Raphael Warnock Finds Past Comments a Target for Political Criticism as He Seeks Senate Seat

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The Rev. Raphael Warnock’s national profile further grew, in part, when he joined a group of black pastors who defended a prominent Chicago pastor whose sermons became a flashpoint in Barack Obama’s 2008 bid for president.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the no-holds-barred former senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was known for his fiery, and some would say inflammatory, sermons. He took the U.S. government to task for its past transgressions, including slavery and the Jim Crow era. He delivered passionate remarks about failing schools, income inequality and redlining that he said prevented blacks from achieving the American dream.

Warnock, the 50-year-old pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, was among the religious leaders who said Wright had been taken out of context and misinterpreted by the mainstream.

Those critics, Warnock said, failed to grasp the deeper message of Wright’s sermon or the unique role of black pastors who are not just religious leaders but social justice activists.

Now, more than 10 years later, Warnock is the one whose words are being parsed. As the Democrat launches his campaign for the U.S. Senate, political opponents are highlighting his comments in defense of Wright in an attempt to say he is too extreme to represent Georgia. His messages, they say, are radical and out of step with moderate and independent voters whose support he needs to win an election.

As a minister his publicly available sermons are fair game, political watchers say, and more questions about Warnock’s preaching are sure to come as the race unfolds.

“I think some of those statements are going to resurface, especially some of the more extreme ones,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who served in George H.W. Bush’s administration and later became Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff. Once that happens, it will be people in their homes who will be clamoring for Warnock to explain himself, Tanenblatt said. “Then it’s up to the voters to decide if they’re comfortable with someone taking those positions,” he said.

Warnock, though, stands by his previous comments.

He says he expected his messages to be used against him on the campaign trail, not just his defense of Wright but other sermons in that same vein calling for change and outlining steps to create a “more perfect union.”

“Any fair-thinking person would recognize that everything a government does, even the American government, is not consistent with God’s dream for the world,” Warnock said in a recent interview. “And preaching at its best points out those contradictions but then shows us the path forward.”

‘Not “God Bless America”’

In Wright’s April 2003 sermon, he urged his congregation not to confuse the government with God. He spoke about the failings of the United States to protect its most vulnerable citizens, including African Americans and Native Americans.

Near his closing, Wright uttered the words that drew condemnation:

“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no. Not ‘God Bless America,’ God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”

In defending Wright, Warnock has compared him to his predecessor at Ebenezer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose campaign for civil rights and economic equality was once considered radical.

Warnock likes to remind audiences that King’s final sermon was titled “Why America May Go to Hell,” but he was assassinated before he could preach it. In that sense, Warnock says, Wright’s “Confusing God and Government” sermon is also about holding the country accountable for injustices and oppression.

But the many times Warnock has defended Wright demonstrates that his values are out of step with most Georgians, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund said. The Republican super PAC affiliated with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has endorsed the incumbent, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, in Warnock’s race. The organization has also analyzed the pastor’s words and looked for passages it deems problematic.

“Repeatedly defending anti-American diatribes doesn’t make Rev. Warnock thoughtful, it reveals his worldview is dangerously out of the mainstream,” said Jack Pandol, the fund’s communications director.

Warnock is running for the seat currently held by Loeffler, who was appointed after U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson retired. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville Republican who was a pastor for 11 years, is also campaigning for the job. In addition, two other prominent Democrats are in the race: businessman Matt Lieberman and former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver.

All these candidates will face off in a winner-take-all special election in November. If no one receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in a January runoff.

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Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution