ATLANTA – For months in 2007, Rev. Raphael Warnock, in his pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has been demanding the release of a young black man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for consensual sexual encounter between teenagers. Some of his powerful parishioners, such as Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, had joined the cause and even visited the young man in prison.
The public pressure campaign was on the verge of success – a lower court ordered the young man’s release and his family prepared to celebrate. But then Attorney General Thurbert Baker announced that he would appeal the decision.
Mr. Baker also happened to be a member of Mr. Warnock’s ward. And so he was specially mentioned by Mr. Warnock the following Sunday. “He said it was his job to be a prosecutor, and that’s true,” said Warnock. “But it is my job to be the conscience of the state.”
At the time, in 2007, Mr. Warnock was still a relative newcomer. Two years earlier he was the youngest person to ever take the role of senior pastor in Ebenezer, the spiritual home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had taken over.
Mr. Baker, on the other hand, was Georgia’s highest black elected official. A criminal, somewhat conservative Democrat who had been in office since 1997, he became the last African American to be elected in a nationwide race.
Mr. Warnock wants to be next.
He is running for the Senate against Kelly Loeffler, one of the richest members of Congress. Senator Loeffler was appointed by Governor Brian Kemp last year and has become a staunch Trump loyalist.
Much is at stake: Election day results – a three-way split between Mr Warnock, Ms. Loeffler, and another Republican, Representative Doug Collins – sparked a runoff that, along with the runoff for Georgia’s other Senate seat, will make the decision Balance of power in the Senate. The race has attracted record sums. Mr. Warnock raised more than $ 100 million to prove the case that his life path prepared him better for this moment than anyone else.
At this moment, he often reminds his audience of the election campaign, including a pandemic of stark racial differences, global calls for justice sparked by police killings of blacks, and the amazing fact that Georgian voters who have never elected a black senator , fair nodded to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992.
Mr. Warnock insists that the time is right for a Black Baptist preacher in Kente-cloth robes to speak of police brutality and voter suppression from one of the world’s most famous pulpits. While creating a résumé that builds up the testimonials as well as the testimonials, he has not hesitated to share personal experiences such as suspected shoplifting and the imprisonment of an imprisoned brother.
Republicans have tried to label him a dangerous radical by taking note of his condemnation of white privilege, his defense of black pastors who criticized the United States, and his support for abortion rights. Incidents from his past have been further investigated, including an arrest for which charges were later dropped and an incident last year where his now ex-wife called the police after a conflict outside her home.
In response, the 51-year-old Warnock has tried largely to neutralize the criticism, as in two campaign ads in which he anticipates the attacks on him and confesses his own love of Puppies. He offers his opponent a preaching rhyme: “People who have no line of sight in the split.”
“I have spent my career and pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church bringing people together,” he said in an interview when asked about his defense of religious leaders who have criticized the United States. He called for bringing people together, difficult work. “It requires that we actually talk to each other and not about each other,” he said. “It takes a deep commitment, because I think bigotry feeds on fear.”
In the pulpit, Mr. Warnock has positioned himself as a moral compass for the government. Now he wants to continue this job – in Washington.
“My Father’s Business”
Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, named after an archangel and revered Jewish scholar, gave his first sermon when he was 11 years old.
He chose the one Bible story about Jesus as a child when Joseph and Mary lost him for three days just to see him philosophize in the temple. Jesus shakes off their concerns and says they should have known where he would be.
Mr. Warnock titled the sermon: “It is time for me to take care of my father’s business.”
He was raised on a residential project in Savannah, Georgia, the 11th of 12 siblings in a mixed family. His father, Jonathan Warnock, came from the rural Lowcountry on the Savannah River. The elder Warnock served in the Army during World War II, and family history includes a time when he was asked to give up a bus seat in uniform. In Savannah, he rescued cars and preached in a Pentecostal church on Sundays, hung an American flag behind his pulpit, and began the service with a promise of loyalty.
Although many Pentecostal churches do not ordain women, Raphael’s mother, Verlene, also became a pastor, signaling the family’s openness to less traditional interpretations of the Bible.
Even so, Joyce Hall, one of Mr. Warnock’s sisters, said, “My parents were very, very conservative evangelicals. Raphael was formed in an environment where our parents taught us biblical values. And then let’s choose. “
Young Raphael quoted, read, and discussed Scripture so seriously that he was nicknamed “the Rev.” In his campaign speech, he tells how his father woke him up early every morning to get dressed, put on his shoes and “get ready” – regardless of whether they had plans. Friends say Mr. Warnock is still dressed and shod today at dawn.
He wanted to go to Morehouse College, the elite, historically the black alma mater of Dr. King, and was able to do so with financial support, including a Pell Grant, low-interest loans, and scholarships.
He entered college as a Pentecostal like his parents and graduated from a Baptist in the royal tradition.
Mr. Warnock joined an aspiring pastor campus group and received a standing ovation when he first preached a sermon, according to students from that era told Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., dean of the campus chapel.
He recommended Mr. Warnock for a summer internship at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, under the direction of John Thomas Porter, led by Dr. King had been mentored and led the 1960s anti-segregation campaign in which protesters were hit with fire hoses and police dogs.
There, Mr. Warnock switched from a tradition that emphasized prayer and personal salvation to one that was more active, he explained in an interview. “It was the Baptists who preached some kind of social gospel that caught my attention and imagination,” he said.
Preach the “unpleasant” truth
One of the most famous in the history of black pastors turned politicians was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Harlem congressman and civil rights activist who succeeded his father as leader of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1938.
There Mr. Warnock got a job as minister of youth in the church at the age of 22. He had moved to New York to attend the prestigious Union theological seminary, where he earned two masters degrees and later a doctorate. At this point, Abyssinian was under the leadership of Calvin O. Butts III, another Morehouse alumnus.
There Mr. Warnock protested against negative stereotypes in rap texts and criticized the persistent reaction of the police to a “Million Youth March”. He also spoke out against the requirement of social work introduced by the then mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, calling it a “joke” in which “poor people are put into competition with other poor people”.
In his scholarship he dealt with a lifelong topic: the role of the church in public life.
He wrote a dissertation on the resistance of the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer against Nazi Germany and the struggles of Dr. King in the United States, which he described as “two rare moments when the birth pangs of history that a true church seek to produce can be felt with unusual intensity. ”
In the same newspaper he made a complaint that he would later take action against the “prosperity gospel” promoted by some of the suburban mega-churches that competed for membership with Ebenezer. “The gospel preached in too many of our churches today is a ‘feel good’ Christianity that has been co-opted and marketed for a ‘culture of stimulation’,” he wrote.
In his 2006 PhD thesis and a 2013 book, Mr. Warnock presented a vision to unite the sometimes competing forces of black Christianity to face the evils of a nation plagued by mass imprisonment, drug addiction, and a yawning wealth gap. As a candidate, he has chosen a similar platform, calling for criminal justice reform, a living wage and the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“The black church was America’s conscience,” he said during an event in 2011.
This role has been taken over by many black pastors across the country, some of whom use more confrontational language than others. As Mr. Warnock noted in his book, one of his mentors, Rev. James H. Cone, had called the White Church the “Antichrist.”
Mr Warnock was a defense attorney for Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of former President Barack Obama, who was put on trial in 2008 after video clips of a sermon he delivered told him, “Damn America.”
While Mr. Obama distanced himself from Mr. Wright, Mr. Warnock expressed concern that the clips were not being shared in the correct context. During an appearance on Fox News in 2008, Warnock noted that Dr. King prepared a sermon entitled “Why America Can Go to Hell” prior to his assassination.
“We celebrate Reverend Wright the same way we celebrate the Black Church’s truth-clarification tradition. Very often, when preachers tell the truth, people feel uncomfortable,” Warnock told Fox News. He later wrote that the sermon in its entirety was “a very thoughtful and persuasive discussion of how a Christian should view government”.
Some of Mr. Warnock’s own sermons are intended to make people uncomfortable. He has urged black churches to get gay people more involved, saying they have been “shamefully slow” to focus on gender inequality, saying that churches need to fight both sexism and patriarchal structures – inside and outside its walls.
He also criticized white churches and wrote in his book that they were active and complicit participants “in slavery, segregation and other manifestations of white supremacy”.
In an interview, Mr. Warnock said it was the white church’s ban on black worshipers that first spawned the black church.
“When we say the black church, we never mean anything racially exclusive,” said Warnock. “The Black Church is the anti-slavery church. It is an independent Christian testimony that literally emerged in the struggle for freedom and insists that the gospel is about equality, justice and inclusive humanity. “
In a state where three-quarters of the population identify as Christian and where many white evangelicals hold conservative political views, Republicans and Ms. Loeffler’s campaign have used his messages and sermons to label him “radical” – and their claims have often found by fact checkers to be misleading.
An ad from a conservative SuperPAC incorrectly suggested that Mr. Warnock himself said “Goddamn America,” but the video actually shows Mr. Warnock describing Mr. Wright’s rhetoric.
In a 2011 sermon highlighted by Republicans, Mr. Warnock said that “no one can serve God and the military,” but Mr. Warnock’s campaign found it to be a reference to the gospel message, that “no one can serve two masters”. In another sermon, Warnock criticized Israel, describing how people saw the government “shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.” In response, Georgia Jewish community leaders spoke publicly in support of Mr. Warnock.
Christian pastors have also come to Mr. Warnock’s defense, just as he defended Mr. Wright. Dozens joined a letter asking Ms. Loeffler to stop her attacks.
“We see your attacks on Warnock as a broader attack against the black church and the faith traditions for which we stand,” wrote the pastors.
Transmission of the “right message for the time”
In his early 30s, Mr. Warnock was tapped to run his own church, the Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. He began his tenure by calling on members to tackle urban plague and drug addiction, and encouraging clergy to turn to H.I.V. at a time when AIDS was ravaging black communities. He finished a service in 2001 by having himself tested.
While in Maryland, Mr. Warnock was arrested during an advisory investigation into allegations of abusive bullying at Camp Farthest Out, a Church-run facility about 30 miles west of Baltimore.
When investigators began interviewing a counselor who appeared to be 17, Mr. Warnock and another pastor asked if they could be present during the interview, but investigators rejected the idea and blamed the pastors for disrupting the process , according to a police report. The differences of opinion continued until the investigators arrested the pastors for obstructing the investigation.
In a later part of the report, the pastors are described as warm. One of them said, “We didn’t want to get in each other’s way.” The prosecution later dropped the disability charges. One said the case involved “miscommunication” and that the pastors “were very helpful in further investigation,” according to a 2002 article by Baltimore Sun.
In 2004 a job opened that seemed almost bespoke for Mr. Warnock: Senior Pastor at Ebenezer, the church in the heart of Atlanta, with an important role in the civil rights movement.
Mr. Warnock was in his mid-thirties, and his selection contrasted sharply with retired Pastor Joseph Roberts, who had served for three decades.
The job came with immediate entry into the upper echelons of Atlanta, and Mr. Warnock, sharply clad and considered one of the most suitable bachelors in town, walked the red carpets and greeted visiting celebrities.
More often than not, he made news on serious subjects. A few months after arriving in Ebenezer in 2005, he took a Freedom Caravan back to New Orleans for bus drivers displaced by Hurricane Katrina for them to vote.
He took up the cause of death row inmates and Genarlow Wilson, the top athlete and prom king who was sentenced to 10 years in prison at age 17 for having sex with a 15 year old. (Mr. Baker, the Attorney General and Ebenezer member, eventually lost his appeal and Mr. Wilson was released.)
After Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in a hoodie, was shot dead on his way home in a Florida housing estate, Mr. Warnock appeared in the pulpit wearing a hooded sweatshirt (a maroon from Morehouse).
The state’s political class quickly got to know Mr. Warnock, partly because elected officials were practically required to attend Ebenezer’s annual King Day service. He was invited to give the blessing at the annual Democratic Party dinners, but did not stop at Amen.
“I would always say,” You know, Reverend, we want you to make the invocation, but you always have something else to say, “recalls DuBose Porter, then chairman of the state party.” He wouldn’t make a long phrase, but it would be just the right message for the time. Every time. “
Mr Warnock had the blessings of the old civil rights guard, but his interests and style coincided with an emerging group of activists focused on social justice. With the rapper T. I. he held a three-day conference on ending mass imprisonment. He was arrested at the statehouse in 2014 for protesting the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
Immediately after the memorial service in Ebenezer for Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by Wendy in a parking lot in June by Atlanta police in a parking lot, Mr. Warnock set off to pick up one of his own brothers from federal prison for a pandemic release. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for a nonviolent drug crime.
Over the years, progressives found that Mr Warnock was able to add credibility to their efforts and ward off criticism not only from Conservatives but also from skeptical Democrats. Stacey Abrams first met Mr. Warnock in her role as attorney for the city of Atlanta and then as leader of the Democratic minority in the Georgia Congregation. In 2014 she went to see him for help with an ambitious voter registration plan.
He became the spokesperson for Ms. Abrams’ New Georgia Project and worked with the group to expand their campaigns to communities. He later replaced Ms. Abrams as Chair of the Board of Directors.
“What I see in Raphael Warnock, every time we talk, every time we get involved, is that belief that is central to him: this morality demands that he do good,” said Ms. Abrams in one Interview.
As Mr. Warnock’s reputation grew, the Georgia Democrats struggled despite predictions that increasing racial diversity would work in favor of the party. In 2014, candidates with two of the state’s biggest Democratic names – Michelle Nunn, daughter of Senator Sam Nunn, and Jason Carter, son of former President Jimmy Carter – ran for national office and lost.
The next year, Mr. Warnock floated a trial balloon: a run for the Senate against Johnny Isakson, a Republican incumbent who recently announced he had Parkinson’s. Encouraged by Democratic leaders, Mr. Warnock consulted his flock.
“It was definitely a family talk, I mean, there weren’t any PowerPoint presentations – and it’s great for presentations,” said Robin Hindsman Stacia, a Ebenezer member. “At that point, he knew that if the church didn’t really feel that the time was right, he wouldn’t do it.”
He didn’t do it.
A private life in public
The New Years Eve service It’s always a lively affair at Ebenezer, but when 2015-2016 made way it went electric. The congregation pushed forward for a better view when their pastor stood in front of his friend Ouleye Ndoye and pulled a small box from his pocket.
He quoted poems (“Those who are near me do not know that you are closer”) and Scripture (“the Bible says that one who finds a wife finds good and receives favor from the Lord”) and knelt down.
Ms. Ndoye, 16 years younger than Mr. Warnock and a graduate of Spelman, Morehouse’s sister school, was sitting in a front bench in a glistening black dress with her hands clasped over her mouth.
“So are you going to do me a favor and be my good thing?” Asked Mr. Warnock. “Will you marry me?”
The engagement was brief – after a private ceremony, the couple wed publicly in Ebenezer on Valentine’s Day.
The Warnocks had two children, a girl and a boy. In May 2019, Mr Warnock filed for divorce.
At the same time as his marriage collapsed, his political future was taking shape. In August, Senator Isakson announced that he would be retiring and sparking a round of jockeying among potential Democratic candidates for the special election to fill the seat.
The November competition would include multiple candidates from each party and result in a runoff election if no one won more than 50 percent of the vote directly. To ensure that one of the top two candidates was a Democrat, the party had to band together behind a single candidate early on.
Again, Mr. Warnock called a meeting at his church, parishioners said. This time, however, things were different. Ebenezer’s members had seen three years of divisive politics, a surge of overt racism, and Georgia’s senators were still fighting against expanded access to health care. The political equation had also changed: the challenger would compete against an appointed newcomer, not a longtime lawmaker like Mr Isakson.
At this point, Mr. Warnock had been with Ebenezer for 15 years and believed he had built a strong team of pastors. He didn’t ask, members said – he told them he was going to run. He has hinted that he has no intention of stepping down in his election to Ebenezer, they said.
In explaining his decision to take part in the race, Mr. Warnock consistently relied on Dr. Called King’s vision of the Church that is actively involved – and indeed essential to – political life. “Politics is a tool to make the kind of change I want to see in the world” he told Ernie Suggs, a seasoned reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In early December 2019, Governor Kemp selected Ms. Loeffler to succeed Mr. Isakson, a $ 20 million financial services manager ready to join her own campaign. Mr. Warnock hadn’t announced that he would run when she appeared at the King’s Day service in Ebenezer six weeks later. She called it a “holy place” and swore to live in a way that Dr. King and his family honored.
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Warnock said dryly, “If you were to stand in that sacred place that Dr. King stood today, make sure you stand where Dr. King stood tomorrow.”
Mr. Warnock officially entered the race in late January. In a contest of 20 candidates, he was the anointed Democrat, with the support of the Senatorial Democratic Campaign Committee and the hope that he would appeal to moderate white voters who were turned off by President Trump and motivate people who leaned to the left to do so but do not often find candidates with whom they could identify.
“A really good show”
Two weeks before the runoff elections, Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast a video of a tearful Ms. Warnock captured by a police camera – a video that was quickly converted to video Attack Indicator against Mr. Warnock, who had the number for a domestic violence hotline.
“I tried for a long time to keep the way he behaved under lock and key, and today he crossed the line,” Ms. Warnock told the officer in the clip. “So that’s what’s going on here, and he’s a great actor. He’s phenomenal at doing a really good show.”
The Warnock campaign has described the attack as “desperate and shameful”. The video is from an episode nine months ago when the couple had already separated and were in the process of divorce. Mr. Warnock drove to her town house to pick up her son for kindergarten.
Ms. Warnock’s grandfather in West Africa had died the night before and she wanted Mr. Warnock to sign papers that would enable her to take the children, then 1 and 3, to the funeral.
They argued in the driveway. Mr Warnock later said he wanted her to sign the divorce papers before allowing the children to travel overseas. Soon Ms. Warnock called the police to report that he had run over her foot.
Ms. Warnock, shaken but calm, tells the police that she leaned in the back seat on the passenger side with the door open and fastened one of the children’s seat belts.
The video shows that both parties agree that Mr. Warnock climbed into the driver’s seat and moved the car with the passenger door open. Mr. Warnock says he first asked his wife to get away from the car, but she refused. He also says when he started driving he thought she had moved.
Mr Warnock repeatedly says that he did not “think” that he hit her foot. He later denied a more categorical opposition, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “It did not happen. ”
The first officer on site tells his sergeant that Mr. Warnock “looks like a very presentable guy in a Tesla” and that his wife is “hysterical”. The police did not arrest Mr. Warnock and said several times that they did not believe that he had harmed his wife or that he intended to.
According to the video, when the officer asks Ms. Warnock if Mr. Warnock deliberately walked on her foot, the officer replied, “I just don’t think he cares,” adding, “This man is running for the Senate and all what he’s worried about right now is his reputation. “
Ms. Warnock can be heard twice asking for medical attention. According to the police report, the medical staff found no “swelling, redness, bruising or broken bones” on Ms. Warnock’s foot.
Ms. Warnock did not participate in her ex-husband’s candidacy, nor are her children shown in his campaign materials. Through her lawyer, she said, “My children and I have no place in the politics of this election.”
The divorce was finalized last May.
Call and answer
On the Friday before the early December voting began, Mr Warnock walked from parking lot to parking lot – and stopped at a union building in Atlanta near a college campus in Athens and behind a church in Augusta, where the audience sang and sang amid horns honking answered in one call and one answer, similar to a Sunday morning.
Mr. Warnock refined it with the confidence of a man who gave his first sermon at eleven o’clock. At that time he said it was time to take care of his father’s business. Four decades later, that means politics for him.
“Who are we?” he roared.
“We the people!” shouted back the crowd.
Mr Warnock went on to define “we the people” at this moment: workers who do not have medical care, people who do not have a living wage, seniors who have difficulty paying for prescription drugs.
“Get up,” he called and his speech built into a crescendo.
The crowd repeated, “Get up!”
“Get dressed,” he said. They said, “Get dressed.”
Then he said, “Put your shoes on.”
Shaila Dewan reported from Atlanta and Savannah and Mike Baker from Seattle. Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research. Nicole McNulty contributed to this report from New York.