On Election Day, Alabama voters impose religious tests on candidates — not moral tests.
And that, in a nutshell, is one of the chief reasons why Alabama has so many crooked politicians, say two longtime chroniclers of the state’s culture of corruption.
“If you are a politician in Alabama, you are against abortion, you are against homosexual marriage, you are a practicing Evangelical Christian, you always run on family values,” said historian Wayne Flynt, who literally wrote the book(s) on his beloved home state.
In an interview with NBC News a day after Robert Bentley became the third Alabama governor in recent years to leave office in disgrace, Flynt said political scandals in what is arguably the nation’s most conservative state happen because many voters don’t set the bar very high for politicians beyond making sure they “tick off all the right boxes.”
“For many people it goes without saying that if you’re a politician, you’re going to take a little off the top,” said Flynt, a professor emeritus at Auburn University and the author of 11 books, including “Alabama in the Twentieth Century.”
He added, “And it’s not just Republicans like Bentley, it’s Democrats too.”
So, said Flynt, “if you’re right on the issues” you’ll get the Bible Belt vote .
“It’s how so many white Evangelicals were able to justify voting for Donald Trump,” he said.
And if a politician like Bentley — a conservative, anti-abortion, part-time Sunday School teacher — falls by the wayside, “there is the rationalization of the hypocrisy,” said Flynt.
William Stewart, a retired University of Alabama political science professor and the author of “Alabama Politics in the Twenty-First Century,” echoed Flynt.
“We are not noted for having a real high voter turnout and those that do often vote for politicians who reinforce their prejudices,” Stewart told NBC News. “We have a passive citizenry that is content to let the politicians do their things as long as they don’t get too far out of line.”
“The attitude of the people, generally, is politics is not for them,” he added. “It’s for a higher group of people and therefore they don’t pay much attention to it until things go badly wrong, as they did for Governor Bentley.”
The result, Stewart said, “is that leaves leaders free to do what they want to.”
“Fortunately there are still journalists and others who will follow-up on rumors and different leads on political misbehavior and ultimately the truth with come out,” he said.
Guy Hunt was the first Alabama governor who was removed from office after a criminal conviction. A Baptist preacher and the first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction, he was in office from 1987 to 1993.
Pardoned in 1998, Hunt ran for governor again and lost.
Don Siegelman, a Democrat who served as Alabama governor from 1999 to 2003, served five years in prison after he was convicted of federal corruption charge. His supporters say he was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution orchestrated by Republicans.
Bentley’s resignation Monday amid accusations he tried to cover-up an alleged affair with his top political adviser came just months after Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was found guilty of breaking state ethics laws he helped pass — and after Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed for a second time from the bench for defying the Supreme Court.
“Moore was the first of the Republican trinity to go down,” said Flynt, who was ordained as a Baptist minister in his youth.
And, according to a tally compiled by columnist Kyle Whitmire of the Alabama Media Group, which owns the Birmingham News, this trio has plenty of company.
God-fearing Alabama politicians have been caught tapping their campaign accounts to buy themselves new cars and fix their houses, using their clout to get prized Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tiger football tickets, taking junkets paid for by groups that do business with the state — and hiding their hijinks from public scrutiny by using private email accounts and other shady maneuvers.
Alabama is far from being the only state with a culture of political corruption. The web site FiveThirtyEight did a tally in 2015 and concluded that Louisiana was the most crooked state in the union. Alabama came in seventh in that survey, right after Illinois.
In fact, Alabama lawmakers seeking to impeach Bentley tapped the playbook Illinois used to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office.
“We’re having to create this as we go because we haven’t impeached anybody since 1915,” Alabama state House Judiciary Committee spokesman Clay Redden told NBC News last year. “They left no documentation behind. So the committee is using the Blagojevich rules Illinois used.”