Growing up down South in civil rights days, I was able to watch the transformative witness of the Black church in action. I watched it from a safe distance — my home town was middle class and lily-white — but when the high school in our county seat was desegregated, they had to call out the Tennessee National Guard to put down the rioting. And slowly, over my teenage years and early 20s, I came to realize that when the Rev. Martin Luther King demanded equal treatment for all of God’s children, he was preaching the same gospel I heard every Sunday in the mainline white Protestant church of my childhood.
So I was strongly reminded of that legacy Tuesday night when the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, was re-elected to the U.S. Senate.
And, just for a moment, it gives me hope for the future.
Warnock’s victory speech at a watch party in downtown Atlanta lasted 20 minutes, and it was the first time I’d heard him speak at length. At times his delivery reminded me of President Obama. At others, he showed the warmth and good humor of his dog-walking political spots. And always, of course, he spoke with the polished cadences of a skilled Baptist preacher. In the first flush of victory after the race was called, Warnock invoked the struggles of the civil rights movement to his supporters:
You voted, and you did it because you believe as I do, that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea. This notion that each of us has within us a spark of the divine, that we were created in the imago dei, the image of God. And if you’re not given to that kind of religious language, that’s fine. Our tent is big. Simply put it this way — each of us has value. And if we have value, we ought to have a voice. And the way to have a voice is to have a vote to determine the destiny of your country and your destiny within it.
Speaking earlier in the watch party, filmmaker Spike Lee had pretty much the same message, I think, although he couldn’t resist a reference to his first blockbuster movie. “The struggle continues, and, for our people of color, today, our ancestors are looking down upon us and they’re telling us to continue to do the right thing.” In addition to Warnock’s sound bite aired on Morning Joe (and embedded above), video is available online:
- Warnock’s speech in full (20:55 minutes), broadcast on 11Alive, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta.
- Spike Lee’s remarks, as carried on NBC News, at Warnock’s watch party while the votes were still being counted.
If you take another look at the sound bite featured on Morning Joe, Warnock referenced more than overcoming Georgia’s voter suppression laws. For one thing, it seems to me, he anchored the political message — overtly about the right to vote — in religious values, specifically the idea that we are all created in the image of God. Then, in the very next sentence, he made it inclusive for those are are “not given to that kind of religious language.” A deft pivot, I thought, to big-tent political messaging — and, although he didn’t mention it, to the kind of religious pluralism threatened by white Christian nationalism on the far right and “special protection” for the brand of conservative religion favored by at least one justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Warnock, by the way, has serious chops as a theologian. He has a PhD in theology from Union Theological Seminary, where he studied under Black liberation theologian James Cone, and he’s written a book, The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness, for New York University Press. On the Morning Joe segment, the Rev. Al Sharpton recalled he first met Warnock as a UTS student at a demonstration for one of Sharpton’s causes and later helped recruit him to run for Senate. This theological background gives ammunition to his political opponents, according to a Chicago Divinity School analysis, who use it to try to paint him as a “religious radical with anti-American commitments,” among other dog whistles.
Could that be why I enjoy Senator Warnock’s dog ads so much? Are they a subliminal dog whistle calling out the racist dog whistles? Or are the ads just really cute? Whichever they are, they’re good politics.
By and large Warnock has been able to negotiate the “daily political and religious minefield Black leaders must navigate,” as the Washington Post religion beat reporter Michelle Boorstein once put it. One of the best religion writers in the business, Boorstein noted that President Obama successfully negotiated the same minefields.
All of which gives me hope for the future.
For several years now, I have thought if there’s any hope for America, it resides in the prophetic voice of activists like the Rev. William Barber II and the redemptive, transformative power of the Black church. I can’t claim that as a unique insight, though.
In an op ed column last year for the Washington Post, the Rev. Charlie Dates (or a headline writer for the Post) put it like this: “America needs the Black church for its own survival.” A senior pastor at Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Dates didn’t gloss over the challenges facing Black churches, but he found strength in a social ethic “rooted in both righteousness and justice, not either righteousness or justice,” and born out of a history of standing up agains oppression. He said:
We have an answer for America’s future because our sense of justice is not merely in the passage of laws, though important that is. Fundamental to our sense of justice is that love overcomes evil, that right will prevail over wrong, that hate cannot reign forever and that God will come through for us somehow.
Similarly, academician, public intellectual and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr., author of The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, says the history of the Black church’s struggle holds lessons for all Americans:
For a community disenfranchised and underserved by religious institutions established by and catering to the needs of white people, it served both secular and spiritual needs. Its music and linguistic traditions have permeated popular culture, and its scriptural devotion to ideas of liberation, equality, redemption, and love have challenged and remade the nation again and again, calling America to its higher self in times of testing and trial.
The Black church — or churches, there are more than one — face the same challenges as other faith traditions in an increasingly secular society But I still think the churches are our best hope for its transformation. In an opinion piece for Time magazine in 2021, about the same time This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song came out, Gates said:
Today, African Americans, like all Americans, are increasingly moving away from organized religion. Yet in nationwide surveys, roughly 80 percent of African Americans—more than any other group—report that religion is very important in their lives. This is hardly surprising when we understand just how central faith institutions have been in the history of Africans and African Americans and their cultures and social institutions in this country. For centuries, these religions—primarily but not only many denominations of Christianity—have served as a lifeline for African Americans. Whether that lifeline will remain as vigorous and vital in the twenty‑first century is an open question. At a moment when the Black community and the nation overall seem to be at a crossroads in the future of race relations, it is more important than ever to illuminate the Black Church’s past and present, both to appreciate what Black religion has contributed to the larger American story and to speculate about the role it will play as race relations transform in this society.
At a time when younger and more educated Americans are increasingly turning away from religion, ironically because of the politicization of religion by white Christian nationalists and evangelical Republicans, it may be time for white people of faith who don’t fit either category to speak up. When and if we do, we’ll find a compelling counter-narrative in the transformative witness of the Black church. Senator Warnock’s re-election Tuesday night gives me hope that can happen. And maybe, just maybe, it will happen.
Links and Citations
Bill Barrow and Jeff Amy, “Democratic Sen. Warnock wins Georgia runoff against Walker,” Associated Press, Dec. 7, 2022 https://apnews.com/article/2022-midterm-elections-walker-warnock-runoff-3d4e4d1ab1760792454e1cbd618ce332.
Bethany Blankley, “Alito: U.S. seeing growing hostility to religious freedom,” Center Square, July 30, 2022 https://www.thecentersquare.com/national/alito-u-s-seeing-growing-hostility-to-religious-freedom/article_8b53f012-1024-11ed-895d-ef82ea06c4a5.html.
Michelle Boorstein, “Sen. Raphael Warnock’s deleted Easter tweet reflects religious and political chasms about Christianity,” Washington Post, April 5, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/04/05/raphael-warnock-deletes-tweet-easter-resurrection-jeremiah-wright/.
Charlie Dates, “Why America needs the Black church for its own survival,” Washington Post, Sept. 3, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/09/03/black-church-future-education/.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., “To Understand America, You Need to Understand the Black Church,” Time, Feb. 17, 2021 https://time.com/5939921/henry-lous-gates-american-history-black-church/.
Russell P. Johnson, “Raphael Warnock and the Ongoing Legacy of Black Liberation Theology,” Sightings, University of Chicago Divinity School, April 5, 2021 https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/articles/raphael-warnock-and-ongoing-legacy-black-liberation-theology.
Lee Moran, “Georgia Senate Candidate Releases Cutest ‘Attack’ Ad: ‘By The Way, I Love Puppies’,” Huffington Post, Nov. 6, 2020 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/raphael-warnock-puppies-ad-kelly-loeffler_n_5fa53378c5b660095698eed7.
[Uplinked Dec. 8, 2022]