WASHINGTON (RNS) — When Sen. Raphael Warnock walked to the podium in Atlanta on Tuesday night (Dec. 6) to celebrate his election to a full term as a U.S. Senator, it was mere moments before he brought up a subject close to his heart and key to his win: God.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and to God be the glory,” he declared to thousands of supporters, “for the great things God has done.”
The crowd erupted in jubilation and kept cheering as Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historic Black congregation once led by Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to “that American covenant: E Pluribus Unum” and described voting as a “certain kind of prayer.”
They were lines Warnock has used for years, sometimes from the pulpit, other times from political podiums, often both.
But his rhetoric seemed to hit differently that evening, bringing not only raucous applause from the crowd but also praise from liberal media observers. As Warnock finished his speech, MSNBC hosts Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow lauded his soaring oratory, with Maddow merrily suggesting that perhaps Democrats should elect more Baptist ministers — or at least ones who speak like Warnock.
The quip may surprise some, as liberal Democrats are commonly cast as “godless” by their conservative opponents. Warnock not only rebuts that kind of talk, he represents a particular brand of social justice-focused Christianity that favors voting rights and prioritizes the poor. By couching those issues in his faith, he offers a prominent counter to the religious right and appeals to the Democrats’ historic base among Black Protestants.
Warnock is someone who “embodies the best vision of progressive faith in America,” said Joshua DuBois, who oversaw faith outreach for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and in his administration. Dubois noted that Warnock — whose “pro-choice pastor” identity resonates with many liberals, be they religious or otherwise — has also been active in the Progressive National Baptist Convention as well as in ecumenical and interfaith circles.
“He’s someone who not only understands the perspective of progressives of faith and really lives in that space, but also will elevate that perspective in the halls of power,” said DuBois, who now runs the consulting firm Values Partnerships.
Now that Warnock, who has held onto his pulpit at Ebenezer, is freed from what seemed like a perpetual campaign for his seat, he stands to serve as both a champion for the resurgent religious left and as a model for Democrats seeking to expand their influence in the South.
Many on the left are watching to see what Warnock does now that he has a full term in the Senate. Just a few years ago, Warnock was walking through the halls of Congress in handcuffs, arrested for protesting Republicans’ proposed Medicaid cut with a group of Black clergy.
“I have a feeling that in a few days I’m going to meet those Capitol Hill police officers again, and this time they will not be taking me to central booking — they can help me find my new office,” he said just before winning his last runoff, in 2021.
In 2014, he was one of dozens detained at the Georgia State Capitol as part of a “Moral Mondays” demonstration urging local legislators to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.