Overshadowed by the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol was the dual election of Democratic U.S. Senators from the state of Georgia. While the identities of Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff—a Black American and a Jewish American—have often stolen the headlines, the modest political beginnings of Warnock married with his public life as an ordained minister and pastor are worth noting even in the political pandemonium that is Washington right now.
Inheriting the pulpit of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (MLK, Jr. was just an associate pastor at the time of his death), Warnock had to embody the mantle of social justice. He already had the credentials: he was Morehouse man, he had worked at Abyssinia Baptist Church in New York—the church that produced Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. another minister and elected official—and he was a native son of the state of Georgia. His involvement in matters of social justice throughout the years are well documented. In other words, he’s always been on message.
If my social media timeline is any indication, there is a hopeful expectation behind Warnock’s win. On the morning of January 6, my Facebook feed and Twitter timeline was replete with clergy and lay leaders who possessed an expectation that Warnock’s presence in Congress will result in his policy stances being directly influenced by Black liberation theology.
But what does that actually mean?
The question of how Black liberation theology and public policy react with each other is an interesting one for me. In fact, I’m slow to even entertain the idea that Black liberation theology actually has a political platform. Black liberation theology is not the political opposite of white evangelicals in America. The former gives a language and a framework for God-talk through the broader Black, mostly African American, experience. The latter is synonymous with a clearly defined political movement that had a policy platform and has successfully ran candidates and influenced the judiciary. To put it another way, liberation theology, all of it, just gives theological language to the work of social justice.
The incarnation of Black liberation theology in public policy is one that has never been proved. Warnock’s election might be the first test case for this. Generally speaking, Black preachers who adhere to a Black liberation theology in their pulpits generally use it as a hermeneutic to shape the listener’s consciousness. Quantifying how many parishioners are ultimately impacted by this and qualifying in which ways they are is a study that is begging to be researched.
An obvious pitfall of a Black liberation theology platform is that the United States is not a theocracy. Committing to a platform rooted in theocentrism doesn’t bode well when attempting to gather large groups of people under a big tent. Also, manifesting policy platforms for social flash-points such as reproductive rights and veterans may be an exercise in futility as these topics are largely absent in much of the Black liberation theology canon. And quite pointedly, anything short of defunding the police and the military would run afoul of Black liberation theology. Warnock’s policy stances on the main issues—environment, prison reform, healthcare, etc.—aren’t remarkably different than most other Black congressfolk nor the Democratic party. To associate his platform explicitly as a Black liberation theology platform would also mean giving this sobriquet to most members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Kelly Loeffler, Warnock’s opponent, unlocked every trap door possible to label him as a “radical liberal.” She levied claims of socialism and plain old progressivism as though these things were inherently bad for Georgia and the entire country. Saving the best for last, she painted him as the product of Black radicalism by darkening his skin tone in attack ads and trotting out Barack Obama’s kryptonite: Jeremiah Wright.
I suspect that the cultural memory of Wright within the Black church community, especially given the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, taps into a particular vein of righteous indignation amongst Black Americans. This righteous indignation is a theology of anger. It’s the anger that existed amongst the enslaved Africans that committed slave rebellions and it’s the same anger of modern-day activists directed at a criminal justice and legislative system that has yet to abolish the doctrine of qualified immunity that consistently allows police officers to get away with murder. So when Loeffler persisted in trying to connect Warnock to Wright, Black folks nationwide wondered nervously was that enough to sink his ship. Presumably in 2008, that was the case. But the death of George Floyd and the resulting global protests, Georgia’s Senate race lets America know that Jeremiah Wright isn’t the same political liability as he was in 2008.
Perhaps, like Loeffler, subconsciously there are those within the Black church that associate Black liberation theology with a form of Black radicalism. Obama certainly did. He wrote in A Promised Land that his sermons “sounded dated, as if he were channeling a college teach-in from 1968.” While Obama softened his rhetoric on Wright in his interview with The Breakfast Club, it’s clear that in the political world occupied by Loeffler and Obama, Black liberation theology is too particular. Too precise. Too singular. Too peculiar. Too Black.
One thing is for sure: the progressive religious Left will have a champion in Congress with Warnock. For years, conservatives made Faustian deals with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to win the battle of American Christianity. And frankly, they seem to have won the war. American Christianity, for the most part, is synonymous with white evangelicals. The heirs of the “moral majority” such as Franklin Graham, Jr. and Albert Mohler have found themselves unable to divorce themselves from Trumpism as they’ve had to issue awkward backpedals in the recent days. Graham’s Twitter timeline stands as a dubious testament with tweets praising the anti-democratic calls questioning the legitimacy of the election preceding tweets proclaiming Joe Biden’s victory and calls for unity after Trump supporters violently bumrushed the U.S. Capitol. The election of Warnock and his long affiliation with social justice movements is the political prize needed for a progressive religious coalition that has been locked out of legislatures for the last half-century.
The enduring question as to whether this will result in a political trend has yet to be determined. By all accounts the confluence of events that contribute to Warnock’s win are statistical anomalies. Most full-time Black pastors aren’t going to run for office, let alone at the federal level. Also, most future Democratic candidates won’t be running against the looming specter of Donald Trump—a one-man show that single-handedly tanked whatever chances Loeffler had by proffering $2,000 stimulus checks and placing an illegal phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State asking him to “find” 11,780 votes. The double win for both Democrats was a resounding repudiation of Trump and the Republican party. The convergence of the cratering of the Republican party in such a way is unlikely to happen again any time soon.
In a perfect world, Warnock may be the progressive religious hero no one ever knew the nation needed. While he didn’t run on that as a platform, he did proclaim in the final run-off debate, “I’m a Matthew 25 Christian.” The words of Jesus in this passage have been the cornerstone of social justice ecclesial communities for decades and this bodes well for progressive hopefuls. There is no indication that Warnock won’t honor the philosophies of Jesus when it comes time to vote, co-sponsor or sponsor legislation. But as the junior Senator from Georgia, I can’t imagine he’ll be authoring much as re-election is only a short two years away. Rather, I suspect that for anyone expecting to see “radical liberal” Raphael Warnock on the Senate floor will have to wait and see like the rest of us.