The Rev. Raphael Warnock is not just a candidate in one of the pivotal US Senate runoffs in Georgia, he’s also a successor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Like King, Warnock roots his call for the government to respect the God-given dignity of all people in his faith.
This powerful appeal for Democrats is leading Republicans to launch an all-out attack on Warnock’s faith. The GOP response is evidence that Democrats, too, have a claim to religious and moral arguments. And, like Warnock, Democrats should not be afraid to claim them.
“A fundamental part of Warnock’s worldview, like King’s, is that the gospel should inform politics, and politics are essential to the work of the church,” The Atlantic wrote about Warnock’s campaign. “I’m an activist preacher,” he told the magazine. “I don’t see how I could lift up that gospel on Sunday, and then fight to get rid of health care in the richest country in the world in the middle of a global pandemic on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Warnock is not new to national politics. For years, he’s been a powerful advocate for social justice and even received national attention for leading the funeral services for the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who was a member at Ebenezer.
Warnock’s campaign, unlike that of many Democrats in recent years, hasn’t shied away from religious appeals to voters and making the election about moral reality. This even applies to the issues that Democrats are most often averse to discuss through a religious frame. “I’m a pro-choice pastor, and I believe that a hospital room is way too small for a woman, her doctor, and the United States government,” Warnock tweeted recently. He’s also pledged to support the Equality Act, which would amend existing civil rights law — including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 championed by King — to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.
Warnock isn’t alone. Many progressives today are rooting their political appeals in their religious convictions at levels that haven’t been seen since King and the Civil Rights Movement. “The Squad” in the House of Representatives have all embraced religious appeals. Religion News Service even described them as “the new version of the God Squad.” Earlier this year, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave a passionate defense of LGBTQ rights rooted in her faith during a congressional hearing: “I feel as though if Christ himself walked through these doors and said what he said thousands of years ago, that we should love our neighbor and our enemy, that we should welcome the stranger, fight for the least of us … he would be maligned as a radical and rejected from these doors.”
And both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also made religion a core aspect of their campaign. They both wrote about their own faith in op-eds, featured a prime time address about religion from Delaware Sen. Chris Coons during the Democratic National Convention, and invested in a seven-figure ad buy around faith-focused campaign ads.
There’s evidence this had an effect on the 2020 election. 55% of Americans see Biden as somewhat or very religious, compared to 35% of Americans who see Trump as somewhat or very religious, according to Pew Research Center. And initial analysis of the election results points toward improvement by Biden among Christian voters.
While the interplay of religion and politics is often hard to calculate, we know that 71% of both Democrats and Independents identify with a religious tradition. Leaving God talk to the GOP has left religious people with only one voice in their ears, which even Hillary Clinton lamented after the 2016 election.
Republicans clearly recognize the strength of the religious appeal. That’s why they’re attacking Warnock’s faith. It’s a classic “attack the strength” political approach, mastered by operative Karl Rove, who is working for the GOP in the Georgia senate runoffs.
Warnock’s opponent Kelly Loeffler and the GOP have released a series of sermon snippets that attempt to paint the successor to King in the worst light possible. One was an attempt to portray Warnock as anti-military. But his point, “America, nobody can serve God and the military,” comes straight from the Gospel of Matthew. Another was portrayed as divisive even though the idea that “America needs to repent for its worship of whiteness” reflects the growing awareness in American churches of the need to confront White supremacy.
The attacks on a prominent Black pastor who champions social justice aren’t surprising. “Martin Luther King Jr, who was lauded and applauded right now, in his last years, was one of the most hated men in this country,” the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, told Politico.
But there’s a reason for GOP alarm. “Republicans see Rev. Warnock as a direct threat to their ability to hijack a gospel that prioritizes caring for and loving our neighbor no matter how or if they pray,” Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran for Georgia lieutenant governor alongside Stacey Abrams in 2018, told me. “Republicans are right to be scared: Voters of faith know authentic presentations of the gospel build up God’s creation rather than tear others down as Kelly Loeffler and the Trump GOP have done.”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, who has led the revival of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign and has become the leading face of social justice-focused Christianity in America, told me that Warnock’s campaign is an example of moral fusion organizing, which addresses poverty and systemic racism simultaneously with moral language. This type of organizing, he believes “helps people see how the lies of divide and conquer tactics are used to pit poor and working people against one another so that the extremely wealthy — people like Rev. Warnock’s opponent — can stay in power and serve their own interests.”
Rev. Barber’s advice for his fellow minister? “Stay rooted deeply in his faith and try to unite Georgians around policies that would lift up everyone,” he told me.
Warnock himself isn’t letting the attacks on his sermons faze him. “I am glad that Sen. Loeffler is listening to my sermons,” he said to reporters. “One of my favorite sermons is entitled ‘Love your neighbor.’ And in practical terms, that means you don’t get rid of your neighbor’s health care in the middle of a pandemic.”
That’s the power of faith-based religious appeals for Democrats. It’s not a question of health care politics, but of basic morality and justice.
Editor’s note: Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is the author of the new book “Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity.” Follow him on Twitter @GuthrieGF. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.