As we the people of the United States look toward Inauguration Day the nation’s eyes have been fixed on the Senate races in Georgia. There, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has just won his race against Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, making him the first Black senator in Georgia’s history. Along with fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff, who becomes the state’s first Jewish senator and the first Jewish senator elected from any deep South state since Reconstruction, the two bring the Senate into Democratic control.
It is clear that Warnock, who was pastor to Congressman John Lewis, is a force to be reckoned with and a voice to be listened to. And the fact that he won is indicative of the power of two interlocking historical forces in America: that of the Black church, and that of Black grassroots organizing.
Warnock’s win makes him one of only two sitting U.S. senators to also be an active clergy member, along with James Lankford, R-Oklahoma. Warnock has said he won’t be giving up his position as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once served.
He will also, as the Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, wrote in The Washington Post, be “the first member of Congress from the South since Reconstruction to explicitly profess the spiritual tradition of the social gospel as envisioned and designed by people of African descent.”
It is in his role as a Black Baptist pastor that Warnock will be most able to govern. The liberatory ethics Warnock has studied and implemented in his work in the church ought to be more present in U.S. governance than the “prosperity gospel” that drives many of our more conservative legislators to see financial inequity as nothing more than the will of God; that is, that the rich are rich because they are righteous enough to be. The social gospel that Warnock has preached from his pulpit is one of good works towards equity: the garishly rich must give support to the starving poor, and liberation for the underclasses here in the U.S. and across the globe is a religious and ethical imperative.
Warnock’s policies — such as expanding affordable health care, ending private prisons, and working against mandatory minimum sentencing — are clearly dependent upon the social gospel that he preaches. If he manages to bring the gospel that he preaches into being as tangible policy, that will be a great victory.
Observers have known for months now that it was the power of Black women organizers that flipped Georgia blue for the first time since 1992, and played a large part in securing a victory in the 2020 presidential race.
While the rest of the country may have been shocked at the win, Black women like Deborah Scott of Georgia Stand Up were not: “We’ve been working at it for 15 years,” she told the New York Times. Georgia has the third highest percentage of Black people in all the states.
Stacey Abrams is another one of the Southern Black women who deserves major credit for the Democratic Party’s success in Georgia. Abrams lost the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018, but her fight didn’t stop there: she has steadfastly campaigned for Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff, and of course, Warnock. As late as mid-afternoon Tuesday, Abrams was active on television and social media calling on Georgia voters to turn out to the polls.
Abrams’ parents, it is worth noting, were preachers like Warnock, who does not see his role as a pastor as being separate from his role as a politician. Both are positions of community leadership, and positions where he is tasked with standing up for people who are oppressed.
“Somebody asked why a pastor thinks he should serve in the Senate,” Warnock said in one campaign video. “Well, I committed my whole life to service and helping people realize their highest potential. I’ve always thought my impact doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s actually where it starts.”
Georgia could be a harbinger of good things to come for states like Missouri. If we encourage and pursue grassroots organizing and the Black Church as the powerful forces for the good that they can be, we could perhaps turn the tide here, too. And, as we move into a Biden administration — an administration which we must hold accountable to the ethical standards its campaign promised to uphold — Warnock’s voice, now elevated to a national platform, is one we would do well to listen to.