Opinion: Raphael Warnock and the two pandemics that could drive his U.S. Senate bid

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Credit: Patrick Semansky

Credit: Patrick Semansky

We are about to find out whether that other part of Christendom will rouse itself.

If it happens, we in Georgia will likely be among the first to mark it, in the person of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

On Mother’s Day, his Sunday sermon focused on Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man killed on the Georgia coast. The day before, Warnock had paid a quiet ministerial visit to Arbery’s family in Brunswick.

His most recent sermon focused on the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. “It was ungodly. Pure evil. Murder on film and in the middle of the day,” he said.

Some 24 hours later, Warnock and I were on the phone, talking about a campaign that, given the pandemic, has been slow to crank up. A divorce, now finalized, complicated matters, but Warnock was still able to raise $1.5 million in the first two months of his campaign.

That said, recent events could quickly push his candidacy into overdrive. “I think that the nation could use a pastor right about now. We’re so deeply divided,” said the leader of the Atlanta church once co-pastored by Martin Luther King Jr. and his father.

Allow me a quick diversion to give some necessary context to our conversation.

Only a few hours after Warnock and I spoke, peaceful protestors close to the White House were scattered with rubber bullets and tear gas so that President Donald Trump and his staff could be photographed walking resolutely to nearby St. John’s Church, which had been damaged in the previous night’s violence.

In front of the church, the president produced a Bible – though he didn't claim ownership of the tome – and held it high. Perhaps as a declaration of victory, or a show of defiance. It wasn't made clear by the stirring video pumped out by the White House shortly after midnight.

The bishop of the local Episcopal diocese expressed outrage that tear gas had been employed so that the historic church could become a prop in Trump’s re-election bid.

But her response was tepid compared to the one that would come from Warnock the next day. He pulled Matthew 23:27 out of his pocket: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

Chief Rabbi Peter S. Berg (left) and Reverend Raphael G. Warnock (right) talk during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service on Friday, January 17, 2020, at The Temple in Atlanta. Each year the congregations from The Temple and Ebenezer Baptist Church join for a Shabbat service to honor Martin Luther King Jr. as a symbol of the black and Jewish alliance in Atlanta. Christina Matacotta/crmatacotta@gmail.com
Chief Rabbi Peter S. Berg (left) and Reverend Raphael G. Warnock (right) talk during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service on Friday, January 17, 2020, at The Temple in Atlanta. Each year the congregations from The Temple and Ebenezer Baptist Church join for a Shabbat service to honor Martin Luther King Jr. as a symbol of the black and Jewish alliance in Atlanta. Christina Matacotta/crmatacotta@gmail.com

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Warnock has actually read the Bible he carries. And he’s not afraid to use it.

We know that abortion is the issue that has kept white evangelicals glued to Trump. But many Christian denominations, as well as many other religions, have another litmus test — and that is racial justice. Both the coronavirus and the killings of unarmed African Americans in Georgia, Minnesota and elsewhere have exposed racial disparities in a manner we haven’t seen since the 1960s.

Enter Raphael Warnock, who refers to both as pandemics: COVID-19 and COVID-1619. The latter is a reference to the year that African slavery came to what is now the mainland United States. “These two moments that we’re living through at this time — these are issues I’ve addressed throughout my entire career,” he told me.

Certainly, the mixture of religion and politics is nothing new in the South. In the race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican David Perdue, Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico often points to her faith — and membership in an evangelical church.

In the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kelly Loeffler, Warnock isn’t even the only member of the clergy. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is an ordained chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.

It is the stature of his Auburn Avenue church, and the speaking skills he’s honed there over 15 years, that led Senate Democrats in Washington (backed by Stacey Abrams) to quickly endorse Warnock over two other Democrats already in the contest. They are former federal prosecutor and state senator Ed Tarver of Augusta, and educator Matt Lieberman, son of a former U.S. senator.

Ebenezer Baptist, though off-limits to much of its congregation during the pandemic, has an indelible place in Atlanta society. It’s a multi-generational focal point for religious, political and civic energy in the city. During last Sunday’s sermon on George Floyd, Warnock noted the case of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, who was arrested in Minneapolis over the weekend, as he was broadcasting live. Jimenez was ultimately released, and the governor of Minnesota apologized.

Jimenez’ grandmother is a longtime member of Ebenezer, part of the student movement in Atlanta during the 1960s. “I reached out to him right after the arrest,” Warnock said. “I told him how proud we are of him. He returned to the street and he continued to do his job.”

While Ebenezer may be a magnet for Atlanta’s black middle class, Warnock points out that both he and his church have maintained a focus on the fundamentals. He was arrested two years ago during a state Capitol protest over Medicaid expansion.

The church has made bail reform a priority. “The George Floyd incident and others like it are as predictable as they are tragic. We’ve built a prison industrial complex larger than any in the world. It is the embodiment of too much government,” Warnock said. “When you build something that big, that monster demands to be fed. And it consumes black bodies. Are there cops out there who are a problem? Yes. But the problem is bigger than policing.”

Statements like that may be why Warnock hasn’t gotten the pushback that U.S. Rep. John Lewis received last weekend when he urged protesters to stick to the code of non-violence.

“What I have tried to do with my remarks is to honor the real pain that our young people are feeling, and to hold us accountable — those of us who control the system that they’ve had to navigate in their young lives,” he said. “While at the same time calling on them to be non-violent.”

One assumes that Warnock was slow to enter the race in part because he had to bring along his church leadership. On Monday, he described that support as solid.

“Ebenezer Church is a place that is accustomed to its work and its role amid the fierce winds of history,” its pastor said. “They haven’t had a Senate candidate before, but we’ve certainly been engaged in this work of helping our country to live up to the American promise.”

We don’t know what the Democratic National Convention will look like when — or if — delegates gather in Milwaukee in August. But Warnock would be open to a speaking role on a national stage. “I have a little experience giving public speeches,” he said.

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