Kelly Loeffler’s relentless assault on the religious faith of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, her challenger in the January 5 Georgia runoff that could decide control of the US Senate, has been characterized by deliberate mischaracterizations of the pastor’s sermons and the Christian Scriptures on which they are based. At rallies, in media appearances and in their only runoff campaign debate, the appointed Republican incumbent has attacked her Democratic rival for preaching a social gospel rooted in New Testament teaching,
Framing her campaign around wildly out-of-context claims about Warnock’s sermons, Loeffler rips into her ordained opponent for referencing Christian teachings—along with those of the world’s other major religions—when he addresses issues of war and peace, policing and economics. Loeffler bitterly rejects questioning of her approach, declaring, “I’m not going to be lectured by someone that uses the Bible to justify abortion and to attack our men and women in the military.”
It is a bizarre political strategy that, like so much of Loeffler’s candidacy, demands that Georgians deny reality—in this case, the reality that her rival is an internationally respected religious leader with a PhD in theology from Union Theological Seminary. As only the fifth senior pastor in the storied history of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church—the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual home—Warnock has earned acclaim for his biblical knowledge and his nuanced application of it to contemporary debates.
Yet Loeffler continues to claim that the Democrat disrespected people serving in the military when he delivered a 2011 sermon based on the Gospel of Matthew, in which he said, “America, nobody can serve God and the military. You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day whom you will serve.”
If that is a radical statement, it is the radicalism of Christian teaching over the past two millennia. As Greg Garrett, a seminary-trained lay preacher in the Episcopal Church who teaches theology at Baylor University, has noted, Warnock’s message in that sermon was
a fairly traditional reading of the Scripture: Jesus taught that anything we put in front of God, anything we revere more than God, becomes God to us, whether that’s money or country or work or security. The Scripture says this; the 2,000-year discourse of the church says this; our own honest understanding of the call of Christ says this. Fox News itself reported that Warnock’s message was “call(ing) on churchgoers, and America as a whole, to turn away from the pursuit of power and wealth in favor of a life of service.”
“Warnock’s theological conclusion is being willfully misconstrued as an attack on military service,” explains Garrett.
Warnock explained as much in the December 6 Senate debate, after Loeffler peddled the line of attack once more. “Listen,” he said, “this is why I think folks have turned off from politics very often—because people will turn anything into a kind of cynical political argument. I was preaching that day from a very familiar Matthew text that says you can’t serve God and mammon. It was a sermon about a moral foundation for everything that we do and that when you have everything in order, that actually makes you a better soldier. It also makes you a better senator, and had Kelly Loeffler listened to the sermon rather than trying to make a cheap political point, she wouldn’t have used her advantage as US senator to make millions on a pandemic while playing it down to the people she was supposed to be representing.”
That devastating takedown should have been the end of it. But Loeffler is shameless. She came right back with a self-righteous announcement that “I’m a Christian, I’m a person of deep faith. I don’t need a lecture from someone who has used the Bible to not only justify attacking our military. That’s not in Matthew 6:24. It doesn’t say you can’t serve the military and God. But he’s also used the Bible to justify abortion. I cannot stand by and let Georgians not know who my opponent is, how radical his views are, and how he would fundamentally change our country.”
The hypocrisy of Senate Republicans when it comes to matters of religion has been well documented. But Loeffler has taken things to such extremes that in their debate, Warnock finally said, “She’s continued to misrepresent my record; she’s lied, not only on me, but on Jesus. Everybody’s clear about what that passage is about in Matthew: You can’t serve two masters, and she should have listened to the lesson. Maybe she wouldn’t be so focused on herself; she’d be thinking about the people she’s supposed to represent.”
Warnock was somewhat gentler than Garrett, who recognized the racism in Loeffler’s attack:
I know we would not be having this same conversation about a white preacher calling America to account for its sins. I know that because thousands of white pastors offer similar messages every week. I know that because I heard that message over and over during the first 18 years of my life.
The only two differences are these: Warnock and many of these white preachers are condemning different kinds of American moral failings.
And Warnock, on the stump and from the pulpit, is calling on white Americans to repent of the sins of racism and inequality, and many white people do not want to hear these words from any Black man, even a Black man of God.
In a letter sent last week to Loeffler, more than 100 religious leaders from Georgia and across the country wrote, “We call upon you, Kelly Loeffler, to cease your false attacks on Reverend Warnock’s social justice theological and faith traditions which visualize a just and ardent world where love, fairness and equal justice under the law for marginalized people of all races is not only accepted as an authentic prophetic message in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, but also a central message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The letter explained, “We see your attacks against Warnock as a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand.”
Despite the rebuke, Loeffler shows no sign of abandoning a strategy that was best summed up by the Rev. William Barber II, who says of Warnock: “He’s being attacked because he answered the call of God. He’s being attacked because he believed that you shouldn’t use power for anything but to help people up.”
Barber wrote to Warnock as Loeffler’s attacks grew more vile. “I didn’t write him and say, ‘Quit,’ I didn’t write him and say, ‘Get out of the race,’ I didn’t write him and say, ‘That’s why a pastor shouldn’t be running.’ I didn’t write him and say, ‘Pray that they stop attacking you.’ I wrote him and said, ‘Don’t quit. Stand on what you believe, because there comes a time when you’ve got to say, ‘I’m not going to quit living in and living for God.’”