2022 midterms

Herschel Walker’s Desperate Religious Counterattack

Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If there was ever a political candidacy facing a come-to-Jesus moment, it would be that of Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker. The football legend, who has been dodging all sorts of toxic allegations about his past conduct and his current understanding of the issues of the day, just got clobbered with a double whammy of a media story. First it was reported that he encouraged and paid for a girlfriend’s abortion despite his uncompromising position on legal abortion, then his son Christian Walker, a right-wing social-media celebrity, called him a serial liar and a fraud.

While Walker and his national GOP allies have denounced the abortion story as a Democrat/“fake media” hit job, some damage has clearly been done. So now Team Walker appears determined to shoehorn all his problems under the umbrella of past missteps from which he has been “redeemed,” while launching a religion-based attack on his opponent, incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Walker’s whole campaign message from the get-go has been to present himself as a man with lots of handicaps (including a struggle with dissociative identity disorder) who via perseverance, hard work, and religious faith has survived, flourished, and is ready to serve his native state. It is a classic “redemption” story, familiar to Georgia’s many conservative Evangelicals.

Now Walker needs voters to have faith in his “redemption” more than ever. Despite his extensive writing and speaking about the dark periods of his life (notably in the 2008 memoir Breaking Free), Walker has never exactly made it clear when and how he recovered from dissociative identity disorder. He says that after a sort of religious reawakening he was diagnosed in 2001 by a clinical psychologist in Texas with a rather sketchy reputation, and spent some time in outpatient therapy at a California psychiatric hospital. But this period of apparent recovery from his mental illness overlaps with a period in which there were periodic reports of erratic and potentially criminal conduct toward his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, and other people in his life. The 2009 abortion that he allegedly paid for occurred after the publication of his book, in which he said he’d overcome his mental-health issues. And various reports of questionable business practices and misleading claims by Walker extended right up to the time he left Texas and headed back to his home state to run for the U.S. Senate.

But it’s the attack by Walker’s son that is the hardest to square with his redemption story. According to Christian Walker, he and other family members grudgingly went along with Herschel’s candidacy on the condition that he would fully own up to his misdeeds and not just blame them on a past mental illness. But instead, said the son, himself a strong Trump and Ron DeSantis supporter, the lies and deceit never stopped.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported after both stories broke, Walker’s Christian right supporters are surrounding him with a protective circle amid broad hints that all the criticism of the candidate is somehow demonic:

With a scrum of TV cameras and reporters waiting outside the doors, First Baptist Atlanta’s senior pastor, Anthony George, led a group of evangelical Christians in prayer for embattled GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker Tuesday.

In video of the closed-door event reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, George called the GOP Senate nominee, “Our fellow conqueror, our brother, our friend.”

George prayed as about 75 “prayer warriors for Herschel” circled Walker with their hands outstretched.

“Lord, we know this is a battle he’s facing. It’s more vicious than any sports field he’s ever played on. This is the fight of his life, holy God,” George said. “We ask you to rebuke the devil … Satan will not get the victory. We know, whatever the results of this election, Herschel wins.”

An inconvenient detail in the depiction of the Walker campaign as a crusade for Christ against the mockery of a devil-infested world is that his opponent is an ordained Christian minister occupying one of the most celebrated pulpits in America, that of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (his predecessors included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, Martin Luther King Sr.). In a new ad Walker goes right after his opponent for doubting his redemption story:

He suggests Warnock doesn’t have enough faith in God to accept that Walker has been “saved by grace,” which means all his past missteps have been forgiven. Thus, Warnock is a “preacher who doesn’t tell the truth.”

This isn’t a new problem for Republicans, and Walker isn’t the first to attack Warnock’s ministerial credentials. In late 2020, when former Senate candidate Doug Collins, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, was campaigning for Warnock’s runoff opponent, Kelly Loeffler, he bluntly denied Warnock’s legitimacy:

During a campaign event for incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler at a gun range, Collins told the crowd: “There is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor. What you have is a lie from the bed of Hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”

Warnock’s church is a member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention co-founded by MLK Jr., which does not share the fundamentalist tenets of the Southern Baptist Convention or its belief in fetal personhood and the imperatives of forced birth.

But even within the mindset of today’s conservative Evangelicals, Walker’s redemption story is straining credibility. When I was being raised as a Southern Baptist, some of my unruly teenage friends would rush down to the altar weeping on every available occasion to “rededicate themselves to Christ.” Monday would roll around and the rededication would wear off. Herschel Walker may have used this strategy in his budding political career one time too many.

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Herschel Walker’s Desperate Religious Counterattack