The Rev. Raphael Warnock coupled the launch of his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat with another piece of news: He plans to stay in the pulpit of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a move that will invite more scrutiny of the famed congregation from the IRS and his rivals.
The Democrat said he wasn’t concerned about serving double duty as both a candidate and a clergyman as he races to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. He framed his decision as a throwback to a time when congressional lawmakers held everyday jobs.
“We’ve grown accustomed in our country to politicians who are professional politicians — they think about politics and that’s all they think about,” Warnock said in an interview. “But there’s another great tradition, and that is of the citizen representative. They’re enmeshed in their community, and they take their concerns to Washington.”
There’s no question he has a powerful platform in his role as the senior pastor where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. His sermon at this year’s King Day ceremony served as a preview of his campaign message, and it drew thousands of viewers and international coverage.
But it also puts Warnock and his church on tricky terrain. Preachers often discuss hot-button issues such as voting rights and abortion while in their pulpits, but they risk losing their tax-exempt status if they openly back candidates or pay for campaign activities.
That means it’s perfectly legal for Warnock to preach and run as a Democrat against Loeffler, a financial executive appointed last month to fill U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat after he retired for health reasons.
But Warnock would have to steer clear of overtly politicking in the pulpit and using church resources for his campaign. The church could not endorse Warnock or collect cash for him. Any political activity such as forums or get-out-the-vote efforts must be done in a nonpartisan way.
Violating those rules would risk penalties from the Internal Revenue Service, which classifies churches as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations that don’t pay federal income tax but also can’t actively engage in political campaigns.
His candidacy would also invite scrutiny from Republican trackers who will analyze his Sunday sermons in search of a legal slip-up. Tax analysts say even using a church email account for campaign business could trigger sanctions.
“A minister does not give up his or her rights as a citizen, but running while a minister is challenging,” said Ellen Aprill, who specializes in nonprofit tax law at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “The minister has to be sure not to use church assets, such as mailing lists, and cannot ask for support from the pulpit.”
Michael Kang, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and a nationally recognized expert on campaign finance laws, said Warnock and the church will need to be clear about how he is separating his candidate activity from those in the pulpit.
Kang suggests clear disclaimers and careful consideration about what Warnock says when he is before the church. Warnock has often touched on political and social issues while in the pulpit, but now he will need to take extra precautions.
Warnock has had time to consider these ideas. When he was exploring a potential Senate bid in 2015, the minister invoked examples of pastors who have preached on Sundays and campaigned on Mondays as proof he could pull it off.
He pointed to former New York U.S. Reps. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Floyd Flake, and ex-Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Bill Gray — all black preachers who maintained a presence in the pulpit after they were elected.
“There’s no question that Raphael Warnock can do both,” said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., the nephew of King and a lifelong member of Ebenezer. “He has the intelligence, the sensitivity and administrative skills to do both. There’s no question about it.”
Still, Farris acknowledged the distinct possibility that developments on the campaign trail could put his congregation in an uncomfortable light.
“The question, politically, is how does that work?” said Farris, whose grandfather and two uncles held leadership positions with the congregation. “There will be times as a senator where, in the course of doing his job, it might bring unneeded scrutiny on the church. How does this impact the church?”
Warnock said he met with members of Ebenezer’s board of trustees and the deacon board as well as the church membership before announcing his decision to run.
He said there will be a “complete separation between the work of the church and the work of the campaign.”
Warnock has long used the pulpit to preach about progressive policies, such as social justice initiatives and voting rights legislation. He’s also used his platform to routinely call for the expansion of Medicaid and abolition of capital punishment.
“I’ve advocated for these issues for years as a pastor, and I plan to lean into that and continue to advocate in the ways that I have,” he said. “I’m seeking in this instance to have the ability as a legislator to turn my activism into public policy.”
The Rev. William J. Barber II, one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Warnock is uniquely able to balance roles that are sometimes complementary, sometimes competing.
“From time to time, particularly in moments like this, there is a need for someone who is the pastor of a church to bring moral clarity and commitment to the political arena,” Barber said.
Warnock feels he is up to the task.
To be clear, he said, “I will be there preaching on Sundays” and the church “will not miss a beat.”
“We are well staffed,” Warnock said. “We have a team of ministers, and that’s been the case for years. We have a team of lay leaders to help carry out the work.”
Simply put, he said, “the work of the church has never been a one-man show — it’s been a collective effort.”
Recently, Ebenezer brought on the Rev. John H. Vaughn as executive pastor, filling an existing spot that has been vacant for a while.
Warnock said that by remaining in the pulpit, he will hear from his parishioners every week, and that would help keep him grounded in their concerns.
“I want to go to Washington,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “but I don’t want to be drowned by the waters of Washington.”
Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.
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