As members of the clergy, we are excited to see a fellow pastor running for the US Senate in Georgia. We know Rev. Raphael Warnock personally. His warmth, intelligence, advocacy and love for people distinguish him among our colleagues. He is a brilliant and funny person, and he is a gifted pastor and preacher.
That, to put it mildly, is not the portrait of Warnock — a Democrat best known for serving as the spiritual leader of the church once led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — that his Republican opponents are trying to paint in the runup to our state’s runoff elections.
Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a practicing Catholic, continually describes Warnock as a “radical liberal” — one whose views are far too extreme for a conservative-leaning state like Georgia. She and her supporters are using misleading snippets of some of Warnock’s sermons in their campaign ads, even though she was among several Republicans who said religious attacks during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation process were “disgusting.”
We’re not naive about the merciless nature of politics, especially when it comes to an election that can decide control of the US Senate — and the course of the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency. But as faith leaders who know Warnock, we can’t allow the attacks on his beliefs to go unchallenged. The attacks on his faith are really attacks on the prophetic Black church tradition embodied by King and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Almost every line of attack against Warnock could have been just as easily directed against King — and often was.
As religious leaders, we can’t help but notice that Loeffler did not attack the faith of her Republican primary opponent, Rep. Doug Collins — who, like Warnock, is also a pastor. Loeffler even spoke from the pulpit at Ebenezer on January 20 of this year — ostensibly to honor King’s legacy. Now, she’s attacking Warnock for his faith, which raises an obvious question — why?
The answer is a simple one: It is what some White Christians, especially in the South, do when they see Black Christians becoming powerful and talking openly about how inequality, economic justice and human rights are theological concerns that have political remedies. King himself was relentlessly attacked throughout his life by White Christians as an “outside agitator,” a “communist” and a threat to an American way of life that privileged White power and suppressed that of Black citizens.
Then, as now, the attacks came from both conservative White politicians and conservative White religious leaders. Some of the harshest attacks against Warnock in the current race come from his fellow pastors, including Collins, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. During a campaign rally at a gun range, Collins went after Warnock for his support of reproductive rights. “There’s no such thing as a pro-choice pastor,” he said, ignoring an inconvenient truth — “pro-choice” pastors like Warnock are more the rule, than the exception. A majority of mainline Protestant pastors are, like White mainline and Black Protestant congregants, supportive of reproductive rights. Collins then derided Warnock for spreading “a lie from the bed of hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
Those last words are the tell. Collins is attacking not just Warnock, but also the church where King made his name — and an institution that has been a powerful force in the Black prophetic tradition since 1886.
That, too, is nothing new. In 1961, some White churches temporarily stopped donating to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after King gave a landmark speech there. Two years later, eight White clergymen in Alabama penned a joint letter demanding King and his supporters to stop their public demonstrations against segregation, which they warned would “incite to hatred and violence.” (King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was written in direct response.)
Those attacks reflect the vital role Black churches played in the rise of the civil rights movement. At Ebenezer Baptist and at countless other Black churches, clergymen and women shared Biblical lessons about God’s mercy, God’s righteousness and God’s special love for those who are poor and marginalized. They envisioned a world in which justice and mercy are experienced on earth, not only in heaven. They acted on that belief through protests and other acts of non-violence. They bled for those beliefs. And, in far too many cases, including that of King, they died for them, too.
Those stirring calls to social and racial justice have even greater resonance in 2020, a year shaped by the explosive growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and White America’s belated — and halting — steps towards greater racial reckoning, equity and justice.
We are proud allies in that fight. The God we worship listens to and cares for all who are suffering — and calls us to do the same. Like Warnock, we believe in policies that alleviate unnecessary suffering by promoting the common good: health care, education, caring for the environment and economic opportunity for everyone. The Bible is clear that the “imago dei” — the image of God — is in every person. This way of seeing people shapes not only the content of the politics of the prophetic tradition, but the way we engage in politics — by upholding norms of decency and by treating even our political enemies with respect.
It’s a teaching that Loeffler, Collins and others who claim to speak for God should remember — and that can and should be a source of potential common ground at a moment of deep division.
Like King, Warnock represents a centuries-old tradition that mixes deep love for America with an unrelenting opposition to all forms of oppression and an unflagging effort to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, regardless of their race. White conservative Christians don’t own religion in the South or have the right to decide what’s an acceptable way of practicing it. And, in January, we hope voters of good faiths cast votes that remind Loeffler and her allies of that.
Reverends Beth Waltemath and David Lewicki are co-pastors of North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia. David Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.