He winds his way through a stump speech with the same inflections and cadences of a Southern preacher. The call-and-response includes melodic repetition of the line “Who are we?” imploring the audience to answer “We, the people.” Resting one arm against the lectern while looking off to the side, he delivers rehearsed dad jokes, pleas for voter turnout and broadsides against his political opponent. The preacher sprinkles his calls for affordable health care with biblical allusions, reminding voters that Bartimaeus, a blind man healed by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, “suffered from a preexisting condition.” To this point, Warnock testifies on the need for Medicaid expansion and cheaper college tuition. Audience members punctuate the applause lines with cries of “C’mon, Rev!”
For the past 15 years Warnock has been the senior pastor at the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the same church once led by his hero, Martin Luther King Jr. The flamboyant, preacher-pol style that Warnock cultivated at Ebenezer may be alien to many Americans, including many White Christians. But it is deeply familiar to those who grew up in and around Southern Black churches. In those churches, preachers make it their business to tell uncomfortable truths about American life, including the shameful ways the country treats its African American citizens.
Warnock’s identity as a Black preacher has become central to his bid to reach the higher ground of the U.S. Senate. Republicans, who tend to perceive less conflict in the relationship between God and country, have cast him as a dangerous departure from the norm. In a recent debate, a conspicuously scripted Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbent whom Warnock is trying to unseat, called him a “radical liberal” more than a dozen times. A pro-Loeffler attack ad features a video clip of Warnock warning members of his congregation that they cannot serve God and money, or God and the military, at the same time (Matthew 6:24). The ad is spliced with snippets of Warnock yelling during sermons. Over action-movie-trailer music and lo-fi lighting, a grim-sounding narrator explains the “threat” Warnock poses to the republic: Raphael Warnock attacks our soldiers. Warnock attacks our police. . . . Raphael Warnock is radical and dangerous.
Warnock’s style also might be his best asset in the runoff, helping him match the emotional pitch of the moment as Americans suffer through the hardest stretch of the pandemic and President Trump spreads wild conspiracy theories about America’s voting system and the officials (including Republicans, and especially Georgia Republicans) who administer it.
“There should be more people being so-called ‘radical’ for change,” says Mawuli Davis, an attorney who attends Ebenezer and represented Warnock when he got arrested at the Georgia Capitol in 2014 for protesting the Republican governor’s decision not to expand Medicaid under the Obamacare law.
What’s truly radical, Davis says, “is trying to overturn a freaking election.”
On the stage in Albany, Warnock is dressed in a light blue quarter-zip pullover, looking like a suburban dad returning from Home Depot with a bag of mulch. To counter the “radical” label Warnock has expressed his support for police and the military (his dad was a veteran). In one ad he walks a dog along the sidewalk in front of suburban homes with picket fences. Dogs are more often associated with White ownership.
Early voting numbers indicate high enthusiasm among Democratic-leaning voters such as young people and African Americans — voting blocs Warnock aims to inspire with a vision of change while not alienating moderate voters in the suburbs who helped carry Joe Biden to victory here in November. To paraphrase the apostle Matthew, Warnock may have to serve two masters, electorally speaking. And his success may depend on his identity as a man who serves God.
As the Albany event ends, a man who addressed the crowd earlier wanders among the cars.
“I think it is important that we have people in politics on the liberal side, on the progressive side, that represent faith, that take back the meaning behind faith, that it is not a conservative ideal,” says Alex Moreschi, a White Episcopal minister. “At its heart, Christianity is a progressive movement. It is a radical movement for the health and security and love of neighbor. And I see Rev. Warnock representing that.”
In Georgia, they worship God. In small, red-brick buildings next to cotton fields. In strip malls next to bargain outlets. In large multimillion-dollar complexes with expansive parking lots, they praise His name. But Georgians do not always worship together. And they do not always receive God's message in the same way. Centuries of racial and social segregation mean that while Black and White may be a part of the same body of Christ, they aren't necessarily in communion with each other.
For hundreds of years the Black Christian church has been the central religious, social and political institution in Black American life. The church has survived racial acts of terror, including bombings, fires and mass shootings. As recently as December a group of neo-facists marching in D.C. vandalized Black churches displaying “Black Lives Matter” signs. The “most elaborate and well-planned slave insurrection in the history of the United States” was organized by Denmark Vesey, the co-founder of “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., according to Vesey biographer David Robertson. Richard H. Cain, who was elected to the House of Representatives during Reconstruction, served as Emanuel’s pastor. And the Black church is where a charismatic young preacher from Atlanta plotted a nonviolent overthrow of the racial caste system in the South.
“I seek to live in a way that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and the entire King family. Not just on this special occasion, but every day,” Kelly Loeffler reportedly told a congregation last January when she appeared at Ebenezer in honor of King.
It was a thoroughly uncontroversial remark for a modern conservative politician to make — the kind that makes it easy to forget how unpopular King was when he was alive. Gallup polling estimated that Americans felt more negatively toward him as the 1960s progressed. Critics branded King a radical communist hellbent on destroying America, and those accusations continued well after he was killed; President Ronald Reagan initially opposed the proposal to make King’s birthday a national holiday, and more than 100 lawmakers in the House and Senate voted against it. In a 1983 debate on the matter, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) accused King of harboring “radical political” views rooted in Marxist communism.
King was not a communist; he criticized communism for denying God. But he was a political radical in his time, promoting peaceful lawbreaking to protest racial injustice — in God’s name, no less. And he was unsparing in his criticism of godly men who failed to do the same. Writing from a Birmingham, Ala., jail, in 1963, King expressed his disappointment in White ministers for failing to call out segregation as morally sinful. He also had choice words for White moderates, whom he described as a greater stumbling block to racial justice than even the Ku Klux Klan. (Suffice it to say, King never ran for statewide office in Georgia.)
Warnock is not Martin Luther King Jr., but he has borrowed a sheet or two from King’s playbook. Warnock speaks of government-backed health care the same way King spoke of ending segregation: This is what God wants us to do.
Warnock’s attempts to claim the moral high ground haven’t sat well with everyone in the Black church. In December, more than two dozen church leaders politely asked him to reconsider his pro-choice views, saying his rationalizations reflected “grave errors of judgment and a lapse in pastoral responsibility.”(At the same time, those leaders praised his “efforts to share Christ while pursuing political solutions to our most pressing problems today.”)
But the fact that Warnock has pastoral responsibilities puts him in an unusual strategic position — not just with voters who want to walk a righteous path, but also with respect to the “radical liberal” attack line from Republicans. In December, the New York Times reported that a different group of religious leaders wrote an open letter to Loeffler, asking her to stop calling Warnock a radical, saying that doing so amounted to “a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand.” The pastor’s “social justice theological and faith traditions,” they reportedly wrote, are “not only accepted as an authentic prophetic message in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, but also a central message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
"The man is not radical," says the Rev. Ralph Huling, senior pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church.
It is a Sunday morning in Columbus, a city near the Georgia-Alabama line. Covid-19 restrictions have forced the event at St. James into the parking lot, where the “amens” have been replaced by gratuitous horn-honking.
“The man is just a proponent of change,” continues Huling. By calling for Medicaid expansion Warnock is simply asking America to live up to its ideals, he explains. “If that is radical,” says Huling, “then we need more radicals.”
Warnock is fond of telling crowds that Jesus “healed the sick, even those with preexisting conditions.” He wants college to be cheaper because he went to Morehouse on the “full faith scholarship” which means he “didn’t have enough money for the first semester.” It works on multiple levels. If you are a progressive hoping for the same policy outcomes, Warnock is speaking your language. If you want someone who understands your culture because he comes from where you come from, that works, too.
The cruel irony of the pandemic is that, in times of social strife, Black people have counted on the comforting rhythms of church life. But on this day there is no clapping from the Amen corner, no church ladies in decorative hats filing in early to grab their favorite seats, no ushers rushing in with fans to cool parishioners who’ve been overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. No little girls in their finest dresses scrounging through grandma’s purse in search of hard peppermint candies, no little boys negotiating with the serving ladies for an extra piece of fried chicken or another dollop of potato salad after the second sermon.
That is, perhaps, why Huling looks particularly excited to be performing in front of a large audience this morning. “I didn’t come to prolong the time,” he says before giving his remarks — a warning to anyone who’s spent time in a Black church that they’d better get ready to settle in.
What follows is a 30-minute stemwinder that starts with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and veers to a treatise on the horse trading between President Lyndon Johnson and Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen over the Civil Rights Act. The sermon reaches a singsong crescendo with Huling in an Ozzy Osbourne rock-star crouch screaming into the microphone.
He’s a bridge (ah) over troubled water. . . . He’s a doctor (ah) in a sickroom. . . . He’s a lawyer (ah) in a courtroom. . . . Ain’t he all right . . . ? There oughta be two or three folks here today, don’t mind being a witness that the LAWWWWD, the LAWWWWD, the LAAWWWWD’s been good to you. . . . If you know he’s all right and you ain’t ashamed then say YEAHHHHHH . . . YEAHHHHH . . . YEAHHHHH!
As Huling performs his sermon, Warnock stands attentively to the side with his hands clasped in front of him. On another Sunday, he might be throwing them in the air, or using them to playfully fan Huling’s brow. At the moment, the reverend seems content in the role of visiting politician, passing through on his way to higher ground.