Republicans paint Raphael Warnock as a religious radical

2

Georgia Senate candidate Raphael Warnock has made his faith a defining element of his candidacy. The GOP aims to make it his fatal flaw.

Republicans are taking to the airwaves and social media to frame the pastor as a radical and tool of the “extremist” left. Using sound bites from his past sermons, they’re making the case to Georgia voters that the Democrat is anti-police and anti-military. TV ads play up his criticisms of police officers and try to connect him to polarizing figures like Fidel Castro, who visited Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1995 while Warnock was a youth pastor there. Taking several pages out of the 2008 playbook, they’ve also tried to tie him to Jeremiah Wright, the former senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Chicago, whom Republicans used to try to sink Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

This week, they’re rolling out a 30-second video clip from a 2011 sermon.

In the video, Warnock invokes the Gospel of Matthew, declaring, “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 who you will serve.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio circulated the video clip on Wednesday, tweeting, “Not shocked #Georgia Democrat Senate candidate Raphael Warnock said ‘You cannot serve God and the military’ at the same time. These & even crazier things is what the radicals who control the Democratic party’s activist & small dollar donor base believe.”

Last week, Republicans also hammered Warnock over allegations that he hindered a child abuse investigation that took place at the church where he was working in Baltimore in 2002. Warnock said he simply wanted police to interview the suspect, a juvenile, with an adult present. Police later dropped charges against him.

These tactics are part of an effort to frame Georgia’s special election as a stark choice between Warnock, a so-called militant, and his Republican opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a conservative whom President Donald Trump endorsed on Wednesday.

Their playbook: With two Georgia seats heading for a runoff on Jan. 5, Republicans and Democrats are fighting for control of the Senate. More moderate Democrats are battling the perception they’re beholden to a more radical progressive wing of their party. So Republicans are taking advantage of that perception, portraying Warnock as a figure to fear. His faith tradition, they argue, is at the base of it.

“Raphael Warnock has been exposed to be an extreme candidate,” said Jesse Hunt, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, citing “his views, the rhetoric that he’s used and how he speaks about police officers and other issues on the ideological spectrum.”

“He can try to register all the voters he wants, but he can’t change his views, he can’t change his past, he can’t change the rhetoric,” Hunt said.

Republicans have tried to tie religion to radicalism on the campaign trail in the past. When Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor for more than 20 years, gave a controversial sermon critical of U.S politics, declaring, “God damn America,” Republicans used his words to try to sink Obama’s presidential campaign.

Warnock’s response: On Wednesday, Warnock, who plays up his religious roots on the campaign trail, defended himself during a press conference. Republicans’ attacks on his faith, he said, are “unfortunate” and “shameful.”

“What I was expressing was the fact that, as a person of faith, my ultimate allegiance is to God. Therefore, whatever else that I may commit myself to has to be built on a spiritual foundation,” Warnock said. “The folks in my congregation, many of whom are veterans, weren’t confused at all about the message that day. That when you commit yourself to something larger than yourself you become better at that — whether that is serving in the military or serving in the U.S. Senate.”

Right after the general election on Nov. 3, Warnock’s campaign issued a preemptive strike, releasing an attack ad parody that criticizes him for eating pizza with a fork, stepping on concrete cracks and hating puppies.

“The negative ads are coming,” Warnock says in the ad, before clarifying that he does, indeed, like puppies. “Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic. So she’s going to try and scare you with lies about me.”

The Black church legacy: Several Black religious leaders argue the GOP is taking Warnoff’s words out of context — more dog whistle than valid criticism.

“They represent a complete lack of understanding or knowledge around the issues of theology as it’s unfolded in the Black church over generations,” said Derrick Harkins, director of interfaith outreach for the Democratic National Committee.

Moreover, Republicans’ attempts to use Warnock’s faith as a means of framing him as a radical are likely to draw the ire of Georgia’s large population of Black Christians, who are a crucial voter mobilization force in the state and will not take kindly to the villainization of their faith.

It’s happened before: Warnock, who is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, takes that mantle from Martin Luther King Jr., who held the position from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The church, which is affiliated with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, espouses liberation theology, a progressive form of Christianity that emphasizes care for low-income and socially or politically oppressed groups.

When he was alive, King was viewed by some as a dangerous radical.

Rev. Freddie Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, said that Republicans are pulling from “the same racist playbook” in their attacks on Warnock’s theology and ties to Wright.

“Martin Luther King Jr, who was lauded and applauded right now, in his last years, was one of the most hated men in this country, especially by the same crew that is coming for Warnock right now,” Haynes said. “The hypocrisy in their attacks on Warnock is glaring.”

Will it land?: Warnock allies and those familiar with Georgia politics see the Republican playbook as an outgrowth of their appeals to the base — something they have to double down on without Trump atop their ticket to energize voters.

“It don’t resonate with people that really know Rev. Warnock,” said Tracey Thornhill, president of the Atlanta AFSCME chapter, during a Warnock press conference in Atlanta. “It resonates with people who probably were going to vote for Loeffler anyway.”

James Arkin contributed to this report.

View original post