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ATLANTA — Throughout one of the most closely watched and expensive Senate elections in recent history, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church, has been confronted with a story of who he is and what his victory could mean.
Warnock, the Democratic candidate for one of two Georgia Senate seats to be filled during the Jan. 5 runoff elections, and his opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican appointed to the seat late last year after her predecessor became ill, have each sought to define the other as out of touch with average Georgians.
There's nothing unusual about that tactic in a modern campaign. But in Georgia — with scattered reminders that it is both the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and the setting of Margaret Mitchell's romanticized tale of the slave-holding South, "Gone With the Wind" — Loeffler's campaign has sought to portray Warnock as "a radical liberal." He is, according to Loeffler and groups including American Crossroads, a socialist, implying that he is therefore anti-American.
Jon Ossoff, a Democrat running against Republican Sen. David Perdue for the state's other Senate seat, has also been subject to similar claims of socialism and of being a threat to an unspecified "us" in ads by Perdue's campaign and outside backers. But many political experts have said that Warnock is the candidate to beat. If he wins, a state that was, until recent election cycles, considered immutably red would become the first in the South to send a Black Democrat to the Senate.
About $440 million in ads is expected to have been spent in the runoffs between Election Day and Jan. 5, according to an analysis by the Ad Age Datacenter and Kantar/CMAG, an ad tracking firm. Many of the spots financed both by Loeffler's campaign and by outside groups have sought to cast Warnock as a threat, drawing directly from sermons of his that confront harsh inequalities in America.
In one ad, clips of Warnock in the pulpit appear interspersed with clips of President Barack Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, misconstruing the content and meaning of both men's comments. In another, images of protesters appear among images of burning buildings, as a voiceover implies that Democrats would transform the country into an unrecognizable and ungovernable place. It ends declaring that "if they win, we lose." As voters tuned in to the candidates' hourlong debate this month, Loeffler referred to her opponent as "radical socialist Raphael Warnock" 13 times.
"She used that phrase like a title, as if that's his title," said Christopher Bonner, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland who studies Black freedom and politics in the 19th century.
Bonner said he could compare this easily to a similar instance of affixing what was intended as a slur to a candidate’s name each and every time it is mentioned: Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who did not initially support emancipation or Black voting rights, was still regarded across the South as a staunch supporter of abolition and racial equality and as a puppet of men like Frederick Douglass. In several public and private records from the 1860 presidential race that survive, he is often described as "the Black Republican Lincoln," calling into question his loyalties, his concerns and, some have speculated, his racial identity.
"Even here, I'm not sure that phrase actually came out of the mouth of Lincoln's opponents in a public space," said Bonner, author of "Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship."
The Loeffler campaign's messaging, however, is targeting known pressure points of white conservative voters' fears and grievances about the distribution of power, social change and the tone or content of Black political demands. Warnock backers who did not want to be named have said Loeffler is challenging the validity of African American religious traditions and a long-established pathway to social and political action.
Loeffler's campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Warnock's campaign declined to comment on the record.
If Loeffler's strategy works, it will affirm the durability of racial fear and resentment in American politics, especially when it comes to a faith tradition for many Black Americans in which social justice, activism and spiritual nourishment have long intermingled.
Anti-inequality as anti-American
In the century that followed Reconstruction, prominent Black Americans who spoke publicly about the glaring gaps between the nation's professed commitments and ideals — specifically liberty and justice for all — were often subjected to allegations of anti-Americanism, socialism or communism or described as dangerous radicals, whether or not their positions on issues aligned. Often, one of the few places where Black leaders could speak openly about racism and its toll was in Black churches. Some who did were laypeople. Some were clergy, including men like Warnock and King.
"It is unmistakable how, in this particular race, how negative Loeffler went almost immediately on Warnock and how she immediately went to race," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. "She invoked Jeremiah Wright from the get-go. I think she was trying to undercut Rev. Warnock's perceived moral position by virtue of his occupation by trying to say he is not some kindly Baptist preacher. But in doing so she's taking on a theological fight with Black liberation theology."
In a striking Loeffler ad, images of Warnock in pulpit robes are interspersed with repeated images of Wright famously saying "God damn America," one phrase in a far more expansive 2005 sermon about the obligation of a powerful nation-state to attend to justice and equality. Criticism of Wright's sermons prompted candidate Barack Obama to eventually denounce his former pastor and leave the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago during the primary campaign.
Meanwhile, Warnock's positions are difficult to classify objectively as radical. He is a proponent of expanding eligibility for Medicaid to more Americans rather than "Medicare for All" or ending private health insurance. His platform prioritizes Georgia's 44,000 farmers, 91 percent of whom are white, and strengthening the state's agriculture economy. Other top priorities include climate, criminal justice reform and education.
"There is a way in which any sort of politics of economic justice for Black people comes to be seen as anti-American," Bonner said. "And that says something really compelling about what people think the United States should be. Perhaps they think that this should be a nation of economic justice only for white people."
The Warnock campaign's response to the radical, anti-American, socialist claims has been what some might call nuanced or race-neutral in the tradition of Barack Obama when he ran for president in 2008. It describes the attacks not as subtly racist but as cynical and false.
"The conventional wisdom had been that in the post-civil rights era, overtly racist appeals are repugnant and the more subtle they are, the more important it is that the subject of them identify them as racist as quickly and clearly as possible," Gillespie said. "But that was before Trump."
Instead, Warnock's campaign ran a pre-emptive, tongue-in-cheek ad. It suggested that Georgians should prepare for Loeffler to make wild claims that he eats pizza with a knife and a fork and that he hates puppies.
In conversations with reporters, campaign staff members tout a Washington Post fact-check assigning three out of four "Pinocchios" to Loeffler's allegations that Warnock is anti-American.
"She's trying to scare people by taking things I said out of context from over 25 years of being a pastor," Warnock says of his opponent in another ad, in which he walks a dog. "But I think Georgians will see her ads for what they are, don't you?" He then drops a bag, seemingly of dog waste, into a trash can.
Empowerment instead of oppression
Another Warnock ad asks why, if his sermons and ideas are so offensive, did Loeffler visit his church? It includes images of Loeffler sitting behind Warnock in the Ebenezer pulpit.
"That one's pretty good," Gillespie said.
Ebenezer holds a firm and unshakable place in the Atlanta establishment. As the man who preaches from what was once King's pulpit, Warnock has a degree of moral credibility, which is difficult for anyone to challenge in race-neutral ways, Gillespie said. Warnock may be trying to run a race-neutral campaign because of the reality that any Democrat running in a statewide race needs some white, Latino and Asian voters to join Black voters in backing the campaign.
"Similar to the birther thing with Obama, this strategy that Loeffler is promoting or pursuing to paint him as an outsider is easier, because, as a Black man, he reads to a lot of voters as an outsider," Gillespie said. "So it's on the most basic level falling back on this image of who is a proper political actor."
Then there are the things Warnock has said that Loeffler has opted to clip, depict and highlight.
One of Warnock's 2011 sermons drew upon scripture challenging the ability to "serve two masters," or pursue power for its own sake, to wreak havoc and then paper over destructive behavior with outward religiosity. Warnock mentions, among other symbolic pairings, the effort to serve God and the military. That line is in a Loeffler ad now.
"Anything Warnock would say as a political campaigner or potential senator casts him as someone who doesn't belong. Him saying the thing is what doesn't belong," Gillespie said.
In fact, when Obama was attacked in 2008 on the basis of Wright's sermons, which had been described as hate speech, Warnock defended Wright on Fox News. Warnock said at the time that Wright was doing what some Black pastors have long done: speak uncomfortable truths. That is the work that helped birth the civil rights movement, which is work to be celebrated, he said.
Only that very last bit made it into the Loeffler ad. The Warnock campaign's answer: Loeffler's ad gives no credence to the role Black pastors have played in advocating for civil, human and political rights.
"To speak to people about their pain and to acknowledge their suffering or oppression, it is life-giving. It is life-affirming," said the Rev. Susan K. Smith, author of "With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America." "But white people, including and perhaps especially some of those who consider themselves religious, those who call themselves Christians, sometimes do not understand that."
Smith, founder of Crazy Faith Ministries in Ohio, has known Wright for decades, since she was a student at Yale University. Drawn by Wright's commitment to and study of prophetic theology, Smith was an associate pastor at his Chicago church.
"Loeffler is using this, all of this, as the alternate race card," Smith said. "It's the deepest form of gaslighting. Whenever Black folks talk about the things they have been through, they will say you are playing the race card, but everything this president has done and that this senator is going to do … that is playing the race card. They play it all of the time, and the race card was built right into our Constitution and certainly into churches."
Black churches with pastors who embrace what Smith describes as prophetic ministry, like Warnock, have developed a theology that empowers followers.
"Prophetic ministry lets people know that God intends for all who God created to be treated as God's children," Smith said, "not a group of people who happen to be white who decided this group of people should be treated well and this one not well at all." She added that Loeffler's ads are "disingenuous."
"There is nothing about the prophetic word that embraces hate," she said.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of the predominantly white evangelical denominations, supported slavery and then Jim Crow segregation, including the segregation of schools and public facilities. In 1995, the Southern Baptists renounced those positions. But this year, the country's six largest Southern Baptist seminaries denounced critical race theory, legal concepts that have been used to identify, describe and challenge systemic racism.
"Some of these people embrace a theology that is suppressive and oppressive and damaging and restrictive," Smith said. "That is why Jeremiah Wright and James Cone," the late Black theologian, "and Raphael Warnock have a specific type of power. They speak to the bruised and wounded souls."
'I've got a story to tell'
The Sunday service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Dec. 6 began promptly at 11 a.m. via livestream as a Covid-19 precaution.
Not long after, Patrice Turner, the church's director of worship and arts, offered a reminder of the complex role of historically Black churches, ministering to the social, spiritual and political needs of a congregation battered in ways large and small by the rigors of Black life and death in America.
In Turner's rousing rendition of "The Corinthian Song," she sang of being "troubled yet not distressed," "persecuted but not forsaken," "cast down but not destroyed."
She sang to empty pews.
When Warnock rose and spoke, he promised that he would preach "for just the next little while." The subject: "I've got a story to tell."
He preached for 30 minutes. The topic, Warnock said, was the book of Luke, the apostle who decided he must offer up his own retelling of the story of Jesus, after others had already done so in different ways.
"My friends, God bless you and God keep you," Warnock said, raising arms clad in a red pulpit robe. "There is work God wants to do in, for and through you. There is a song that only you can sing. … There's a project that only you can complete. God has placed it in you, and since others have told their story, why don't you embrace yours?"