The world Roy Moore has lost: Right wing nostalgia for the American past

Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama, represents the dark side of right-wing Christianity in the United States today. The President’s preferred candidate for this vacant seat, Moore is most infamous for his history of relationships with girls as young as 14. He has been quoted that these interactions were acceptable because he never “courted” a child without having gotten her mother’s permission. While most Americans were not placated by his explanation, Moore’s statement resonated in a Christian community that understands the underlying logic that gifting a daughter to an older man might prevent them from rebelling against their parents’ values. As the theory goes, an older Christian man will mold the girl into a docile and obedient woman, one without views that challenge those of the conservative community. People who hand children to older men in an effort to save them feel besieged by modern American society. Horrified at the thought that their daughters might grow up to pursue a life different than that of their mothers, they work to avoid raising a daughter who seeks a liberal education, a professional career, and control over her own body.

These families and Moore himself believe that they uphold the values of a society that America has lost. In their fantasy of the past, daughters were dutiful, families were united, and everyone shared their repressive social vision. Moore revealed his nostalgia for an earlier, supposedly better time when he explained that the U.S. was great was before the Civil War. He said "I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another.... Our families were strong, our country had a direction." Conceding that slavery was a problem, he dismisses it as a relatively minor flaw in an otherwise admirable society. For him, a white Alabama man, slavery was a small price to pay to achieve his conservative values.

As many commentators have remarked, Moore’s comment was highly revealing of his racial attitudes. When he refers to “our families,” he does not include the families of slaves. This was the case even though he was answering a question posed by a black audience member, in which (linguistically speaking) the most obvious “our” referred to the two of them: himself and his questioner. Far from being united, the families of slaves were torn apart by a system that put profits above people in especially stark form. Families of the enslaved had no legal standing, and therefore parents had no control over the fates of their children. Their children could be killed, raped or sold, and they, as slaves, had no way to respond to these atrocities. Broken families were a routine injustice—one of many—that slaves daily endured. To think of the era of slavery as a time of family unity defines white families as the only ones that mattered. Moore celebrates the very people who forcibly destroyed the families of the enslaved. He equates the American past with white experience. Moore’s vision goes beyond white supremacy to rewrite the past as if the United States—and his home state of Alabama—was not built on the backs of enslaved Africans.

Moore’s views are not only offensive, they are also inaccurate. The supposed past that Moore wants to recreate never existed. At no time in the history of the United States—or of the American colonies its creation—did either law or custom support sex with children. The only exception would have been the rape of slave children by masters free to treat their human property as they pleased. Moore would be hard pressed to find examples of mothers in the past willingly giving their daughter to pedophiles. Could he be magically transported to Alabama in 1850, he would not find mothers eager to give him access to their daughters.

The idea that families were united in the past overlooks much evidence, even if we discount the experience of the black majority in places like Alabama. American legal records from the very beginning of the colonial period are full of reference to family violence, contention, and disunity. If black women had special reason to hate the sexual predatory habits of their masters, the white women related to those men were not eager to contemplate the reality of the situation on the plantation either. They turned a blind eye to the fact that the mixed race children born to their family’s slave women usually bore a striking resemblance to their husbands or sons, but not because they were pleased with the circumstances that produced these unacknowledged relatives.

Even outside the slave south, families brought lawsuits against each other, family members physically assaulted each other, and men then as now raped women and children. People accused their family members and neighbors of being witches not only at Salem but elsewhere. Examples of disunity can be piled up endlessly. Although it was the case that women enjoyed few rights, a circumstance Moore would applaud, they did not routinely accept their subordination. The past was not the right-wing Christian fantasy world that Moore believes. Even before the Civil War broke out and pitted neighbors, friends, and family members, Americans had a long history of violent disagreement, including numerous wars fought between Americans. Far from moving lockstep in a single-agreed upon direction, as Moore asserts, Americans contended over numerous issues: slavery, religion, land, political power were all sources of discontent.

The fantasy of a white Christian past in which men commanded the obedience of their dependents, women aspired to nothing more than to serve men, and society was harmonious and united is just that: a fantasy. Beware anyone who tells you that they will return you to a better past in which their vision for society was accepted by all: no such past exists. Roy Moore has an agenda, and he clothes it in ahistorical nostalgia in an effort to legitimate it.

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