the pulpit at his small Presbyterian church in Montgomery. He doesn’t talk publicly about the contentious Senate race brewing in his state.
But DePace, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, said he prayed Friday night that faith wouldn’t be sacrificed at the altar of politics on Election Day.
“I’m scared about the continual abuse of the church, using the church as a source of power, using the church as nothing more than part of the coalition that you use to get elected,” he said. “I understand that’s how politics works… but can we figure out somehow to be gracious and kind and agree to be generous with one another. That’s what scares me the most."
DePace and some other religious leaders in Alabama say they’re concerned faith is being used for political not religious purposes in the Senate race pitting Republican Roy Moore against Democrat Doug Jones.
Both candidates have talked about their faith with Moore touting his Christianity as the core of his campaign and the basis for his positions on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion and immigration.
Jones hasn’t promoted his Christianity as much, but regularly cites his faith on the campaign trail.
Mixing faith and politics in this Bible Belt state is not unusual, but some religious leaders from pastors to imams worry the role of faith has been heightened in this race – and not necessarily in a good way.
“The big issue between all of us is the way that we appropriate scripture," said Elizabeth O’Neill, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Montgomery. “Our challenge is not to use it as a weapon one side or the other… My deep lament is the scripture is being used for political reasons by tapping into the power of that divide."
On recent Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of worshippers visited the Masjid Qasim Bilal El-Amin mosque in Montgomery. Imam William Abdullah said the Muslim population is growing in the city, which has for the most part welcomed them.
Abdullah said his mosque hasn’t been involved in politics, and he doesn’t think faith should be the focus of the campaigns.
“Islam is a way of life,’’ he said. “It’s not something you just do once a week it should be something you practice every day… If you’re a Christian and you have concepts that you live by, let it be seen. Let it be seen in how you treat people.’’
Abdullah said he is bothered that Moore has said Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress. He was less troubled that Moore unsuccessfully tried to keep a Ten Commandments monument at a courthouse.
“If you just live by it, you don’t have to put them up," Abdullah said.
Abdullah said the focus on faith distracts from other issues.
“All this religious talk just takes away from our real problems, discussing what our real problems are and trying to improve the life" of Alabamians, he said.
Robert L. McAdory , pastor of Faith Missionary Baptist Church, a small church in Bessemer, Ala., said he’s also worried it’s distracting from issues.
"When I look at politics we have enough people talking about what this person did, 'He did this and he did that,' but never tell us about what they’re going to do,'' said McAdory minutes before changing into his robe for Sunday service. “If you’re a Christian you don’t have to talk about it all the time. Show it in the way that you treat other folk."
But Terry Batton, who is with the Christian Renewal and Development Ministries in Eufaula, Ala., says faith is key to his support of Moore, who has come under fire for allegations that he had inappropriate contact with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Moore denies those charges.
Batton questions the timing of the allegations and what he calls “too many holes in the story line. They have already convicted him."
He said Moore is innocent until proven guilty.
“Even if he was guilty, can not a person get forgiveness?” Batton said. “It has been a long time since we have had someone who has a track record that he has over the last 30 years to put his life, his career on the line" for his beliefs.
D’Linell Finley, a political scientist at Alabama State University and a Baptist preacher in Montgomery, said he doesn’t object to religion and faith being used in politics or in government. But he questions whether Moore’s positions should be used to represent faith.
“Nothing is wrong with using faith and politics as long as it’s really about faith," Finley said. “This thing is more about politics, ideology and race. Religion is being used as a pretext to cover some of the darkest statements that you can make about race, including the anti-immigration fervor, the anti-Muslim fervor and some of the very subtle things that come through as anti-African American."
Finley said faith was a key political tool during the civil rights movement, particularly in bringing about changes in places like the Deep South.
“The church was the one institution that had the moral standing to question the inequality that we saw in this nation,’’ he said. “I’m not sure that the kind of faith we’re talking about today can be compared to the faith that we saw in the 50's and 60's that provided a moral foundation.’’
Alabama state Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican and Moore supporter, said a candidate's faith should be a part of their campaign if it's important to them.
“I believe if your faith is important to you and who you are then it’s a major portion of everything you do and every action you take whether it’s your interaction with people in the grocery store or casting your vote,’’ he said. “Your faith is your guiding principle that leads you through life.”
Still, Henry said, "politicians should be very leery of standing on the corner ringing their bells about their faith. They should let their walk speak for itself.’’
Henry said for decades Moore has put his actions before his words when it comes to his faith. “It’s not just an empty advertisement,’’ he said.
Kathy Albree, a retired teacher at an Episcopal school, said it’s her faith that has her and her husband, Joe, more politically involved in this campaign.
“Our faith leads us to believe that everyone is equal, that God loves us all,” said Albree, who attended a Jones rally Saturday. “He seems to be the kind of person who lives his faith and shows it through what he accomplishes in his life …There are those who like to wear it on their sleeves and unfortunately that has been a common theme in Alabama.”
DePace said discussions about faith in the race have caused tension in some corners.
Some “speak with righteous indignation as if they’re hurling down the curses of Jesus on their brother who supports Moore, or who supports Jones," he said. “Don’t you realize Jesus said a pox on both of your houses when you talk like that."
Contributing: Brian Edwards, Montgomery Advertiser