Warnock's Georgia Win Highlights Growing Strength of Progressive Faith Vote | Sojourners

Warnock's Georgia Win Highlights Growing Strength of Progressive Faith Vote

Rev. Dr. aphael Warnock holds a small rally with young campaign volunteers on Election Day in Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff election, in Marietta, Ga., Jan. 5, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar

After a heated runoff election in Georgia, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock has won his bid for election to the United States Senate, defeating Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler.

“Scripture tells us that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” Warnock said in an early morning speech. “Let us rise up, greet the morning and meet the challenges of this moment. Together we can do the necessary work and win the future for all of our children.”

The runoff race between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, which will determine control of the Senate, remains too close to call. 

Warnock is Georgia’s first Black senator; he will be one of four Black senators in the 117th United States Congress, and one of the 11 total Black people to ever serve as senators during the country’s history.

“... My mother, who as a teenager growing up in Waycross, Ga., used to pick somebody else’s cotton, but the other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick someone else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said. “So I come before you tonight as a man who knows that the improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.”

The election comes amid a contentious week in Washington. Even before Georgia’s Election Day, President Donald Trump called the runoff “illegal and invalid,” all while campaigning on behalf of Repubilcan incumbents Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Loeffler, in turn, says she will join other Republicans today in objecting to certifying the Electoral College votes.

Warnock’s victory comes after he also succeeded in garnering a majority of the votes in last November’s general election. However, because Georgia requires nominees to reach at least 50 percent of votes to win — a rule that its own architect, segregationist politician Denmark Groover, said was “racially motivated” to help white conservatives win elections — Warnock and his opponent Loeffler were forced into a runoff.

The contentious race follows a push by voting rights advocates, including faith leaders, to expand the state’s electorate, which is credited with flipping the state blue for the first time in nearly 30 years. The recent transition has brought the state’s bubbling racial tensions to the surface, seen most explicitly in the Republican attacks on Warnock, characterizing him as a “radical leftist preacher” — a trope echoed throughout the state’s history.

Despite his positions on racism, health care reform, and abortion remaining fairly consistent with his Democratic peers, Warnock’s opponents have attempted to characterize his views as extreme with Loefler taking aim at his pastorship at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, saying that he “uses the Bible to justify division.”

“[Loeffler] wanted to undermine the moral authority that he holds as the pastor who preaches at Martin Luther King's pulpit,” said Andra Gillespie, director of Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. “She wants to tell voters that he’s not the kindly pastor you think he is.”

But efforts to distance Warnock from King only help demonstrate the similar rhetoric that has been used to describe both preachers. King himself wielded little goodwill during his lifetime. With low approval ratings before his death, many of the same characterizations thrown at Warnock — such as "Marxist," "anti-American," and "extremist" — were similarly lended to King.

This dissonance between how King was treated during his lifetime and how he is popularly remembered comes from what Gillespie refers to as the selective celebration of “1963 King,” who lead the March on Washington — a reverence that is not extend to the lesser-known anti-war and poor people’s campaigns of “1967 King.”

“People universally embrace 1963 MLK in ways that they didn't [when he was alive],” Gillespie said. “But 1967 Martin Luther King, the anti-war Martin Luther King, wasn't popular then, and still isn't really popular now. That’s why most people don't know about him.”

While King is now widely celebrated for his civil rights accomplishments, Warnock does not have the benefit of being seen through the rose-tinted glasses of history. He preaches from the historic Black Baptist tradition and liberation theology, which King also practiced. Even some of his most seemingly controversial stances are not historically uncommon within the Black church.

And Warnock is not alone in expanding what it looks like to be a progressive politician of faith. While outsized attention is often paid to the contributions of the “Religious Right,” Democrats still primarily identify as people of faith. According to Pew Research Center, 76 percent of Democrats identify as religious — 63 percent identify as Christian.

Congress remains predominantly Christian, though the Democrats are slightly more religiously diverse. And party notables like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and newly elected Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), an ordained pastor, have made faith central to their platforms.

And while some argue that the Democratic Party’s elevation of Warnock and other progressives of faith represent a watershed moment for the Religious Left, Gillespie offers a word of caution.

“Just because we’re seeing the election of ordained people who identify as openly progressive, don’t think the narrative about how religion and politics operate will change overnight.”

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