Over the course of the Georgia Senate campaign, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) has repeatedly referred to her Democratic opponent Rev. Raphael Warnock as “radical liberal Raphael Warnock.” She repeated the phrase 13 times in a recent debate ahead of the January 5 runoff.
“The Democrats want to fundamentally change America, and the agent of change is my opponent, radical liberal Raphael Warnock,” Loeffler said during the debate, claiming that Warnock has attacked police and the American military “from the pulpit.”
Warnock is the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the church Martin Luther King Jr. preached at in the 1960s. And Republicans have been using excerpts from Warnock’s own sermons to attack him.
This rhetoric carries a specific connotation, Black theological experts told Vox. It’s not just pointing out that Warnock is a Democrat running in a state that’s historically more conservative than the nation as a whole; it’s also negatively emphasizing the long tradition of activism and social justice in Southern Black churches.
In interviews with Vox, experts said this is not a particularly new tactic. Republicans used a similar playbook in 2008 when they attempted to tie former President Barack Obama to his former church pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright (Georgia Republicans also ran an ad linking Warnock to Wright, which Politifact rated mostly false).
“Particularly in Georgia, which is struggling between the old South and the new South, Black religion has always been thought of as being potentially a very dangerous political force,” Rev. Stephen Ray, the president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, told Vox. “I don’t think you can talk about the weaponization of Rev. Warnock’s sermons apart from that.”
The runoff elections are all about which party can turn out more of their base, so Republicans are branding Warnock “radical” and “dangerous” with a clear goal: To motivate the GOP’s conservative base to turn out on January 5.
While Republicans lost the presidency in the 2020 election, they had success in many House and Senate races by launching this kind of attack on Democratic candidates — tying even moderate candidates to socialism and activist-led calls to defund the police (something Warnock and fellow Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff have repeatedly said they’re against).
With control in the Senate hanging in the balance in the two Georgia runoffs, Republicans plan to keep hammering that messaging home.
“Fear will motivate much more strongly than any other emotion in the runoff,” Republican consultant Brian Robinson told Vox recently. “Republican [voters] are aggrieved, many have listened to the president’s messaging on the election, and they’re scared of a Democratic Senate joining Pelosi and Biden.”
Republican attacks against Warnock, briefly explained
As the Senate race enters its final three weeks, Republicans are launching a volley of negative attacks on Warnock in particular. Warnock has enjoyed a relatively easy campaign up until now, with Loeffler fending off a challenge from Republican Rep. Doug Collins on November 3. Polling showed Warnock entered the runoff with relatively high likability numbers.
In particular, Republicans have been circulating a clip from a 2011 sermon where Warnock said, “America, nobody can serve God and the military,” as he quoted Bible scripture to make a larger point about faith and service to God coming before anything else. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who regularly quotes Bible scripture on his Twitter page, blasted Warnock’s sermon in a tweet last month.
Not shocked #Georgia Democrat Senate candidate Raphael Warnock said “You cannot serve God and the military” at the same time. These & even crazier things is what the radicals who control the Democratic party’s activist & small dollar donor base believepic.twitter.com/bQyBuKLwjb— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 18, 2020
Warnock’s longer quote was, “America, nobody can serve God and the military. You can’t serve God and money. You can’t serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve.” In Biblical scripture, mammon refers to the corrupting influence of money and riches, and Warnock was in part quoting Matthew 6:24 from the Bible.
“The part I was most disappointed in was them taking sermons out of context to make that connection,” Justin Giboney, president of Christian civic engagement organization AND Campaign, told Vox. “This is supposed to be a group — when it comes to conservatives in Georgia — that has a certain level of respect for religion, for religious freedom, for what the pulpit means.”
A Warnock campaign spokesperson pushed back on Republican attacks in a statement to Vox, saying, “Kelly Loeffler’s dishonest attacks say a lot about Kelly Loeffler.”
“Just like he has since he got in this race, Reverend Warnock will continue to talk to Georgians about how he will work for them in the Senate, fighting for affordable health care, for fair wages and the dignity of working people. That’s the kind of Senator that Georgia needs,” campaign spokesperson Michael Brewer told Vox in a statement.
When Vox reached out to the Loeffler campaign for comment on whether the attacks against Warnock lacked the necessary context, a campaign spokesperson reiterated that “Georgians know how radical he is when they hear him.”
“For decades, Raphael Warnock has used his pulpit to oppose the 2nd Amendment, attack the police, condemn Israel, disparage the military, and embrace communists and Marxists alike,” Loeffler campaign spokesperson Stephen Lawson told Vox in a statement.
Some say Georgia Republicans are playing off heightened political polarization and “the politics of fear.”
“Fear that antifa and the socialist left is going to take over and gain control in certain areas,” said Giboney, who lives in Atlanta. “They’re doing their best to attach Rev. Warnock to that fear.”
Georgia will decide who controls the Senate, and Republicans have also been playing up a clip of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talking about flipping Georgia’s Senate seats after Biden won the state, where he said, “Now we take Georgia, then we change America!”
To add a dash of reality, even if Democrats manage to win both Georgia Senate seats, they will be at the barest of Senate majorities. The Senate would then be split between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. Unless Democrats abolish the filibuster (something conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has unequivocally said no to), they’ll need 60 votes and vast Republican buy-in to pass most bills. In other words, winning Georgia does not give Democrats an unfettered ability to change the country.
“Anybody would agree that Chuck Schumer is a savvy political mind, but he was playing to his audience in New York and he handed Georgia Republicans a huge gift with that clip,” Robinson, the Republican strategist, told Vox recently. “He not only scared fervent Georgia Republicans; he scared independents with that kind of talk.”
Still, some think that Republicans painting Warnock as “radical” could backfire by potentially rallying the base of Black voters that Democrats need in order to win Georgia.
“The performance by Loeffler was so disconcerting ... that people really are mobilized in a way I hadn’t noticed before,” said Robert Franklin, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “You’re now insulting our most beloved and cherished institution — you’re insulting our faith.”
The Black church is rooted in social justice; white evangelical churches are about personal salvation
While the white Christian evangelical church is more concerned with personal salvation, the Black Christian church has a long tradition of pastors focusing on social and racial justice.
“At its best, it tries to hold the country to account on morality,” Anthony Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, told Vox. “Martin Luther King Jr. and others are from a long line of church leaders who understood themselves to have an important role beyond saving souls. They understood the church as having an obligation to demand justice.”
Several theological experts Vox spoke to agreed the significance of the Black church is that it is an institution wholly created by and for Black people. Words like “radical” have long been used to describe Black ministers, dating back much further than Martin Luther King Jr. Some see the GOP’s laser-like focus on Warnock as having a racial component as well; experts Vox interviewed said “radical” is a coded word.
“I would argue that what you see here is a continuation of an understanding of Black leadership and Black churches as a threat, that these institutions and these people threaten the system as it is,” said Pinn.
For instance, in the 1950s and ’60s, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover started monitoring King and went to great lengths to link him to the Communist movement (King was not a communist). A 1968 FBI document called him “a whole-hearted Marxist who has studied it (Marxism), believes in it and agrees with it, but because of his being a minister of religion, does not dare to espouse it publicly.”
Pinn and others added the current dialogue in Georgia can’t be separated from the context of the long struggle for racial justice in America. The existence of the Black church itself also cannot be separated from that struggle, as it is “the only institution in America that has been wholly controlled by Black people,” according to Ray.
If Warnock manages to win his race, he would bolster Black representation in the Senate (there are currently just three Black senators, which will fall to two with Vice President-elect Harris going to the White House).
“He would be the living embodiment of while it will be a hard fight, it will not be impossible,” Ray said.