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.