Politics

In the Attacks on Raphael Warnock’s Preaching, One Old American Tradition Meets Another

Raphael Warnock speaks at a campaign event in a black bubble coat.
Raphael Warnock speaks at a campaign event on Tuesday in Atlanta. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Back in January, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Sen. Kelly Loeffler stood in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church and praised the legacy of “Georgia’s beloved son.”

“I am blessed to live in a world where a giant, a world-changer, and a trailblazer lived. A city where a man of great faith and resolve called home,” said Loeffler. “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—in public service, in community, and in Washington.”

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The speech went as far as to praise the current work of King’s spiritual home—where her current Senate runoff opponent, Raphael Warnock serves as senior pastor—during the church’s annual service commemorating the King’s legacy.

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“Dr. King’s call to service, to sacrifice, to put others first—it shaped our home and inspired us to ask what Dr. King asked the world: ‘What are you doing for others?’ That pressing question holds much power both here in a church that puts words into action, and for leaders that carry on his work today—people with the understanding that ‘love thy neighbor’ has no fine print,” she continued.

The warmth of those platitudes was short-lived. As Election Day approached and passed, and Georgia’s senate race entered runoff territory, Loeffler and her supporters launched a spate of political attacks that attempted to paint Warnock as a religious radical and leftist.

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Republican Rep. Doug Collins attacked Warnock’s pro-choice status and painted Ebenezer, a historically Black church, as demonic during a campaign event with Loeffler in November: “There is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor. What you have is a lie from the bed of Hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”

Two ads—one from Loeffler’s campaign and another from American Crossroads—wrongly claim that Warnock called police officers “thugs.” The same American Crossroads ad falsely insinuates that Warnock supports defunding the police. Another from Loeffler’s campaign maintains that Warnock hosted Fidel Castro in 1995 when he was a youth pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. This is also not true.

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The pivot from praising King and his church to attacking Warnock and the same church was shameless, but in some sense the attacks are more honest than Loeffler’s January remarks were. The fuzzy, universally acceptable version of King many Americans pay lip service to on MLK Day is at odds with the work of the actual man, and with how his country received his message at the time. By the end of his life, King had grown increasingly critical of America’s power structures and seemingly less interested in working within the confines of existing institutions.

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Warnock’s message is far from being as threatening to the American status quo as King’s was; the very act of seeking a Senate seat is an endorsement of the idea that the system can be put to good purpose. Still, he is the inheritor of the Ebenezer pulpit and the legacy that goes with it—a Black legacy of moral preaching that has always hit a sore spot in white America.

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In this context, even mainstream Christian preaching is taken as a provocation. In a 2011 YouTube clip, Warnock proclaims during a sermon that “nobody can serve God and the military.” He continued: “You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve.”

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He was simply expanding on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24, from the Sermon on the Mount. But the clip prompted conservative backlash online and from right-leaning news outlets. Sen. Marco Rubio, who ostentatiously quotes Bible verses on his own Twitter account, called Warnock a “radical.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson called Warnock “a fake minister with a tax exemption.”

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And with his mild suggestion that God and the military occupy different domains, Warnock didn’t come anywhere close to what King preached in “Beyond Vietnam.” On April 4, 1967, King walked into the pulpit of Riverside Church, after two years of increasing frustration with the war in Vietnam. During the early escalation of the war, King had called for a negotiated settlement—which might have spared hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives in the years that followed—only to have a sitting senator threaten him with the Logan Act. He had seen Lyndon Johnson’s war budget gut Great Society programs and was at his wit’s end about the human impact of the war at home and abroad.

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Beyond Vietnam” is a sprawling indictment of American imperialism, systemic racism, and disregard for the impoverished—three arms that King aptly identified as belonging to the same beast—as well as an assessment of the U.S. government’s priorities. During his time in front of Riverside’s congregation, King challenged the widely held view that the desire for peace abroad and the fight for civil rights at home were separate movements. King found it impossible to separate the devastation being wrecked in Vietnam from Black folks, along with the nation’s poor, being sent off to fight for rights they were not afforded at home.

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We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

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Exactly one year later, on April 4, 1968, King would be assassinated in Memphis. At the time of his death, he was working on a speech titled “Why America May Go to Hell.”

This Black prophetic tradition has long been treated as a target of opportunity by conservatives. During Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, right-wing media clipped the most shock-inducing moments from “Confusing God and Government,” a sermon delivered by his pastor in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright, and blasted them across the airways. Wright and, by extension, Obama were painted as radicals who hated America, until the candidate ended up disavowing Wright’s message and then Wright himself.

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But the broader context of Wright’s sermon shows that he was emphasizing the belief that God disapproves of government-sanctioned systemic inequality:

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And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed.

She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

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The same line of attack is coming for Warnock. Another GOP-backed advertisement falsely claiming that Warnock “defended Jeremiah Wright’s hatred … [and] celebrated anti-American hatred.” An interview Warnock did with Fox News is also clipped to show the pastor saying, “We celebrate Rev. Wright.” But the advertisement omits key pieces of Warnock’s explanation during his Fox News hit: “We celebrate Rev. Wright in the same way that we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church, which when preachers tell the truth very often it makes people uncomfortable.”

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The Black church is rooted in discomfort and birthed out of inequity. During enslavement, Black congregants would convene late at night to express their grievances and share their aspirations without white oversight, according to historian Eric Foner’s in-depth research on Reconstruction. Following emancipation, Black people began to leave biracial congregations for two reasons: white folks’ reluctance to treat the Black people within their congregations equally and the “Black quest for self-determination.” Foner notes that abolition did not change the hearts and minds of white clergymen, who continued to adhere to the supposedly biblical justifications for enslavement. The result was a network of independent Black churches that became launching pads for political action and conduits of liberation.

And pastors, historically and currently, have used their status and rousing oration to connect their congregations to national politics via their sermons. Warnock, Wright, and King, while varying in degrees of boldness, fit squarely within this tradition. As does the backlash they’ve received for speaking honestly about the conditions to which Black people are subjugated.

Though his name is now invoked to convey an allegiance to justice, King’s messaging and legacy have been revised. He was widely disliked when he was alive. The day after King delivered “Beyond Vietnam,” nearly 170 newspapers denounced him and President Lyndon B. Johnson severed their professional relationship. Wright retired as pastor of a church he built from the ground up and became the radical face of skewed perceptions of Black theology. And Warnock’s words are being decontextualized to paint him as a threat to the sanctity of American politics.

“We know what they’re doing,” said Warnock of the attacks in a November interview with the Grio. “These are all ways of saying that he’s something other than you. And it’s really unfortunate that people are still trafficking in this kind of politics.”

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