Sen. Raphael Warnock (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

The Making of Raphael Warnock

A bridge between the ivory tower and the ebony trenches

Raphael Gamaliel Warnock is today the face of the Democratic Party’s attempt to retain control of the U.S. Senate. As much as any figure of the past or present, including Martin Luther King Jr., he exemplifies the social-justice faith and politics of the Black social-gospel tradition, being steeped in its idioms, history, theology, and activism. Atlanta, Georgia, long the epicenter of the Black social gospel, was the national home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the civil-rights movement. The education-business-church troika of Atlanta made possible the distinguished political careers of Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, and John Lewis. Then it lifted Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, to a statewide victory, making history. Warnock was a leader in the statewide fight for access to affordable health care and the chair of New Georgia Project when his friend Stacey Abrams persuaded him to run for the U.S. Senate. He has the progressive politics and deep commitment to racial justice befitting his position at Ebenezer. But he is also a gifted theologian who fuses social-gospel and liberationist themes and offers a compelling interpretation of where the Black church has been and where it should go.

Born in 1969 in Savannah, Georgia, Warnock was the eleventh of twelve children in a blended family and the first child born to his parents, Jonathan and Verlene. Jonathan Warnock grew up in Savannah, served in the army during World War II, learned auto mechanics, made his living by restoring junked cars, and entered ministry in his forties, preaching at a Pentecostal Holiness Church. He was divorced with four children when a younger divorced woman with six children, Verlene Brooks, joined his congregation. Their marriage soon produced two more children, Raphael and his younger sister Valencia, who both grew up in the Kayton Homes public-housing project of Savannah.

Jonathan Warnock was reflective, kindly, deeply serious, and hardworking, requiring all his children to be dressed and ready for the day by dawn. On Sundays, the service began with a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag hung behind the pulpit. Warnock’s parents were fervently Evangelical but respected the right of their children to make up their own minds. Warnock took to all of it, quoting the Bible so earnestly the family nicknamed him “the Rev.” He idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and was determined to win admission to Morehouse, King’s alma mater. When Warnock was accepted at Morehouse, Upward Bound and a Pell Grant helped make it possible for him to attend. At Morehouse he found the mentor of a lifetime, Chapel Dean Lawrence Edward Carter, a leading disciple and interpreter of King. Warnock became a Baptist, graduated in 1991, and enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, graduating in 1994.

At Union he found another mentor, James Cone, the originator of Black liberation theology. It would be equally accurate to say that Cone found Warnock. Cone cared very much about the future of Black theology. He surveyed his master’s-degree classes in search of the next important Black theologian and picked Warnock out as the best candidate. Warnock was already quite important to Cone when he entered the doctoral program in 1994. He had everything that Cone looked for in a theologian—a strong identification with Blackness, humble beginnings, religious passion, intellectual acumen, teachability, and courage. Cone pinned his hopes for Black theology on Warnock, which became a heavy burden for Warnock to bear as he began ministry at Abyssinian Church in Harlem, first as intern minister, then as youth pastor, and finally as assistant pastor.

Cone chafed at losing many of the best Black theologian prospects to church ministry. Whenever he told me how much it bothered him—which was often—he presented Warnock as Exhibit A. Cone shook his head in the 1990s as Warnock became a fixture at Abyssinian, serving under Calvin O. Butts III, an influential figure in New York City politics. In 1993, Butts launched a public crusade against gangster rap that Warnock joined, decrying violent and misogynistic lyrics; Warnock mediated a generational divide in Harlem over this issue. He also blasted Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s work requirements for welfare recipients, calling the program a cruel hoax, and spoke against police violence targeting Black men. In 1997, Warnock’s brother Keith, a Savannah police officer, was caught in an FBI drug sting and sentenced to life in prison. Warnock grieved for his brother, supported him, and protested against the racist incarceration system. He also began to yearn for a congregation of his own.

In 2000 he had his heart set on the pastorate of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, but didn’t get the job. The following year Warnock landed at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, where he flourished, speaking out on the AIDS crisis. In 2004, Joseph Roberts Jr. retired as pastor of Ebenezer and Warnock was exactly what that congregation wanted: young, accomplished, charismatic, and fully in the social-gospel mode of MLK. He later reflected that all his ministerial training and leadership took place “at churches that, like Ebenezer, had served as social gospel stations led by social gospel ministers.” Winning the pastorate of Ebenezer in 2005 gave Warnock immediate entry into the upper echelon of Atlanta society. He declared that he belonged to the King tradition, something very different from the prosperity gospel of Creflo Dollar and Bishop Eddie L. Long. Warnock said King did not tell the Memphis garbage collectors “they should ‘name it and claim it.’” Instead, King criticized the system that exploited the garbage collectors: “And for that he gave his life. To me, that’s what Christian ministry is all about.” Meanwhile, Cone was still angry with Warnock for taking the ministry path, for taking too long to write his dissertation, and for not writing a dissertation that Cone liked.

Twelve years into his doctoral program, Warnock’s dissertation remained unfinished. He was eager to devote himself to Ebenezer, meeting its swirl of ministerial and civic demands, but he ran out of extensions at Union and pressed hard to meet a March 2006 deadline. Cone disliked the disseration’s argument that Black theology was seriously weakened by belonging mostly to the academy. It took Cone several years to accept criticisms from Warnock that he readily accepted from religious historian Gayraud Wilmore. Eventually there was a book version of Warnock’s dissertation, The Divided Mind of the Black Church (2014). It was a cry of the heart, and a judicious analysis. By the time the book came out, Warnock was a leader of the fight to expand Medicaid under Obamacare in Republican-run Georgia.

 

Two powerful identity-forming forces—white Evangelicalism and the history of Black struggle—created the Black church, shaped what it became, and never quite fit together.

The Divided Mind of the Black Church conveyed its argument in its title. To Warnock, the religious identity of the Black church is a kind of double-consciousness. Two powerful identity-forming forces—white Evangelicalism and the history of Black struggle—created the Black church, shaped what it became, and never quite fit together. The contradictions between the Evangelical and liberationist strands of Black Christianity have never been resolved. Warnock argued that four overlapping “moments” have failed to solve the problem, passing a divided mind from generation to generation. Black Christianity came late to thinking critically about theology, even theology about Black Christianity. Black Christians readily conflated their passion for freedom with Christian doctrine, so they didn’t question the doctrinal integrity of an inherited orthodoxy. They were simply puzzled about why white Christians failed to live up to the ethical demands of the Gospel. According to Warnock, the Black church failed to consider that white Christians did not worry about the chasm between their faith and practice because they didn’t even see it. Racism was barely mentioned in white theology. Had Black ministers reflected on the white Christian betrayal of Christianity, Black theology might have emerged sooner.

The first of Warnock’s four “moments” was the formation of a liberationist faith, what the religious historian Albert Raboteau called “the invisible institution” of slave religion. Black Christians worked out an anti-racist version of Christian faith, which they fused with an inherited Evangelicalism. The second moment was the founding of a liberationist church, the independent Black-church movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was the chief expression of Black resistance to slavery. This movement had a political dimension—it rebelled against racist white society, not merely the white racist church—but its deeper critique was theological. Black Christians broke away from the white churches, condemned American racism, espoused an egalitarian understanding of what the church is supposed to be, and showed that the white churches were as racist as the society at large. Warnock emphasized that Black churches were born in the fires of the First and Second Great Awakenings. They were creative agents in the Second Great Awakening, deeply absorbing its Evangelical consciousness and revival sensibility. The Evangelical emphasis on personal spirituality worked in the Black church, but it stifled the liberationist impulse of Black faith, preaching that individual conversion is what matters and that spirituality is primarily interior.

The third moment was the civil-rights movement, a church-led liberationist crusade. Warnock’s book does not track the debate over social-justice theology that occurred between the second and third moments. It makes a cursory reference to decades of Black social struggle before asserting that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was something new and revolutionary. The Black church had never previously set out to redeem the soul of America, as the SCLC slogan put it. Only with the founding of the SCLC did the Black church become an instrument of social transformation. The civil-rights movement was a revolution of consciousness in the Black church, but it was theologically truncated. Essentially, it was a form of revivalism that relied on the charisma of spellbinding preachers. It created a liberationist movement fired by the Black Christian ethic of equality but stopped short of developing a Black liberation theology.

The fourth moment was the Cone project of liberation theology, declaring that Black and white Christianity held nothing in common; white Christianity, it declared, was actually anti-Christian. Cone theologized a systematic understanding of the Black church as an instrument of liberation. Formally, Warnock made an audacious claim for Black liberation theology, treating it as comparable in importance to the formation of Black faith, the founding of the Black church, and the creation of a liberationist movement. But the asymmetry in this comparison set up his critical argument.  

Early Black theology soared by stepping into the putative void described by Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Joseph R. Washington, and C. Eric Lincoln. Black Christianity, they claimed, had no significant theology or theologian until Cone and Roberts founded Black theology. Warnock followed this line of argument—to a point. He did not ask if there might be something a little off about denigrating the theological imagination of Reverdy Ransom, Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King Jr. Warnock recycled Washington’s argument that the Black church never had its own developed theology and Lincoln’s argument that the Negro church died in the 1960s. He said it died willingly, in order to be reborn: “Out of the ashes of its funeral pyre there sprang the bold, strident, self-conscious phoenix that is the contemporary Black Church.” Warnock, a product of the ostensible phoenix, observed that, while Lincoln could be a superb sociologist of religion, he didn’t write like one in this case. He wrote like an all-out partisan of Black liberation theology, and this led to some wishful thinking on his part. Warnock put it bluntly: “The death certificate is actually a death wish.”

It struck him that Lincoln’s hermeneutical logic was much like the “God is dead” argument in white theology. Postmodern white theologians said God needed to die so that religion might grow up. Warnock argued that only in white theology was such a thing as atheist theology imaginable; it wouldn’t even occur to Black Christians to talk about the death of God. What struck him was that Lincoln had reached for a trope so alien to the culture of Black Christianity. If Lincoln felt it necessary to appropriate death-of-God theology to describe the Black church’s situation, then his alienation from the existing Black church must be very deep indeed. Asking what the Black church should be after the rise of Black Power was no less radical than asking what white Christianity should be if God is a fairytale.

 

This was an updated dissertation, so first there was a tour of the first two generations of Black theology: Cone, Roberts, Wilmore, and Cecil Cone, followed by Dwight Hopkins, J. Kameron Carter, Anthony Pinn, James H. Harris, and Dennis Wiley. Warnock set Carter and Pinn against each other. Carter had made an argument about Christian heresy, contending that Western Christianity wrongly disassociated itself from the Jewish body of Jesus by crafting a rational discourse that construed the embodied Jewish particularity of Jesus as a problem. Christianity superseded Judaism, and Christian rationality superseded embodied difference. Carter said this anti-Jewish heresy, replete with a Gnostic doctrine of creation, gave rise to white supremacy. Pinn answered that the last thing Black theology needs is to sign up for another story about true Christianity being betrayed by heresies. Cone himself had launched this mistaken enterprise by deploying the language of true-versus-heretical forms of Christianity. Pinn argued that Cone’s hermeneutical move fatally relegated Black theology to traditional doctrinal categories of Christianity, doubling down on a baleful historical inheritance. African-American religion could have turned out differently if not for the overwhelming force of the two Awakenings, which aggressively steered Black people toward Christianity, an outcome Black theology never challenged. Pinn called Black theologians to end the reign of Christian privilege by engaging alternative traditions such as Yoruba, Vodou, Santería, Islam, and Black humanism.

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Pinn claimed that Black theology operates mostly in the Black church. Warnock thought that was wrong; it did not remotely describe his own experience of Black theology in the church or the academy. In fact, the primary conversation partner of Black theology was the white academy. He cited Harris, a Black theologian mentored by Roberts at Virginia Union, and Wiley, a Black theologian mentored by Cone at Union, for support. Harris taught pastoral theology at Virginia Union and pastored a Baptist church in Richmond, Virginia. He argued that liberation theology is foreign to most Black churches, while Evangelical theology is not. Evangelical arguments, literature, and theologians are well known in Black church communities, while liberationist arguments, literature, and theologians are known only in the academy. If Black theology is not primarily academic, then why do only academics write and discuss it? Harris warned that if Black theologians do not build a bridge between the books that win them tenure and the people to whom pastors minister, the churches will become poor imitations of white Evangelicalism. Wiley put it more personally. He co-pastored Covenant Baptist Church in Washington D.C. and worried greatly about the erosion of the Black church. Citing Cone’s claim that Black theology had re-rooted itself in the church in the 1970s, Wiley said he saw no evidence of this. Had Black theologians knocked on the door without his noticing? If so, were they still standing there, or had they left? Wiley was not being playful; he was deadly earnest. He wanted Black theology to revive the church, and he recognized that Black theology, womanism, and Black religious studies were flourishing in the academy. But out here in the church, he warned, it’s really tough.

 

Rev. Raphael Warnock, August 2020 (Wikimedia Commons)

This same warning comes through in The Divided Mind of the Black Church. Warnock said that he, Wiley, and Harris “agonized” over the situation in the Black church. They agreed that the Black church needs a critical theological principle that judges its faithfulness to the biblical witness as viewed through the prism of Black church history. This principle would carry out the critique of white Christianity that Black liberation theology had started before it became essentially an academic enterprise. In short, the church needs a theology that helps it become what liberation theology says it is. Warnock observed that others saw the same need. Black theologian James H. Evans Jr. argued in his book We Have Been Believers (1992) that Black churches have a pronounced tendency to reduce their religion to cultural performance, while Black theology traffics in abstract concepts. Wilmore always warned against making a home in the academy. In 1982 he put it memorably:

It was both unnecessary and contrary to the best interests of black theology to turn the movement over to professional theologians who had one eye on their latest books and the other on the tenure track. We were back into the academic gamesmanship of the Joseph Washington days when it was deemed important that white colleagues understood that we were sufficiently knowledgeable of Western philosophy and theology for our black God-talk to be taken seriously.

Warnock argued that Black Christianity needs to enter a fifth stage, which cannot be conceived by academics geared to the lifeworld of the white academy. The next phase of Black theology must be led by pastors who labor in the trenches, exude the best aspects of Black personal spirituality, love the Black church, and demand more of it. In the trenches, one cannot dismiss the many who hold fundamentalist views on the Bible and conservative views on politics and social issues. Warnock lingered over Joseph H. Jackson, an anachronism to Black academics, but a towering figure in the Black church. Closer to the center, many Black Christians idolize King with no inkling that Cone may have improved upon him. Warnock pointed to Cone’s doctrine of ontological Blackness—his emphasis on Black being and Black consciousness. Cone’s position, Warnock said, is one “creative theological option” in the Black church, but many Black Christians remain integrationists in King’s sense. Moreover, ethicist Victor Anderson’s critique of ontological Blackness is creative too, and the Afrocentric approach of Roberts is another credible option. Warnock did not expand on these points. It was enough to establish that ontologizing Blackness is just one option—and perhaps not the best one.

In a late chapter of his book, Warnock discusses womanist theologians such as Delores Williams and Kelly Brown Douglas. He commended them for criticizing the patriarchal structure of the Black church, challenging the androcentric assumptions of Black liberation theology, and stressing the importance of personal piety. Black churches, he noted, have generally rebuffed womanist criticism, while womanists fare much better in the academy. Warnock ventured an explanation for this. Although womanist theology gives voice to ordinary women, “it was born in the academy.” Moreover, the class tensions and institutional barriers that hamper Black theology are worse for womanists. The result was that “[w]omanist God-talk is even more unfamiliar to pastors and ordinary black women in the churches than is black theology.”

Warnock lauded Douglas for urging womanists to write and speak primarily for the church, not the academy. He stressed that the academy is always far removed from the poor and has no particular reason to care about the poor. The issue of deciding to whom theology should speak is itself theological. Warnock sympathized with womanist objections to cross-and-sacrifice language, but he argued that atonement theology underwrote servitude only after Christian doctrine was privatized by the Constantinian church. The deeper theological problem, he argued, is the privatizing hermeneutic that stripped the cross, salvation, the Church, and even the kingdom of God of political meaning. Pre-Constantinian Christians construed the cross as an instrument of imperial evil and as God’s judgment against the Roman Empire. Rome viewed the cross, Warnock observed, from the top down. Christianity viewed it from below, as the means by which God overthrows domination, violence, and death. When the Church joined the empire, it lost the radical political meaning of the cross, which gave rise to a spiritualizing hermeneutic in which the cross became an instrument of Christian oppression, not the solidarity of Jesus with the suffering. Black Christianity can move forward only by integrating its four liberationist moments and reclaiming the unabashedly political character of the Gospel.

But Warnock did not claim that this was what was actually happening. In 2014 he observed that the relationship between the Black church and Black theology had not improved since 1970. If anything, it got worse with the rise of the Christian Right and an explosion of prosperity religion in the churches. He dolefully noted that most Black church laity and even many clergy had never heard of Black theology until the Jeremiah Wright episode of the 2008 presidential campaign introduced it to them. Nevertheless, Warnock insisted, an integrative Black Christianity is not only conceivable but achievable. It must be achievable because there is no “authentic black piety that is not connected to liberation.” The Black church is always liberationist except when it accommodates white supremacy:

Specifically, white supremacy has to be fought in varying ways, and the liberationist agenda of the church, as it aims toward the fulfillment of God’s salvific purposes for humanity, must extend outward and inward in a truly multidimensional and radically improvisational approach that addresses the basic human need for personal fulfillment and existential meaning, even while challenging systemic structures of oppression in political economy, religious discourse (confessional and academic), and church polity.

What is needed is to integrate the liberationist faith, founding, movement, and theology of the Black church. Warnock stressed that it cannot happen without organic leaders who build organic institutional infrastructure. Theological professors must be rooted in the church. Church pastors must ground their congregations in good theology. Movement activists must build new organizations that bridge the divide between “Sanctified Churches and human rights marches,” and between “ivory towers and ebony trenches.” The Black church, he argued, for all its liberationist history, has never bloomed into a self-critical liberationist community. It takes pride in Martin Luther King Jr. but does not follow him in conceiving the church as a vehicle of social revolution. King regarded the transformation of society as central to the mission of the church. He took for granted that the mission of the church must be founded on a strong doctrine of social salvation. Warnock judged that Black churches are reasonably good at reacting to “glaring episodes of insult” but not so good at being the oppositional body of Christ in the world. Constantly opposing the dominant culture is exhausting, and so Black churches prefer to look for opportunities for conciliation and compensation. Warnock said the church needs to cultivate a fundamentally oppositional spirituality, and this requires taking seriously “the pietistic dimensions of black faith.”

The Black church is always liberationist except when it accommodates white supremacy.

Liberation theology, for its part, is strong on oppositional rhetoric but weak on nurturing spirituality. Here lies the crucial challenge, Warnock argued. The Black church can be renewed as an integral liberationist community only by learning how to be spiritual and militant at the same time. Pentecostalism is thriving because it is unabashedly spiritual. Unlike social ethicist Walter Earl Fluker and activist cleric Eugene Rivers, Warnock did not say that the future of Black social Christianity must be Pentecostal; unlike the womanist theologian Cheryl Sanders, he did not say that it should be. He said it is a tragedy that the Gospel is not being heard in much of the Black community: “It is not being heard because the church born fighting for freedom needs to be clearer about what the gospel is and who it is as an instrument of its living manifestation in the world.”

 

Cone disliked how he came out in Warnock’s dissertation and book, even though Warnock was unfailingly laudatory toward him. Warnock had spurned Cone’s plan for him to become an academic and perhaps succeed him at Union. Then Warnock put this decision at the center of his dissertation, contending that liberation theology is too confined to the academy and not very spiritual. Cone was justly proud of founding Black theology, and of placing numerous theologians in colleges, universities, and seminaries across the nation. He felt that both Warnock’s book and his decision to pursue ministry implicitly downgraded the importance of what Cone had accomplished in the academy.

Three weeks before Warnock defended his dissertation, and then again the day before he defended it, I caught the brunt of Cone’s intense feelings on this subject. He was my closest friend at Union, so he usually told me what he really thought, sometimes vehemently. On one occasion, a few years after Warnock graduated, I proposed at a meeting that we ask Warnock to serve as a reader on a doctoral exam. Cone rebuked me in front of the entire theology field. Nothing I said could have assuaged him then. But Warnock persisted in inviting Cone to Ebenezer Baptist Church, and when Cone finally relented, he was love-bombed by the Ebenezer community. There he realized that Warnock had taken the right path. When Cone returned home he called me to his apartment. I had never seen him so happy. “Raphael is doing something great at that place,” he said. It was with that feeling that he asked Warnock to preach the eulogy at his funeral.

In his last years, Cone taught a course on James Baldwin that rekindled his love of teaching. Soon he regretted having waited so long to teach Baldwin. He loved Baldwin for saying that “every artist is fundamentally religious,” and that the church “is the worst place to learn about Christianity.” He fashioned a lecture around Baldwin’s statement that white Americans “are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.” Cone told students he hated that scholars snuffed out the fire in Baldwin’s work—the thing he loved most in Baldwin. He took two passes at writing a book about Baldwin, couldn’t decide how to organize it, and found himself writing a memoir, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (2018). It had a closing chapter on Baldwin, but the key Baldwin theme came early in the book: a writer writes “out of one thing only—one’s own experience.” Cone wrote that he heard the cry of Black blood in 1967 and never stopped hearing it: “White people didn’t hear it then, and they still don’t hear it now. They are deaf to the cry of black blood. Yet black people will not be silent as our children are thrown in rivers, blown into eternity, and shot dead in the streets. Black Lives Matter! God hears that cry, and black liberation theology bears witness to it.”

He finished the manuscript on December 1, 2017, just before learning that he had little time left. Cone was grateful to have had his say. He welcomed a carefully spread-out succession of friends to his apartment, where they reminisced about his life. On one occasion he asked me about Vincent Lloyd, a prolific Black theologian at Villanova University. I told him about Lloyd’s new book, Religion of the Field Negro (2017), which argued that Black theology in its original phase was theological and social-critical: it made strong claims about God, Christ, the judgments of God, and the idolatry of white theology. The second phase began when secularism and its conjoined twin, multiculturalism, crept into Black theology, reducing it to one of many ways to pluralize theology. Black theology had lost its nerve. It was not very theological anymore, being more concerned to pass secular and multicultural tests of civility and diversity. Historicists, feminists, womanists, postmodernists, and secular religious-studies scholars played the leading roles in taming Black theology, but Lloyd claimed that even Cone had gone along with relativizing critiques that stripped his work of its early power. The third phase, Lloyd argued, commenced with the rise of Black Lives Matter. It has no theological exemplars as yet, but they are surely coming, because Black Lives Matter is closer to the Black Power moment than anything that existed between 1975 and 2010.

“Hmmm,” Cone said. “There’s something to it, isn’t there? What do you think?” I said I thought that Lloyd’s framework certainly described something familiar, but that it didn’t do enough sorting. His phase one is terribly brief, and his phase two is almost the entire history of Black theology lumped together in all its variations. Phase three is a blank space. But I added that Cone’s forthcoming memoir was more like his first two books than any of the others. “Yes,” he said, “that’s what I mean. There is something to it.”

Two months later we lost Cone. I gave a eulogy at Union’s memorial service. Later that week, Warnock eulogized him at the funeral service at Riverside Church. To measure Cone’s significance in modern theology, he said, we should distinguish between “BC and AC.” Theology was one thing Before Cone, and something very different After Cone.

 

Two years later Warnock ran for the U.S. Senate with the eyes of the nation and the hopes of U.S. Democrats upon him. He spoke powerfully to the moment after George Floyd was murdered, and the subsequent protests drew attention to Warnock’s candidacy: “We have built this massive infrastructure over the last forty years, and the infrastructure has created its own distinct ideology. It is the mutation of an old virus, COVID 1619, and in this land, we have been trying to beat back this virus since 1619.” His Republican opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, brought up Fidel Castro every day, never mind that Warnock had nothing to do with Castro. (Abyssinian had hosted Castro for an event in 1995, when Warnock was a low-ranking assistant pastor.) Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared that nothing could be more racist than asking America to repent of its whiteness. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio charged that Warnock was shockingly biased against America’s military. Theologian Willie James Jennings replied that white religious figures are permitted to be sharply critical of various aspects of American life without being accused of anti-Americanism, a privilege not granted to Black religious figures.

Warnock and his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and former intern to John Lewis, won the runoff elections that delivered control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. Now there was a U.S. senator who preached on Sundays from King’s pulpit in a robe trimmed with kente cloth. Bernice A. King, the CEO of the MLK Center and a guardian of her father’s legacy, said it was no coincidence that Warnock ascended in the same year that Lewis, C. T. Vivian, and Joseph Lowery died: “Warnock is the answer to the prayers of our ancestors and the fruit of their labor. His election represents the dawn of a new South.” Warnock kept his pulpit, hustling home on Sundays, as King had done. He was the symbol of Georgia turning purple, a 50-50 Senate, and Democrats trying to figure out how to govern in the midst of a global pandemic, a cratered economy, an ecological crisis teetering on apocalypse, and a white-nationalist backlash. In his memoir A Way Out of No Way, Warnock called the roll of his role models, all of them Black social-gospel leaders: King, Lowery, Butts, Otis Moss Jr., Prathia Hall, Marian Wright Edelman, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, and Jesse Jackson. They had shown him, he said, to put his body on the line, so there he was.

Now he is out there with a small lead in a race to hold his seat in the U.S. Senate and perhaps decide the balance of power in it. At stake in Warnock’s campaign against the Republican candidate Herschel Walker, a former football star, is the direction of the nation itself for years to come. Warnock has been a highly active and engaged senator, pushing for voting rights, infrastructure investments, and lower costs for prescription drugs, and devoting himself to the needs of people lacking political and economic power. The right to vote, he says—with an echo of Lewis—is “preservative of all other rights.” It cannot be just one issue among others because all other issues depend on it. Nowadays he often adds that as the November election approaches, we are somewhere between January 5 and January 6, 2021. He was elected to the Senate on January 5. He got to enjoy it for one night, and then watched an insurrectionist mob try to overthrow the U.S. Capitol and cancel the results of the 2020 election. When Warnock ran for election the first time, he pledged to “remain the reverend.” Now the mantle of MLK that Lewis carried for decades has passed to Warnock, epitomizing the faith and hope of the Black social gospel.

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include his first volume on the Black social-gospel tradition, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award; and his second volume, Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award. This article is based on volume three, A Darkly Radiant Vision, to be published in 2023 by Yale University Press.

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