Faith was a defining feature of the Georgia special-election campaign that helped give Democrats control of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2011. The Black church and progressive religious activism took center stage, helping make Rev. Raphael Warnock—the son of a sharecropper who grew up in public housing—the state’s first Black senator. The pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once presided, Warnock is heir to generations of Black liberation preachers. It is a distinguished lineage. From Howard Thurman’s seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), to A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), to The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) by Warnock’s mentor James Cone, this prophetic tradition understands the Gospel through the prism of Black suffering and oppression wrought by centuries of white supremacy and systemic racism.
Catholic liberation theology emerged from Latin America as a response to violence, extreme inequality, and poverty; in similar yet distinctive ways, Black liberation theology grapples with slavery, Jim Crow, and the contemporary injustices of voter suppression, mass incarceration, and police brutality. It’s an understatement to say that the discomforting truths illuminated by Black liberation preachers clash with the predominant strain of white Christianity, which largely focuses on personal behavior and individual salvation at the expense of structural injustices and social sins. This contrast played out during the campaign in a state where the intersection of race and religion shapes debates over values, politics, and identity.
Snippets of Warnock’s sermons became fodder for attack ads from his Republican opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler. A white Christian businesswoman, Loeffler had earlier decried what she called the “anti-faith attacks” against conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. But Loeffler showed no reservations in using faith as a political weapon against Warnock. Loeffler and her GOP allies seized on a thirty-second clip from a 2011 sermon the pastor gave in which he references the Gospel of Matthew, declaring, “America, nobody can serve God and the military. You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who frequently tweets Bible verses, circulated the clip, commenting that “these and even crazier things is what the radicals who control the Democratic party’s activist and small dollar donor based believe.” President Trump called Warnock “the most radical and dangerous left-wing candidate ever to seek this office,” during an election-eve rally in Georgia. “He does not have your values,” the president said.
The orchestrated efforts to portray Warnock as a Marxist, an unpatriotic radical out of touch with Christian values, only make sense if you whitewash the Hebrew prophets and the ministry of Jesus from the Bible. Small government, lower taxes, and a strong military are a manufactured holy trinity that fuel the political and religious imagination of many white Christians. But this orthodoxy is ideological, not authentically Christian. In contrast, Warnock, who said he will continue to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sundays, embraces a Christianity that, in the words of Pope Francis, goes to the “peripheries.” In the United States, you can’t start from the peripheries without acknowledging the ways that white supremacy has shaped laws and institutions that continue to harm people of color. As Warnock put it in a eulogy last summer for Rayshard Brooks, a young Black father of four shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer in a Wendy’s parking lot: