After his landmark victory in the Georgia Senate race, the Rev. Raphael Warnock told CNN that he planned to return to his pulpit to preach the following Sunday. As the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Warnock’s progressive faith was a consistent part of his campaign—and a frequent point of attack. Now, as Georgia’s first Black senator-elect, he joins the state’s first Jewish senator-elect, Jon Ossoff, in breaking racial, political, and religious barriers. On CNN, Warnock invoked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and King, two religious titans who marched together during the civil rights movement: “I think he and Dr. King are smiling in this moment.”
The triumph of the moment was too quickly overshadowed by the Capitol insurrection that followed it. The two became sadly intertwined. Indeed, the attacks on Warnock’s faith and the Capitol both revealed ugly realities about American religion and our body politic. As violent mobs of right-wing extremists flooded D.C. and the halls of Congress, they carried with them symbols. There were Confederate flags and anti-Semitic apparel and the brandishing of semi-automatic weapons. On the National Mall appeared gallows with a noose. As The Atlantic’s Clint Hill tweeted: “Can’t stop thinking about that photo of a man strolling through the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate flag over his shoulder the day after voters in Georgia elected the first Black and first Jewish person from the state to serve in the Senate. The metaphor was almost too on the nose.”
Ugly symbolism and dangerous rhetoric were on display during the Georgia Senate races as well. The campaign of Republican Senator David Perdue, Ossoff’s opponent, ran an attack ad that enlarged the Jewish candidate’s nose in what Ossoff said was the “oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history.” Warnock’s opponent, Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, repeatedly attacked the pastor as radical because of his faith and social justice sermons. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) released an attack ad against Warnock featuring excerpts of black theologians and famed preachers: the late Rev. Dr. James Cone, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, and the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, ending with its editorial proclamation: “You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps.” What was and is lacking in Republicans’ understanding of Warnock’s preaching is any sense of its historical imperatives and, particularly, any depth of understanding of the Black church and its preaching tradition, the social gospel movement, and Black liberation theology.
For too long, the Republican Party has claimed to be the party of the faithful, namely through its identification with the Religious Right. For decades, they have claimed the mantle of “Moral Majority.” Paul Weyrich, the late political activist and co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in the 1970s, “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition. When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” Today, these Christians—mainly white evangelicals with a swath of Catholics and other Protestants—make up the backbone of support for Trump.
The GOP does not have a monopoly on religious voters or Christian values, though. They have tied their politics to a corrupted brand of white Christianity—as seen at the Capitol riot and the rally before it. Among the symbols there, perhaps none were so numerous as those of Christianity, including crosses, images of Jesus, and signs with biblical verses. The meld of the GOP and Trump and Christian nationalism seemed complete. When the mob violently stormed into the Senate chamber, one insurrectionist could be seen carrying the “Christian flag.” Outside, some protesters unfurled a massive banner. It read: “Jesus 2020.”
Even now, some Christian Trump supporters are sheepishly distancing the president and themselves from the attack. “Disobeying and assaulting police is a sin whether it’s done by Antifa or angry Republicans,” tweeted the Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, “The violent, lawless actions at the U.S. Capitol building against Congress and Capitol Police are wrong and dangerous … Pray for our Republic!” Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, condemned the attack and said that “Christians must think biblically about the events that took place.”
These Trump supporters seem to say that it is not right to malign their Christianity or beliefs in this way, just as it was not right to ask any questions of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s conservative Catholic faith during her confirmation hearings. Yet, somehow it was fair game to attack Warnock for his faith, beliefs, and sermons without any theological context or understanding. How fascinating it is to see whose beliefs and interpretations are publicly dissected and criticized.
During Warnock’s campaign, a video of him preaching that “nobody can serve God and the military” turned into a rallying cry for some Republicans, who accused him of being anti-military. Loeffler, his opponent, said that Warnock “insulted our active service military members. He insulted our veterans. He insulted their families.” Meanwhile, other Republicans, including Senator Tom Cotton, demanded that Warnock drop out of the race. And yet, Scripture says “no man can serve two masters”—the biblical verse that Warnock was invoking to mean that a devotion to God must come first. This lack of understanding about the Black preaching tradition is willful and not a product of simple unawareness. It is necessary to protect a white evangelical worldview.
The Black tradition of the social gospel equipped civil rights leaders with much of their movement’s intellectual underpinning. Essentially, to attack Warnock as “radical” is to attack, square-on, the legacy of King. Like Warnock, he believed that racism, sexism, militarism, poverty, and classism were deeply ingrained iniquities that long have threatened America’s democratic ideals. Whenever religious figures speak in the prophetic tradition that critiques American imperialism and exceptionalism, they are vilified as anti-American. These tropes are compounded and used more frequently against those situated in the Black church and African American preaching tradition. In 1967, King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address at Riverside Church crucially condemned America for its lack of empathy and financial resources for the poor and racially oppressed while calling for the end of America’s proliferation of the military-industrial complex. As pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist—where King, his father, and maternal grandfather were pastors—Warnock’s preaching proclaims the belief that Christianity is spiritual and political and grounded in justice for the oppressed. The attacks against Warnock are not only jabs at the Black prophetic preaching tradition but also digs at Black American Christian communities on the whole, who through the practiced preaching of biblical texts, like that of the Exodus story, insistently call America to be its better self.
Religious beliefs emerge from a much broader and more complex political-ideological context than our holy books, alone, can provide. For instance, the idea of climate crisis denial is often inextricably linked to belief in unfettered capitalism, justified by a kind of “prosperity theology,” the belief that material gain is a reward from God for personal virtue. No one should be surprised at the intersection of faith and public policy. Many presidents and politicians have used the symbols of Christianity to appeal to the American people. The famed sociologist Robert Bellah coined the term “civil religion,” the belief that semi-religious national symbols—often derived from the Abrahamic faiths—are used to unite the country during difficult times.
What happens to our civil religion now? Where there is hope, it will come from boundary-breaking leaders like Ossoff and Warnock, who herald a new day in Congress. These newly elected senators support issues like voting rights, inclusiveness, and access to healthcare, as well as taking care of people regardless of their background—a nod to the biblical value of opening hands to those in need.
The Republican Party’s current fusion with Christian nationalism is dangerous. The idea that America was founded as a Christian, mostly white nation—and that an authentic American must be Christian—erodes the very sanctity of any unifying “civil religion.” This reality was egregiously illustrated on January 6 by Trump’s incitement of violence from his Christian supporters on the National Mall. It was ignobly seen in his use of the Bible and a church as pretexts to forcibly remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square last June. Warnock’s sermons, like King’s sermonic critiques of America, are not distortions of the Bible like these events. Rather, they are prophetic commentaries on the power structure that supports the idea of Christian nationalism. And they are needed more than ever, from the pulpits of Georgia to the congressional chambers of Washington.
Quardricos Bernard Driskell is an adjunct professor of legislative politics where he teaches on religion, race, public policy, and politics at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4.