Walker and Warnock offer clashing religious messages in Georgia

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A candidate in the Georgia Senate contest warns that “spiritual warfare” has ensnared America and offers herself to voters as a “warrior for God.” But it is not the ordained Baptist minister who leads the church where Martin Luther King Jr. ever preached.

It is Republican Herschel Walker, the sports icon who is openly questioning the religious practices of Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who calls himself “a pastor in the Senate” and votes to the civic equivalent of prayer.

Both men use faith as part of their public identity in a state where religion has always been a dominant cultural influence. But they do it in different ways, competing in moral terms on issues from abortion, race and criminal law to each other’s personal lives and behavior.

Their approaches provide a striking contrast between political opponents who grew up in the Black Church in the Deep South in the wake of the civil rights movement.

“They’re two completely different views of the world and what our biggest problems really are,” said Rev. Ray Waters, a white evangelical pastor in metro Atlanta who supports Warnock in Tuesday’s election.

How religious voters align could help decide what polls suggest is a narrow race that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. According to Pew Research, about 2 in 3 adults in Georgia consider themselves “very religious.”

Warnock, 53, preaches a kind of social justice Christianity reminiscent of King, the murdered civil rights leader who also ran the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

The Senator embraces the Black Church’s roots in slavery and Jim Crow segregation. From the pulpit, he acknowledges institutional racism and calls for collective government action to tackle inequality and other social problems. He often notes his arrests as a citizen protester advocating for health insurance expansion in the same Capitol where he now serves as a senator.

“I’m standing up for health care because it’s a human right,” Warnock said. “Dr. King said that of all injustices, health inequalities are the most shocking and the most inhumane.”

Walker also talks about society’s shortcomings, but the 60-year-old points to the expansion of LGBTQ rights, a renewed focus on racism and “weak” politicians, who, he says, “don’t love this country.” He has called for a national abortion ban, but has faced accusations from two former girlfriends who said he pressured them to terminate pregnancies and pay for their procedures. He has said the claims are lies.

It is a culturally conservative paragon related to individual morality rather than collective responsibility and basically states that the United States is a Christian country. That aligns Walker with the predominantly white evangelical movement that has shaped the modern Republican Party.

Those approaches, varied in content and style, are reflected in 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 that with Union Theological Seminary in New York, a center of progressive Christian theology. Standing in one of the most famous pulpits in the country for more than a decade, he sometimes quotes the Scriptures at length and punctuates 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 adherents last month.

At the same event, during the celebrations of the Jewish New Year, Warnock noted a passage that was often used as part of the fast on Rosh Hashanah. “Is this the fasting which the Lord looks for,” he said, “that you would release the fetters of injustice and set the oppressed free, that you would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger.” He offered the quote – Isaiah 58:6 – calling it “a favorite of mine.”

Walker is also the son of a Pentecostal pastor and now attends non-denominational Bible churches. A star athlete in rural Georgia, his football prowess took him in 1980 to the University of Georgia, a secular public campus that was then predominantly white. Walker never graduated, although he claims otherwise.

He often talks about Jesus, usually as a figure of “redemption” rather than a guide to public policy.

“Let me acknowledge my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it is said that if you do not recognize him, he will not recognize you,” Walker said during his only debate with Warnock. “When I knock, I want him to let me in.”

Many Walker events begin with prayers, some led by other black conservative evangelicals. Yet Walker’s scriptural and theological references are scattered, mostly non-specific allusions as part of rants against Warnock and “wake up.”

On transgender rights, Walker said: “I can’t believe we’re talking about what a woman is. That’s in the Bible. … We must not be fooled with all those lies.”

At a “Women for Herschel” event in August, Walker suggested that Warnock is anti-American, and alluded to the biblical story of the Hebrew God driving dissident angels from heaven. “It’s time for us to kick those people who don’t like America, kick them out of office,” he said, concluding to his largely white audience: “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re racist.”

On abortion, he said directly to Warnock on the debate stage, “Why don’t you abort those babies instead of aborting those babies?”

It’s a compelling argument for voters like Wylene Hayes, a 76-year-old retired teacher in Cumming. “You can just say Herschel is a man of strong faith, and just humble,” 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 focuses entirely on 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 central problems with being awake … are compassionate habits that are much of what Jesus said to do,” Waters said.

Warnock largely evades Walker’s attacks. He has recently started labeling Walker as “unfit” for the Senate because of Walker’s “lies” about his business record and allegations of violence against his ex-wife. Warnock comes closest to questioning Walker’s faith by saying that salvation requires a person to “confess … and be honest about the problem.”

“I’ll let him speak for himself,” Warnock said. “I am engaged in the work that I do all my life.”

Reverend Charles Goodman, an Augusta pastor and friend of Warnock, said it is not new that outspoken black ministers, especially those with more liberal theology, are labeled dangerous and anti-American.

“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 ambitious view of the country and our struggle to get there. He is a very hopeful minister, and he will always speak the truth against power and live in that tension.”

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