(RNS) — Conservative Christian supporters of Roy Moore are defending the U.S. Senate candidate against allegations of molesting a teenager decades ago — and one of them used the biblical story of Mary and Joseph to rationalize an adult being sexually attracted to a minor.
These supporters don't expect voters will abandon Moore — a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and darling of a segment of the American religious right, in the Alabama race for a seat in the U.S. Senate — for the same reason they didn't turn away from Donald Trump when several women came forward during last year's presidential campaign with allegations he had sexually assaulted them.
"It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser," said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of evangelical Liberty University who has endorsed Trump and Moore, both Republicans.
"The same thing happened to President Trump a few weeks before his election last year except it was several women making allegations," Falwell told RNS in an email. "He denied that any of them were true and the American people believed him and elected him the 45th president of the United States."
In a follow-up email, Falwell noted Moore's denial of the allegations, saying: "And I believe the judge is telling the truth."[ad number=“1”]
According to The Washington Post, Moore allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney in 1979. The report said he offered to watch her while her mother was in a child custody hearing, then brought the girl to his home on two occasions, kissing, groping and partially undressing her.
He also reportedly pursued relationships with several other teenage girls as a much-older adult.
The former state supreme court justice believes the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation. He was kicked off the court in 2003 after he disobeyed a federal judge’s order to take down a 5,280-pound granite statue of the Ten Commandments he had installed in the lobby of the state judicial building. In 2016, after being elected again, he was suspended for telling probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Moore denied the sexual assault allegations in an interview with Breitbart, the website run by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon.
And in a series of tweets, Moore characterized the allegations as part of a "spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message."
"The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me," Moore wrote. "I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values!"
Our children and grandchildren’s futures are on the line.
— Judge Roy Moore (@MooreSenate) November 9, 2017
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and spokespersons for President Trump and Vice President Pence all have said, if the allegations are true, Moore would be disqualified from serving in office and should step aside in the race. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, both former Republican presidential nominees, also have called on Moore to step aside.
Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) November 10, 2017
But some prominent conservative Christians endorsing Moore did not waver.
American Family Association President Tim Wildmon, who has endorsed Moore, told RNS in an email the report "does not change our support for Roy Moore."
"I don't think this kind of story will change support for him among Christians since he has categorically denied it. Most will see it as dirty politics," Wildmon said.[ad number=“2”]
Liberty Counsel Chairman Mathew Staver also continued to back Moore, saying, “Having personally known Roy Moore and his wife of 32 years, Kayla, I know him as a man of integrity who respects women.”
Conservative radio host Sean Hannity invoked the Ten Commandments to suggest the women who spoke to the Post could be lying.
"We do have 10 commandments. One of the commandments is, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness.' We know human beings break, with regularity, the other nine commandments. Did they break this one? I mean, it's something to think about," Hannity said on his show.[ad number=“3”]
And Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler used the biblical account of Jesus' birth in Moore's defense.
“(T)ake Joseph and Mary," Zeigler told the Washington Examiner. "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual."
While the Bible does not give the ages of Mary and Joseph, most Christians assume she would have been a teenager and Joseph an adult at the time of their betrothal and Jesus' birth. The Bible does state that Mary was a virgin, Jesus was conceived when the power of God "overshadowed" her and Joseph did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus' birth, though beliefs about and interpretations of Mary's virginity vary.
Other Christians were quick to reject Zeigler's exegesis.
Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, made clear in a blog post on Christianity Today's website: "THIS IS NOT WHAT EVANGELICALS BELIEVE."
"Bringing Joseph and Mary into a modern-day molestation accusation, where a 32-year-old prosecutor is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl, is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous. ... Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage," Stetzer wrote.
For the record: the Bible teaches that Joseph married Mary & was faithful to her thru great trials. He didn’t sexually assault her as a minor; he shielded her from shame & violence when ppl couldn’t understand a virgin birth.
— Rev. Dr. Barber (@RevDrBarber) November 10, 2017
The Rev. Amy Butler of The Riverside Church in New York City said it was "completely ludicrous to equate the sex assault of a minor with an ancient culture," and the Rev. William Barber of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., tweeted it was a "bizarre read" of Scripture.
"For the record: the Bible teaches that Joseph married Mary & was faithful to her thru great trials. He didn’t sexually assault her as a minor; he shielded her from shame & violence when ppl couldn’t understand a virgin birth," Barber wrote.
(National Reporter Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.)