On Tuesday, the Rev. Raphael Warnock made history when he defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election in Georgia. He will become the first Black person to represent the state as a U.S. senator and the 11th Black person from any state to serve as one.
Warnock not only made history; he was part of history, too. As the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same church the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead, Warnock stands in a long line of Christian leaders who saw political participation as part of their role as minister. Historically, Black Christians have not hesitated to get involved in politics because policies — from voting rights to anti-lynching laws to health-care practices — enacted by legislators have often been closely tied to their safety and opportunities.
Warnock’s political pursuit stands out since he serves as the pastor of a storied and well-known church. Christian political engagement in the 21st century has adapted to technological changes and changing approaches to social justice. Black Christians today can get involved in politics by signing online petitions, organizing protests via text message and conducting hashtag campaigns to support certain causes. Contemporary activism does not necessarily rely on a singular figurehead, such as a church pastor, for leadership or mobilization.
Yet, even with the advent of new ways to engage in political action, the Black church remains a cornerstone in Black communities and a crucial ally in the fight for freedom. The Black church has for centuries served as a bulwark against bigotry. It gave Black people the spiritual, economic and political tools they needed to protest racial oppression and organize for uplift.
Warnock represents the Black liberation theological tradition that emerged in academic circles through the work of James Cone and others in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a tradition that takes the Black experience as a vital part of understanding and reinterpreting Christianity in a way that addresses racial oppression and leads to greater freedom for Black people.
While Warnock reflects one expression of political activism, the history of Black Christian political engagement in the United States stretches back centuries. Many historically Black churches and denominations — such as the First African Church of Savannah, Ga., first gathering in 1773, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, formally organized in 1816 — formed as a refuge against the brutality of race-based chattel slavery and to develop greater independence from White people and their institutions. The Black church became the most autonomous entity within the Black community at a time when Black people were seldom permitted to congregate and organize on their own.
In 1865, Charles H. Pearce, a Black minister, moved to Florida as a missionary to help start new African Methodist Episcopal congregations during the Reconstruction era. He was also an outspoken political leader who was elected several times as a state senator. “A man in this state cannot do his whole duty as a minister,” Pearce said, “except if he but looks out for the political interests of his people.”
Only a few years later, Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi became the first African American U.S. senator when he was appointed to fill a vacant seat in 1870. Before holding that position, he had served as a minister in the AME Church. He also served as a chaplain in the Army during the Civil War.
More than half a century later, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. walked in the footsteps of his own father to become minister of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1937, one of the largest Black Baptist congregations, in New York City. Shortly thereafter, the younger Powell entered the political arena. The support from his congregation proved indispensable in his career as a member of Congress from 1945-1971.
Beyond honing individual leaders, Black churches also served as the primary and most important site of political organizing. During the 20th century, Black activists found a space in these churches to plan and strategize as they worked to advance the cause of civil rights. King joined other ministers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to lead various marches and protests to challenge Jim Crow and advocate for political rights. They often met in churches, where they shared with local residents their plans and visions for the future.
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted just over one year from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 20, 1956. During that time leaders had to organize a complex alternative to the city’s public bus transportation system. It called for families to lend their cars and volunteers to drive routes to pick up Black passengers. Much of the planning for the boycott — from regular meetings to mimeographing fliers — happened in Black churches. Whenever the morale of the protesters began to fail, mass meetings held at churches roused their spirits and encouraged them to keep up the boycott. King did not run for political office, but his platform as a leader was built upon the Black church. His much-lauded oratorical abilities were refined in the choir lofts and pulpits of the Black church. Black churches hosted King and others to talk about civil rights and leaders depended on local Black churches to mobilize crowds.
In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer, then an impoverished Black sharecropper, heard a message by Baptist minister James Bevel and civil rights activist James Forman at William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Ruleville, Miss. They talked about voting rights and how Black sharecroppers such as Hamer could register to vote for themselves. Hamer attempted to register to vote for the first time later that year and spent the remainder of her life as a political organizer and voting rights activist. Activists James Lawson and Bob Moses, who were part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, respectively, chose a church as the location to make their appeal.
In the Jim Crow South, Black churches provided one of the few spaces where Black residents could congregate and construct plans for collective action. Although many Black churches distinguished between the spiritual mission of the church and the workings of political bodies, they have always seen the inter-relatedness of justice and faith.
Black Christian political participation has not gone without opposition. White people recognized Black churches as spaces that threatened the racist social order. In 1904, a white lynch mob strategically chose a location that would inflict maximum fear on the Black populace; they tortured and murdered Luther and Mary Holbert on the grounds of a Black church. On Sept. 15, 1963, just two weeks after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a white supremacist terrorist planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and killed four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — all between the ages of 11 and 14.
Some of the resistance to Black Christian political participation has been nonviolent but no less destructive. In the Senate runoff, Loeffler leveled attacks at Warnock’s interpretation of the faith. She circulated a clip from a 2011 sermon when Warnock said, “America, nobody can serve God and the military.” While Warnock was making a larger point about putting God before any other allegiances, Loeffler used it as an opportunity to label the preacher as a “radical liberal.”
Labels such as “socialist,” “communist,” “Marxist” and lately “critical race theorist” have also been used to undermine the theological credibility of Black Christians working for racial justice in the political realm.
Not all Black churches have a favorable view of their pastors participating in politics, nor do they agree on the methods of social justice transformation. Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock pastors, is part of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a denomination that split off from the more politically conservative National Baptist Convention in 1961. While there is a diversity of views, historically the Black church has navigated the tension between the United States as it should be and the nation as it is.
Black Christians have leveled the most trenchant critiques of the failures of American policy while at the same time working vigorously to make the promise of democracy real for all people.
Warnock’s election to the U.S. Senate demonstrates continuity with the historic Black Christian tradition of attending to the spiritual needs of Black people while also working to change their material conditions through political action. His victory is directly attributable to the mobilization of the Black church. As sites of organizing, voter registration, leadership development and inspiration, Black churches continue to be the nucleus of Black political participation.