Judgment days in a small town
LUVERNE, Ala. — Clay Crum opened his Bible to Exodus Chapter 20 and read Verse 14 one more time.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it said.
He prayed about what he was going to do. He was the pastor of First Baptist Church in the town of Luverne, Ala., which meant he was the moral leader of a congregation that overwhelmingly supported a president who was an alleged adulterer. For the past six weeks, Crum had been preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, and now it was time for number seven.
It was summer, and all over the Bible Belt, support for President Donald Trump was rising among voters who traditionally had proclaimed the importance of Christian character in leaders and warned of the slippery slope of moral compromise. In Crenshaw County, where Luverne is located, Trump had won 72 percent of the vote. Recent national polls showed the president’s approval among white evangelical Christians at a high of 77 percent. One survey indicated that his support among Southern Baptists was even higher, surpassing 80 percent, and these were the people arriving on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say.
By 10:30 a.m., the street alongside First Baptist was full of parked cars, and the 80 percenters were walking across the green lawn in the sun, up the stairs, past the four freshly painted white columns and into the church.
“Good to see you this morning,” Crum said, shaking hands as the regulars took their usual places in the wooden pews, and soon, he walked up to the pulpit and opened his King James.
“Today we’re going to be looking at the Seventh Commandment,” Crum began. “Exodus 20:14, the Seventh Commandment, simply says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ “
The people settled in. There was the sound of hard candy unwrapping and thin pages of Bibles turning.
The presidency of Donald Trump has created unavoidable moral dilemmas not just for the members of First Baptist in Luverne but for a distinct subset of Christians who are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly evangelical and more uniformly pro-Trump than any other part of the American electorate.
In poll after poll, they have said that Trump has kept his promises to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, fight for religious liberty, adopt pro-life policies and deliver on other issues that are high priorities for them.
At the same time, many have acknowledged the awkwardness of being both self-proclaimed followers of Jesus and the No. 1 champions of a president whose character has been defined not just by alleged infidelity but accusations of sexual harassment, advancing conspiracy theories popular with white supremacists, using language that swaths of Americans find racist, routinely spreading falsehoods and an array of casual cruelties and immoderate behaviors that amount to a roll call of the seven deadly sins.
The predicament has led to all kinds of reactions within the evangelical community, from a gathering of pastors in Illinois described as a “call to self-reflection,” to prayer meetings with Trump in Washington, to hours of cable news reckoning in which Southern Baptists have taken the lead.
The megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress has declared that Trump is “on the right side of God” and that “evangelicals know they are not compromising their beliefs in order to support this great president.” Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, said the only explanation for Trump being in the White House was that “God put him there.”
A few leaders have publicly dissented from such views, aware of the Southern Baptist history of whiffing on the big moral questions of the day — such as during the civil rights era, when most pastors either defended segregation or remained silent. The chair of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics commission, Russell Moore, asked whether Christians were “really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician?” One prominent black pastor, Lawrence Ware, left the denomination altogether, writing that the widespread reluctance to criticize Trump on racial issues revealed a “deep commitment to white supremacy.” The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, said church culture had “grown too comfortable with power and the dangers that power brings.”
But all those discussions were taking place far from the rank and file. The Southern Baptists who filled the pews every Sunday were making their own moral calculations about Trump in the privacy of a thousand church sanctuaries in cities and towns such as Luverne, population 2,700, an hour south of the state capital of Montgomery.
It was a place where it was hard to drive a mile in any direction without passing some church or sign about the wages of sin, where conversations about politics happened in nodding circles before Sunday school, or at the Chicken Shack after, and few people paid attention to some national Southern Baptist leader.
What mattered in Luverne was the redbrick church with the tall white steeple that hovered over the tidy green lawns and gardens of town. First Baptist was situated along Luverne’s main street, next to the post office and across from the county courthouse, a civic position that had always conferred on its pastors a moral authority now vested in Clay Crum.
“A fine Christian man,” was how the mayor referred to him.
“He just makes everybody feel like he loves ’em,” a member of First Baptist said.
And the members of First Baptist loved their pastor back. They had hired him in July 2015, a month after Trump began campaigning for president and courting evangelicals by declaring that Christianity is “under siege” and “the Bible is the best.” A church committee had sifted through dozens of résumés from Florida and Missouri and as far away as Michigan and out of all of them they had picked Crum, a former truck driver from right down the road in Georgiana.
“As Southern Baptists in this small town, we want our leader to believe like we do,” said Terry Drew, who had chaired the search committee, and three years later, Crum was meeting their highest expectations of what a good Southern Baptist pastor should be.
He kept up with the prayer list. He did all his visits, the nursing homes and the shut-ins. He wore a lapel pin in the shape of two tiny baby feet as a reminder of what he saw as the pure evil of abortion. And when Sunday morning came, he delivered his sermons straight out of an open Bible, no notes, and it wasn’t unusual for him to cry.
“He is just really sincere,” said Jewell Killough, who had been a member of First Baptist for four decades, and as Crum stood at the front of the congregation now and looked out, hers was one of the faces looking back.
She always sat in the center row, fifth pew from the front, right in line with the pulpit. Killough was 82, and as Crum had gone through the first six commandments Sunday after Sunday, she had not yet heard anything to dissuade her from believing that Trump was being used by God to save America.
“Oh, I feel like the Lord heard our prayers and gave us a second chance before the end times,” she had said a few days before, when she was working at the food pantry of the Alabama Crenshaw Baptist Association.
It was a low-brick house where the Baptists kept stacks of pamphlets about abstaining from premarital sex, alcohol, smoking and other behaviors they felt corrupted Christian character, which was not something Jewell worried about with Trump.
“I think they are trying to frame him,” she said, referring to the unflattering stories about the president.
By “they,” she meant liberals and others she believed were not only trying to undermine Trump’s agenda, but God’s agenda for America, which she believed was engaged in a great spiritual contest between good and evil, God and Satan, the saved and the unsaved, for whom God had prepared two places.
It was a binary world, not just for Killough but for everyone sitting inside the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, who prayed all the time about how to navigate it.
There were Brett and Misty Green, who sat a few rows behind Jewell, and said that besides reading the Bible or listening to Pastor Crum, prayer was the only way to sort out what was godly and what was satanic.
“Satan is the master magician,” said Misty, 32, a federal court worker.
“The father of lies,” said Brett, 33, a land surveyor, who was sitting with his wife and his Bible one evening in the church’s fellowship hall, a large beige room with accordion partitions that separated the men’s and ladies’ Sunday school classes.
“That’s why we have the Holy Spirit,” Brett said, explaining it was “like a gut feeling” that told him what to do in morally confusing situations, which had included the election, when the spirit had told him to vote for Trump, even though something the president allegedly said since then had given Brett pause. It was when Trump was discussing immigration, and reportedly asked, “Why are we having all these people from (expletive) countries coming here?”
“Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth, and Nazareth was a (expletive) at that time,” Brett said. “Someone might say, ‘How could anything good come out of a place like that?’ Well, Jesus came out of a place like that.”
Other things bothered Misty. Crum had preached a few Sundays before about the Third Commandment — “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain” — but as Misty saw it, Trump belittled God and all of God’s creation when he called people names like “loser” and “stupid.”
“A lot of his actions I don’t agree with,” Misty said. “But we are not to judge.”
What a good Christian was supposed to do was pray for God to work on Trump, who was after all pro-life, and pro-Israel, and pro-all the positions they felt a Christian nation should be taking. And if they were somehow wrong about Trump, said Misty, “in the end it doesn’t really matter.”
“A true Christian doesn’t have to worry about that,” said Brett, explaining what any good Southern Baptist heard at church every Sunday, which was that Jesus had died on the cross to wash away their sins, defeat death and provide them with eternal life in heaven.
“I think about it all the time, what it’s gonna be like,” she said.
“I know we’ll have new bodies,” Brett said. “We’ll be like Christ, it says.”
There was Jack Jones, who sat behind the pulpit in the choir, and was chairman of the deacons, the church leaders who tried to set a Christian example by mowing lawns for the homebound, building front door ramps for the elderly and maintaining standards in their own ranks.
“We stick strictly to the Bible that a divorced man is not able to be a deacon,” said Jack, who said it was uncomfortable being such a Bible stickler and supporting a president alleged to have committed adultery with a porn star.
“It’s difficult, that’s for sure,” he said, sitting with his wife in the church basement.
The way he and Linda had come to think of it, Trump was no worse than a long list of other American presidents from the Founding Fathers on.
“George Washington had a mistress,” Linda said. “Thomas Jefferson did, too. Roosevelt had a mistress with him when he died. Eisenhower. Kennedy.”
“None of ’em are lily white,” said Jack.
What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others.
“Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.
Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing anti-abortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”
There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.
“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”
The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”
“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”
As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.
“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.
So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.
There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.
“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”
Clay Crum had gotten through “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before. It was not easy. There were veterans in the congregation. Crum had to explain how God could command people not to kill in one part of the Bible, yet demand a massacre in another.
“God does not want you to kill on your terms, he wants you to kill on his terms,” he had concluded in his sermon. “So let’s promote Jesus in life. Let’s not kill. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Now he sat in his office, where there was a metal cross on the wall and three Bibles on his desk, and prayed about what the Lord wanted him to say.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” he read again.
“How can I get people to see the whole picture?” he asked himself.
What was the whole picture?
There had been a time before he became a pastor when Crum saw things differently. He saw the pastor of his childhood church stealing money, and as he got older, he saw deacons having affairs, Christians behaving in hateful ways and finally he came to see it all as a big sham.
“I thought it was very hypocritical,” he said. “That they pretend. That it’s all a show.”
He gave up on church. He started drinking some and went a little wild, dabbling in world religions and having his own thoughts about the meaning of life until one day when he was listening to Christian radio on a truck haul. He remembered the preacher talking about salvation and suddenly feeling unsure of his own.
“So I just prayed to the Lord while I was driving,” he said. “I want to be sure.”
The next Sunday, he began attending a Southern Baptist church near Luverne, where he was asked one Wednesday night to step in for the absent pastor and deliver a prayer.
He had just gotten off work. His back hurt. His feet hurt. He was exhausted and as he began to pray, something came over him. He started crying and begging God to forgive him for his rebellion, and by the end of it, Clay Crum had found a new profession. He felt God was telling him to go into the ministry, and 10 years later, here he was, the pastor of First Baptist church who had gotten to where he could discern the voice of God all the time.
“It’s not an audible voice,” Crum said. “We all have a million thoughts that come in our head every day. You got to know which are from God.”
He was sure that it had been the voice of God that told him to preach on the Ten Commandments. It would be a series on “the seriousness of morality,” Crum decided, because to him, the biggest problem in society was that “people do not want to own the wrong they do.”
“They want to excuse their actions by explaining them away,” he said. “They want to talk generally: ‘I know I’m a sinner.’ Well, what is the sin?”
And it was the same voice of God that had led Crum to vote the same way most of his congregation had voted in one of the most morally confusing elections of his lifetime.
“A crossroads time,” Crum called it.
He did not feel great about voting for Trump, who had called the holy communion wafer “my little cracker,” who had said his “favorite book” was the Bible, that his favorite biblical teaching was “an eye for an eye,” and who had courted evangelical Christians by saying, “I love them. They love me.”
“It’s a hard thing to reconcile,” Crum said. “I really do struggle with it.”
He knew what the Bible had to say about Trump’s behavior.
“You’re committing adultery, that’s sinful. You’re being sexually abusive to women, that’s wrong. Any of those things. You can go on and on,” Crum said. “All those things are immoral.”
When he prayed about it, that was what the voice of God had told him. The voice reminded Crum that God always had a hand in elections. The voice told him that God used all kinds of people to do his will.
“Nebuchadnezzar,” Crum said, citing the pagan king of Babylon who was advised by godly men to tear down an old corrupt order. “Even sometimes bad leaders are used by God.”