georgia senate runoffs

The Hypocrisy of Republican Attacks on Raphael Warnock’s Sermons

Republicans are bringing back an old boogeyman, Jeremiah Wright, and tying him to Raphael Warnock. Photo: Left: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, Right: Shawn Thew/EPA/Shutterstock

Raphael Warnock, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate facing appointed Republican Kelly Loeffler in Georgia’s special runoff election on January 5, is an ordained minister of the Christian Gospel and pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor with his father at the time of his assassination in 1968.

Loeffler and her Republican allies have seamlessly transferred their 2020 general-election attacks on Joe Biden as a “far left” extremist to Warnock (and to his ally Jon Ossoff, who faces incumbent Republican David Perdue in another January 5 Senate runoff in Georgia). But there’s something special about the attacks on Warnock: They utilize material from his sermons at Ebenezer and positive comments he has made about another Black minister, the very controversial Jeremiah Wright of Chicago.

Now before even looking at the specifics, my immediate reaction echoed this sarcastic question from Sam Stein: “Why are Raphael Warnock’s faith and sermons fair game for attack but Amy Coney Barrett’s religious views not?”

The question arose after Loeffler ran an ad resurrecting a highly edited clip of Warnock at the pulpit in 2011:

Anyone with basic biblical literacy would recognize Warnock’s words, even ripped out of context as they were, as reflecting a teaching of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”

That particular scriptural reading aside, Jesus consistently taught that placing anything on the same plane as fidelity to God — tribe, country, even family — is a betrayal. So that would apply to “the military” as well. It doesn’t mean the military (or the country) is not worth honoring, but simply that nothing should compete with love for God. It’s an extremely orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Warnock’s campaign quickly noted the uncontroversial nature of his comments, adding a shot at Loeffler’s famous early-2020 stock transactions:

This sermon is based on a biblical verse that reads ‘No man can serve two masters … Ye cannot serve God and mammon,’ a biblical term for wealth,” Terrence Clark, communications director for the Warnock campaign, said in a statement to Fox News. “Reverend Warnock was speaking about the need to commit to moral life before pursuing other priorities. As the video of the congregation’s response makes clear, this is another blatant effort by Kelly Loeffler to take Reverend Warnock’s words completely out of context. Given her own decision to spend her first days in the U.S. Senate profiting off the pandemic, perhaps she should watch the sermon more closely.

But Republicans were just getting started. The anti-Warnock ad Georgia Republicans are running suggests they also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to relive the 2008 attacks on Wright, or more specifically, attacks on Barack Obama for his membership in Wright’s church:

I’m sure initial oppo research on Warnock turned up a Fox News appearance he made back in 2008, when he refused to condemn Wright and tried to explain the preaching tradition he represented:

In a 2008 appearance on Fox News, Warnock was asked about [the “God Damn America”] speech and other remarks. “We celebrate Rev. Wright in the same way that we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church, which when preachers tell the truth, very often it makes people uncomfortable,” he said.

And here’s where the hypocrisy of many of the people backing Loeffler really becomes apparent. The “truth-telling tradition” to which Warnock referred could more properly be described as the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which religious leaders called a straying people back to God from wickedness and competing deities (literal or figurative). It has indeed been integral to the Black church; Warnock’s predecessor Dr. King was the 20th century’s greatest exemplar. He, too, was often accused by the conservatives of his day of being an “extremist,” a socialist, a traitor to his country, and a threat to God-ordained law and order. It takes some chutzpah for conservatives (who often try to appropriate King as their own hero, sincerely or not) to attack King’s successor for remarks at the same pulpit that are part of the same tradition.

But the Black church isn’t the only exponent of the prophetic tradition: It’s also a mainstay of Evangelical Protestantism generally. And it is precisely the tradition that conservative white Evangelicals have appealed to in their headlong rush into partisan politics during the past 40 years. When they attack legalized abortion and feminism and “moral relativism” and marriage equality and all the other offenses to the patriarchal “family values” they identify with godliness, they, too, are calling down divine wrath on the wickedness they perceive as consuming their society. Like Wright, they presume to speak for God to a wicked nation full of apostates. But they also presume to speak for Americanism, too. So while the Franklin Grahams and James Dobsons and Paula Whites of the Christian right are perfectly willing to “damn” the Americans who disagree with their views (or even with their interpretations of the Gospels), they don’t think of those they damn as real Americans. So they can have their patriotism and their rebellious prophecy, too.

It’s unlikely that the philistines who wrote and underwrote the attacks on Raphael Warnock went more than an inch deep into any of these religious considerations. But those who know better — certainly his conservative clerical counterparts who aren’t so stupid as to conflate the Sermon on the Mount with insults to veterans — should feel ashamed for any support they offer his tormenters. And Kelly Loeffler should avoid wet ground in case a higher authority than her idol Donald Trump chooses to send a lightning bolt her way.

The Hypocrisy of Attacks on Raphael Warnock’s Sermons