There have been periods in U.S. history when one particular institution rises to the forefront of the prevailing political dynamics. The Black church is experiencing one of those periods at this moment. That is largely due to a prominent leader in it running in one of the most consequential and closely watched U.S. Senate races — in Georgia — and the church’s centrality to the movement for racial justice, which was a dominant theme of 2020.

That means that some in the Black church consider themselves a target of unfair criticism from conservatives and, at worst, racist attacks by the far right for the social policies many churches and their leaders are promoting.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and her allies have taken to labeling her Democratic opponent Raphael Warnock, the reverend of a historical church in Atlanta, as a radical and socialist, and picking apart his sermons for evidence to support those claims. Because the stakes for the race between the two are so high — control of the Senate will be determined by it and the other Senate race in Georgia — this main line of attack against Warnock is one that is being scrutinized by national media and both political parties.

A separate matter put Black churches in the national spotlight when a protest in Washington provided an ugly reminder of the dark history of attacks on Black churches during the civil rights era, in a way that tied together the politics and the church itself. Earlier this month, members of the Proud Boys, a male chauvinist group with white nationalist ties, removed and burned Black Lives Matter banners from two historical Black churches in downtown D.C.

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the churches that was vandalized, shared his thoughts about the incident days later in a Washington Post opinion piece:

I am deeply disturbed by this incident (one of several incidents targeting houses of worship), but I am more disturbed by the continued mythology of imperial America. This mythology supports those who commit violence against human beings for political ends, deny citizens their right to vote, denigrate sacred spaces and claim as their own whatever they survey.
It mattered not that the land was ours. It mattered not that the sign was ours. The mythology that motivated the perpetrators on Saturday night was the underbelly of the American narrative — that White men can employ violence to take what they want and do what they want and call that criminality justice, freedom and liberty.

In this political and theological divide, some historians and ministers who hold the Black church in high regard see a cultural battle over not just the moral direction of the country — but over which political worldview aligns most with Christian values.

In many ways, the disagreement is about who can claim Christian values as the foundation of their politics. For many White conservatives, the Christian faith is not one that centers on denouncing racism, the military-industrial complex and other values of the social justice movements embraced by Warnock and many before him. Albert Mohler, a Trump supporter and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the most influential evangelical seminaries in the country, has been criticized often for his opposition to elevating conversations about social justice in churches.

But to others like Warnock, the faith — which centers on following the teachings of Jesus — is one that is rooted in seeking justice, particularly for those who are often unjustly treated by society.

Jemar Tisby, a doctoral candidate at the University of Mississippi and author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” said attacking the theology of one’s political opponents is not unheard of in American politics — perhaps particularly when it comes to issues of social justice.

For Warnock — and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before him — the Christian faith is one that advocates for “the least of these”: the most marginalized in society. And in the U.S. context, that often means the poor, ethnic minorities and other groups that have often been overlooked or intentionally discriminated against by the powers that be — including lawmakers in Washington and state capitals.

“It’s a very old conflict,” Tisby said. “What we’re seeing, I think, is another wave of an ideological civil war, if you will, where these political battles are proxy for theological battles. You saw this in the actual Civil War, where proslavery Southern theologians viewed the Civil War — this military battle — as a proxy over a battle over the Bible.”

“This is not a one-to-one parallel,” he added. “But there are some similarities in the sense that the different political views between the majority of Black Christians and White conservative Christians is also being cast as a battle over the Bible and Christian orthodoxy.”

Some of those who embrace the theological and political worldviews preached in Black churches across the country believe they are being unfairly portrayed as too far out of step for mainstream America.

Loeffler, a business executive who is also Catholic, has repeatedly referred to Warnock, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church — where King once pastored — as “the most radical and dangerous candidate in America,” and her campaign has set up a website attacking some of his sermons.

“Radical Raphael Warnock was educated by Marxists, praised by socialists, and even welcomed Communist leader, Fidel Castro, to his church,” the site reads, despite fact-checkers having dismissed the allegation that Warnock had invited the controversial Cuban leader to his church in 1995.

And at a debate earlier this month, Loeffler pushed back on criticism from Warnock by claiming that he misused the Scriptures to support his politics. She said:

I’m a Christian. I’m a person of deep faith. I don’t need a lecture from someone who has used the Bible to not only justify attacking our military, that’s not in Matthew 6:24. It doesn’t say you can’t serve the military and God, but he’s also used the Bible to justify abortion. I cannot stand by and let Georgians not know who my opponent is, how radical his views are, and how he would fundamentally change our country. He’s out of step with Georgia’s values.

Loeffler visited Ebenezer Baptist earlier this year before Warnock declared his interest in her Senate seat, and she did not voice concerns with his sermons at that time.

Warnock has argued that Loeffler is misrepresenting his view on the military to deflect from her own values, which he said has allowed her to cozy up to a former Ku Klux Klan leader and other white nationalists. Loeffler’s campaign said that the lawmaker was not aware that she was posing with a white supremacist and that she condemns his views.

Other conservatives have joined Loeffler in her portrayal of Warnock. Meanwhile, more than 100 ministers wrote a letter in Warnock’s defense, demanding Loeffler “cease and desist” her characterizations of his theology in a way that otherizes the theology espoused at many Black churches.

In their open letter, the faith leaders said they see Loeffler’s “attacks against Warnock as a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand.” Here’s more of what they wrote:

We witnessed how Conservatives uproariously cried foul when anyone asked how Amy Coney Barrett’s faith might affect her rulings as she was under consideration for the high court. We remember your Tweet characterizing those perceived attacks against Barrett as ‘disgusting’ but now you characterize Warnock’s religious convictions as ‘despicable, disgusting, and wrong.’ You continue to parse and take out of context decades old utterances by Warnock from the pulpit. The cognitive dissonance is unparalleled!

The defeat of President Trump — and perhaps more directly, the success of President-elect Joe Biden — is due in part to Black Christians turning out in record numbers to back the Democratic nominee in Georgia, one of the most culturally influential states in the Bible Belt.

In that sense, the conflict between Loeffler and Warnock did not begin with the Senate race and should not be expected to end after all of the ballots are counted. As politics — and theology — continue to divide the electorate, opposing sides’ criticism of the other’s politics could increasingly include takedowns of their theological worldviews.