ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia Senate contestant is warning that “spiritual warfare” has entangled America and portraying himself to voters as a “warrior for God.” But that’s not the ordained baptist pastor who runs the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
This is Republican Herschel Walkerthe sports icon who openly questions the religious practices of Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who calls himself a “Senate pastor” and says he votes for the civilian equivalent of prayer.
Both men portray faith as part of their public identity in a state where religion has always been a dominant cultural influence. But they do so in distinct ways, jousting in moral terms on issues ranging from abortion, race and criminal justice to each other’s personal lives and behavior.
Their approaches provide a stark contrast to the political opponents who were brought up in the black church of the Deep South in the wake of the civil rights movement.
“Those are two completely different views of the world and what our biggest problems really are,” said Reverend Ray Waters, a white evangelical pastor in metro Atlanta who supports Warnock in Tuesday’s election.
How religious voters line up could help decide what polls suggest is a close race that will help determine which party controls the Senate over the next two years. According to Pew Research, about 2 in 3 adults in Georgia consider themselves to be “very religious.”
Warnock, 53, preaches a kind of social justice Christianity that echoes King, the slain civil rights leader who also led the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The senator embraces the roots of the black church in property slavery and Jim Crow segregation. From the pulpit, he acknowledges institutional racism and calls for collective government action that tackles inequality and other social ills. He often notes his arrests as a citizen protester advocating for the expansion of health insurance in the same Capitol where he now works as a senator.
“I stand for health care because it’s a human right,” Warnock said. “Dr. King said that of all injustices, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.
Walker also talks about society’s shortcomings, but the 60-year-old points to the expansion of LGBTQ rights, renewed attention to racism and “weak” politicians, who he says “don’t like this country.” He called for a nationwide ban on abortion, but faced accusations from two former girlfriends who said he pushed them to terminate their pregnancies and paid for their procedures. He said claims are lies.
It is a culturally conservative discourse tied to individual morality rather than collective responsibility and which effectively argues that the United States is a Christian country. This aligns Walker with the predominantly white evangelical movement that has shaped the modern Republican Party.
These approaches, varied in content and style, are traced through the biographies of the two rivals.
Warnock, the son of Pentecostal ministers, followed a similar educational path as King. Both attended Morehouse College, a historically black campus in Atlanta. Warnock followed this with Union Theological Seminary in New York, a center for progressive Christian theology. Now with more than a decade in one of the nation’s most famous pulpits, he sometimes quotes Scripture at length and spices up his arguments with Latin references.
“I believe that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire…and that democracy is the political implementation of the spiritual idea that each of us was created, as the scriptures tell us, in the ‘Imago Dei’ — the image of God,” Warnock told a group of Jewish supporters last month.
At the same event, during Jewish New Year celebrations, Warnock noted a passage often used as part of the Rosh Hashanah fast. “Is this the fast that the Lord expects, he said, that you untie the chains of injustice and that you free the oppressed, that you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger. Offering the quote – Isaiah 58:6 – he called it “one of my favorites”.
Walker is also the son of a Pentecostal pastor and now attends non-denominational Bible churches. A star high school athlete in rural Georgia, his football prowess in 1980 brought him to the University of Georgia, a secular public campus that was then predominantly white. Walker never graduated, despite claiming otherwise.
He often speaks of Jesus, usually as a figure of “redemption” rather than a guide for public policy.
“Let me recognize my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it is said that if you do not recognize him, he will not recognize you,” Walker told his solitary debate with Warnock. “When I come knocking, I want him to let me in.”
Many Walker events open with prayers, some led by other black conservative evangelicals. Yet Walker’s scriptural and theological references are scattered, usually non-specific allusions as part of broadsides against Warnock and “awakening”.
On transgender rights, Walker said, “I can’t believe we’re discussing what a woman is. It’s written in the Bible. … We must not let them deceive us with all these lies.
At a “Women for Herschel” event in August, Walker suggested that Warnock was anti-American, and he alluded to the biblical story of the Hebrew God expelling dissenting angels from heaven. “It’s time for us to kick these people out who don’t like America, kick them out,” he said, concluding to his mostly white audience, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re a racist.”
On abortion, he said directly to Warnock on the debate stage: “Instead of aborting these babies, why don’t you baptize these babies?
That’s a compelling argument for voters like Wylene Hayes, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher in Cumming. “You can just say that Herschel is a solid, just humble man of faith,” she said. “I have nothing against Senator Warnock, but I wonder how he can be a pastor and support abortion.”
Warnock counters that he supports abortion access because “even God gives us a choice”, while Walker’s position would give “politicians more power than God has”.
Waters said Walker’s collective argument was directly aimed at suburban white Christians like those he led for decades before moving closer to downtown Atlanta, where he saw more problems to solve and people to help. “It seems to me that the core issues of awakening are…compassionate habits that largely correspond to what Jesus said to do,” Waters said.
Warnock largely avoids Walker’s attacks. He recently began calling Walker “unfit” for the Senate because of Walker’s “lies” about his professional record and allegations of violence against his ex-wife. Warnock comes closest to challenging Walker’s faith by saying that redemption requires a person to “confess…and be honest about the problem.”
“I’ll let him speak for himself,” Warnock said. “I am committed to the work that I have done all my life.”
Reverend Charles Goodman, an Augusta pastor and friend of Warnock, said it was nothing new for outspoken black pastors, especially those with more liberal theologies, to be called dangerous and anti-Americans.
“They called Dr King a ‘communist’, and now it’s ‘radical’ and ‘socialist,'” Goodman said. “Dr. Warnock loves this country. There will always be tensions between our lofty visions for the country and our struggle to get there. He is a hopeful minister, and he will always speak truth to power and live in this voltage.
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