Editorial cartoon (12/1/2017)

WASHINGTON— Just how disordered have our politics become? And how off-the-rails is the Republican Party?

The good people of Alabama will help answer these questions in next Tuesday's special election for the U.S. Senate. The whole world will be watching them decide whether party and ideology trump decency and moderation; whether there is simply no end to the extremism Republican voters are willing to tolerate in their ranks; and whether a majority in their state believe that being a credibly accused sexual predator is better than being a Democrat.

They will also be telling us what they think the word "Christian" means.

The outcome is likely to be determined by the consciences of conservatives, and of a specific kind: those who see Mitt Romney and Republicans like him as far more reflective of their moral sense than is Judge Roy Moore, the GOP's ethically defective nominee whose indifference to the law led him to be removed from Alabama's Supreme Court twice.

Steve Bannon, the former Trump Svengali who proudly peddles the ideological wares of the extreme right, inadvertently clarified the stakes at a Moore rally in south Alabama Tuesday night with a malicious and spiteful attack on Romney. The former Massachusetts governor tweeted this week that having Moore in the Senate "would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation."

Bannon's response? "Judge Roy Moore has more honor and integrity in that pinky finger than your entire family has in its whole DNA."

Yes, he really said that.

For good measure, Bannon not only accused Romney of avoiding service in Vietnam. He also trafficked in the anti-Mormon sentiments common among some evangelicals.

"You hid behind your religion," Bannon said of Romney. "You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam. Do not talk to me about honor and integrity." (And never mind that "while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam," the president whom Bannon served also avoided the war, courtesy of five draft deferments.)

Bannon is many things, but a fool he is not. It's no accident he linked his Vietnam attack to Romney's missionary work, which underscored the 2012 Republican nominee's deep commitment to Mormonism.

Thanks to Bannon, we now know that this is no longer just a race between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who, depending on the poll, is either slightly behind or slightly ahead. It is, in very large part, a decision by Republicans about who they are.

It is also an important choice for devoted Christians. Do they really want their faith defined by those who tried to justify Moore's alleged relationships with young teenagers by invoking the holy family and saying that Joseph was older than Mary (which, besides being absurd, is biblically unfounded)? Or by arguing that an interest in young girls might be explained by a desire for "a large family," as a professor at Ouachita Baptist University wrote?

Do those saying such things not realize that they are helping to discredit the very tradition they claim to be defending? No atheist could inflict this much damage to the faith.

This is how haywire politics has gone in the Age of Trump.

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Party loyalty can, it's true, be honorable if it is about the defense of principles, and Moore's backers say they are sticking with him to oppose abortion and multiply conservative judges.

But these rationales ring hollow given Moore's utterly unconservative claims as a judge that his theological predilections overrode the law and his lies about not profiting from his private charity, which suggest he is a charlatan exploiting the beliefs of his supporters for his own purposes.

Both Moore and Trump play on the feelings of marginalization experienced by many cultural conservatives. It would be salutary for such voters to declare that there are limits to how much they will allow themselves to be used by politicians whose words and deeds are so often at odds. If Moore is not the limiting case, there are no limits.

Moore's promoters, including Bannon, want to persuade Alabama Republicans that since a Jones triumph will be taken as a rebuke to Trump, they have an obligation to fall into line. But the long-term harm to the GOP from a Moore victory will be far greater than from one lost Senate seat. Bannon is right to cast the election as being about "honor and integrity." When it comes to these virtues, it is not a close call.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for The Washington Post. ejdionne@washpost.com and @EJDionne