OPINION: Loeffler ads attacking Warnock reveal more about her than him

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In a conversation about race and religion last year, I asked the Rev. Raphael Warnock why, with all his other responsibilities, would he also take on the role of social activist.

His answer was simple. He had no other choice.

He went on to explain that Black churches were born out of political and social resistance, with enslaved African Americans organizing around a theology that God would deliver them from their oppressors.

He then launched into a story about his father, a Pentecostal preacher and junkman who refused to give in to a sense of inferiority and hatred, and who stood every morning in the little church he served and preached about God’s love and redemption.

Like the God he preached about, the junkman could see the value and worth not only in scrap metal but ordinary people.

And Warnock, in turn, saw what a preacher should be — an activist in the pulpit and the community.

I was reminded of our conversation recently as television ads attacking his stance on social issues began flooding the airwaves.

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In an effort to rev up support by depicting Warnock as too extreme, Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign doled out more than $1 million for a pair of new attack ads on her opponent.

The ads highlight footage of Warnock defending the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 and claim, if elected in the Jan. 5 runoff, he’d “give the radicals total control.”

Wright came under scrutiny for sermons that contain what some deemed inflammatory remarks against America. The former pastor said, however, his comments were taken out of context and that the attacks on him were actually toward the entire Black church.

Interestingly, it was the same footage used against Barack Obama during his 2008 run for the presidency.

At an Atlanta Press Club debate last Sunday, Loeffler referred more than a dozen times to Ebenezer’s pastor as “radical, liberal Raphael Warnock” and repeatedly made reference to his allegiance to Wright.

It didn’t work during the Obama campaign, and it won’t work now.

Frank discussions about race in Black churches are as common as the exegesis of religious text.

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Black churches, said Vincent Lloyd, a professor of Christian ethics and Africana studies at Villanova University, have long been a space of refuge, healing, imagining, and political strategizing.

“During slavery, when the gathering of Black Americans was often prohibited or highly restricted,” he said, “Black Christian communities were among the few spaces where Blacks could come together and frankly assess their situation, support each other, and work together for social and political transformation.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Villanova University

Credit: Photo courtesy of Villanova University

This role of Black churches as a site for social and political analysis, and a site for developing struggle, persisted through the era of segregation and beyond, Lloyd said.

That hasn’t changed.

In an ostensibly colorblind, post-racial era, he said, Black churches continue to be a place where the specificity of anti-Black racism is named without apology — often grating against broader public discourse on race.

“We saw that in the case of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, and we see it again in the case of Raphael Warnock,” Lloyd said. “But whereas Wright never considered himself a public figure (beyond the Black community), Warnock has taken more care developing his public persona, inhabiting both the historical tradition of prophetic Black Christianity and multicultural, public discourse on race in the 21st century.”

ExploreRaphael Warnock finds past comments a target for political criticism

The Rev. Matthew Wesley Williams, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said Loeffler’s attack ads feed into people’s fears about the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and social issues.

Credit: Photo courtesy of ITC

Credit: Photo courtesy of ITC

They also are at odds with the role of Black clergy, which historically has been more than managing religious rituals within the four walls of a local congregation.

“It involves leadership that advocates for abundant life for all of God’s children,” Williams said. “The Black church’s advocacy for ‘the least of these’ is not only consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ, it also is derived from a long tradition of struggle for justice and freedom among Black faith communities in this country.”

When we talked last year, it was clear to me that Warnock views his activism, however uncomfortable it might make Kelly Loeffler, as part of his calling to “bring the good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives.”

And yes, speak truth to power.

As we were wrapping up, he noted that nearly every politician is sitting in some church on Sunday.

“The problem is that ministers in most American pulpits have been silent on issues of justice, relegating such concerns to the realm of politics,” he said. “It’s a truncated logic that says these are social issues and ministers are to deal with issues of faith. The Bible clearly says otherwise.”

Kelly Loeffler just doesn’t know it.

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