In This Episode
Reverend Raphael Warnock’s name has been in the news a lot lately as the Senate race heats up in Georgia. Just last week, WNBA players—alongside Stacey Abrams and Elizabeth Warren—endorsed Rev. Warnock’s bid to replace Senator Kelly Loeffler, an anti-Black Lives Matter conservative, in November. Phill talked to Reverend Warnock about what called him to the church—and now, to politics—and how faith has influenced his policy choices from reproductive justice to voting rights.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, This is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. It’s an election year dominated by a global pandemic, sweeping nationwide protests and, of course, the Veep-Stakes.
[news clip] Breaking news, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has made his choice. NBC News has confirmed that Biden has picked California Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate, the first woman of color in history to be chosen for such a position.
Phillip Picardi: That means it can be hard for local political hopefuls to get national media attention. But that’s not the case for Raphael Warnock, a Georgia U.S. Senate hopeful. Last week, players at the WNBA emerged from their team busses wearing T-shirts with two words “Vote Warnock” written across their chests. Images of their demonstration quickly went viral.
[voice clip] A political statement tonight from members of the Atlanta Dream again their owner. Dream player Elizabeth Williams tweeted this photograph right here wearing a vote Warnock shirt.
Phillip Picardi: Members of the WNBA entered the fray to make a defiant statement against the incumbent, Senator Kelly Loeffler, who owns the team, the Atlanta Dream. Loeffler, a former cryptocurrency executive, has spoken out against the Black Lives Matter movement. The majority of the WNBA players, it should be said, are Black women. Warnock now finds himself at the center of national news and sports headlines. While his progressive politics are not atypical of many of his fellow Democratic challengers, what is different is his approach. Warnock is the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once co-pastor. Last week, he officiated the funeral of the civil rights legend John Lewis.
[clip of Warnock] He became a living walking sermon about truth telling and justice making in the earth. He loved America until America learned how to love him back. We celebrate John Lewis.
Phillip Picardi: While most Americans are familiar with the religious right, Reverend Warnock hopes to show us what happens when politics meets a new kind of faith: the religious left.
Phillip Picardi: Reverend Warnock, thank you for joining me. How are you?
Rev. Warnock: I’m doing great. Thank you so much for inviting me
Phillip Picardi: To get us started, I’m wondering if maybe we can talk a little bit about what caused you to becoming a pastor?
Rev. Warnock: Oh, I was very clear early on in life that I was called to the work of ministry, and my father and mother certainly inspired me. My dad was a pastor as I was growing up. My mother later went into ministry. But I’ve come from a very large family. Most of us went into other fields but it was clear to me early on that ministry would be the work that I would spend my life doing.
Phillip Picardi: I mean, a lot of people may be surprised to hear that a pastor or a reverend has ambitions in politics. I’m wondering if you think that those two things are at odds or if you find them to actually be in perfect harmony?
Rev. Warnock: Oh, my ambition is actually positive change and social transformation, particularly for the most vulnerable among us. I want to be a vessel, if you will, in the work of building what Dr. King called a ‘beloved community.’ And for me, politics is a path for getting that work done. And I think we’ve seen the consequence in our democracy, quite frankly, of people who are more ambitious about politics and power than they are about the work of social change. We have too many elected officials who are so focused on the next election that they’re not thinking nearly enough about the next generation. And often the excuse is, well, you’ve got to get elected to do the work. That’s true. But if you’re not doing the work, was the purpose of getting elected. And what I hope to do is translate my lifelong career and ministry of agitation into legislation, because public policy really is where people live and often it’s a matter of life and death. I’m deeply honored by the prospect and possibility that I might serve at that level.
Phillip Picardi: Agitation into legislation. I love that. I’m wondering, we’re living in a time right now of a lot of agitation, specifically against the political establishment. So did any of this motivate your decision to run for office this year in 2020?
Rev. Warnock: Oh, when I came into this race back in January, there was no way of knowing that we would be in the middle of a renewed reckoning, if you will, on race, or that we would be fighting a global pandemic. None of those things were going, was going on when I announced. My announcement and decision to go into the race for the U.S. Senate is based on my lifelong commitment and the work that I’ve been doing. I’ve been standing up for health care reform in this state. In fact, I got arrested in the governor’s office staging a sit-in because I was so deeply offended morally by the fact that we were leaving 400,000 people in the Medicaid gap when all we had to do was say to the federal government, yes, we would like the money that we’re already paying in our taxes. And so it’s really my career of standing up for the things that I think matter that has led me to this work. And a few months after I announced, we found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, which just brought into sharper focus the things that I’ve been saying all along, that I have a stake in my neighbors’ access to health care. That’s true all the time. And it ought to be apparent all the time. But a global pandemic in which we’re waging battle against a deadly disease just brings it into sharper focus. That kind of core that informs my own moral sensibilities, my deep belief that we’re better off when all of us have, has a seat at the table. That’s what’s driven me into this race. And I think after I announced all of a sudden we saw magnified in the public square two viruses, if you will, COVID-19 and what I call COVID-1619: America’s ongoing struggle with the problem of race, which began when slaves arrived here on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. It is a virus that mutated into Jim Crow segregation and now in mass incarceration. We’re still doing battle against this virus. And it just so happens that this is the work I’ve been doing. And I feel, quite frankly, like I could not have chosen a better time to run for the United States Senate.
Phillip Picardi: It’s a really interesting time to be a prospective politician looking to unseat an incumbent, right? And we’ve seen these challengers largely come to victory, which is encouraging for this new wave of political leaders who see a future maybe that the incumbents weren’t able to see. And, you know, I saw this groundswell of support for you when the players of the WNBA walked off of their team bus wearing T-shirts that had a message on them that said: Vote Warnock. And I have to admit, I was surprised to learn that I believe your challenger, Ms. Loeffler, has ties to the WNBA. And here were the players of the WNBA coming out in support for you. Can you tell me what that felt like for you?
Rev. Warnock: Oh, it was deeply gratifying to be embraced by women of the WNBA and yes, including members of the Dream, the Atlanta Dream, co-owned by Senator Kelly Loeffler. Listen, they understand that we are no better as a country than the depth of our commitment to the least among us. And so we’ve been dealing with this issue around police brutality. The WNBA, to its credit, has said that we have a platform, we have to say something. This is not about politics, it’s about justice. It’s about human rights. This is about much more than a slogan, and what you think about the slogan of Black Lives Matter, this is literally a matter of life and death. People are dying. Communities are experiencing the pain of all of this. And as a pastor, I’ve been at the center of these conversations. Someone asked me a few weeks ago, several weeks ago, what was it like to preach in the Ebenezer Pulpit once occupied by Martin Luther King Jr. after the killing of George Floyd? Ad I’d say, well, tragically, I’ve got too much practice with this kind of thing. It felt the same way it did the Sunday I preached after the death of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Tatiana Jefferson and Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott and Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Aubrey and Eric Garner. And the list goes on and on and on. This is not about demonizing or defunding the police. This is about resetting the relationship and recommitting ourselves as an American people to the basic premise of equal protection under the law. And so I see them standing up, these players and the WNBA. And as they do so, they represent the best of the American tradition. After all, our country was conceived in liberty, but it was shaped by protests, it was born in protest. That’s what the Boston Tea Party was.
Phillip Picardi: Well, I do also want to talk about your faith and how faith informs politics, because the way that I am used to seeing faith informing politics is from a white Christian evangelical perspective. And the immense power that these white Christian evangelicals have, especially in support of very conservative policies and of conservative politicians. I’m wondering, for people who are skeptical of hearing that a reverend is running for political office or who may be worried about their own freedoms formed from your candidacy, what do you say about how your faith influences your politics?
Rev. Warnock: As a pastor. I’m deeply concerned that too often faith in general and Christian faith in particular, in this moment in American history has gotten a bad name on the right and on the left. I come from a faith tradition in which the church—and when I say the church, I mean the church tradition that Ebenezer is a part of—I come from a church tradition that was literally born fighting for freedom, centering the importance of human dignity. And it is the faith of slaves who, after the official church meeting was over, had their own alternative meeting, if you will, late in the night hours in the brush arbors of Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most definitive voices of the 20th century, was shaped by that tradition. He didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s a product of that tradition. So was John Lewis. And he took that faith with him across that bridge in Selma and was able to face death with courage because it was his faith that anchored him. And so I know personally the power of an authentic faith that is clear about its own identity and yet is open enough to embrace people who come from other perspectives. Maybe they don’t pray in any church, but they pray in a synagogue or temple, or maybe they just gather around kitchen tables across our country, and that’s what I think we need in a moment like this. We need people who are focused on bringing us together. And I think faith ought to do that at its best. And that’s what informs my candidacy.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah. And it’s interesting to hear you talk about liberation theology and how that’s so informed the activism we’re seeing even on our streets today, which is, which is so crucial. But I do know that there would be even progressive people of faith who wonder about the protection of things like reproductive justice, right, or LGBTQ equality and even how that may fit into a religious, an openly and proudly religious person in office on the left. What do you say to those people who may have those concerns about your candidacy?
Rev. Warnock: Yeah, I would say that I really do believe in the promise of this wonderful experiment that we have called America. We are a diverse democratic republic that recognizes that I’m only protected in my freedoms when I reach out to make sure that other people’s freedoms are protected. And so I’m not running to be pastor, I’m already a pastor. I’m running to be the senator from Georgia, and you can’t do that job unless you really believe in equal protection under the law, which I do, which is why I challenge my own congregation. And I said in very clear terms, the week after there was a positive decision that came out from the Supreme Court in 2013 regarding LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, that same week, as I recall, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. And what I said to a gathered group of Black Christians in my own congregation that Sunday morning is that you cannot be unhappy about the gutting of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and unhappy about rights being extended to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Either you believe in equal protection under the law or you do not. I believe in equal protection under the law and that’s what was at stake in both of those decisions. One went the right way and the other went wrong way. And I assure you that as a United States senator, you will find in me a full-throated advocate to equal protection under the law, which is why not only do I believe in marriage equality, I think we ought to pass that Equality Act. People should not experience discrimination in their ability to get a job, hold a job, get credit, based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And I will defend it, not out of some sense of halfhearted obligation, but because I believe in.
Phillip Picardi: Understood.
Rev. Warnock: And same thing on reproductive justice. I have a long record of standing up on these issues. And I think there’s some power in having a pastor.
Phillip Picardi: Sure is.
Rev. Warnock: Who has a kind of progressive lens standing up on these issues.
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely. And do you feel like your faith is at odds at all with advocating for reproductive justice and women’s access to care?
Rev. Warnock: No, I think reproductive health care and reproductive justice is a part of my overall commitment to health care, which I view as a human right. But there are other opportunities that, where we could work together that we don’t embrace because we’ve been pushed into these silos. I think all of us should be deeply offended that we have such a high rate of infant mortality and maternal mortality in this country, if you consider how wealthy we are. There are too many babies that are dying and mothers and fathers left heartbroken, and there are too many mothers who are dying, trying to give birth to children. And all of us who have any kind of moral sensibility, whether we are people of faith or just people of moral courage, should be deeply offended that Black women are three to four times more likely to die during or as a result of childbirth than their white sisters. Here is a place where we could work together and say, well, why is this happening?
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely.
Rev. Warnock: And what is the change that is necessary to transform that situation? And that’s the work that I’m committed to doing as a U.S. senator.
Phillip Picardi: And you’re running in Georgia and it does seem like the whole world seems to be watching Georgia. This is a state with immense voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression issues which ultimately toppled the potential candidacy of, I know your colleague and endorser, Ms Stacey Abrams. Do you see this affecting your campaign in the upcoming election, and what are you doing to make sure that as many Georgians can vote as possible come November?
Rev. Warnock: Voter suppression is real and it is a problem, not only in Georgia, but all across the country. After all, when the Supreme Court gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, that left us, you know, unprotected in ways that we had not seen in 50 years. All of these terrible acts of racial voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, partisan gerrymandering, voter purges, voter I.D. as a way of getting rid of, suppressing certain parts of the electorate—all of that is real. And yet, Stacey Abrams in 2018 came within 55,000 votes of winning while running against an opponent who was the umpire for the race and clearly had his thumb on the scale. Since then, we registered 750,000 new voters in this state, 49% of which are people of color, 45% percent people under 30. We have the coalition that we need to win and if we do not prevail come November or come January, if we go into a runoff, know that we lose by the margin of our indifference and disengagement. And in a moment like this in which all of us can see that elections are hugely consequential, in fact a matter of life and death as we’re watching the sad and terrible way in which this pandemic is being handled. If we don’t vote now, when will we vote?
Phillip Picardi: I know we are nearing the end of our time together. So I wanted to talk quickly about your recent remarks at the funeral of your friend, Congressman John Lewis. And I want to offer my condolences for your loss, for our country’s loss. At the funeral, you said, quote “In a moment when there is so much political cynicism and narcissism that masquerades as patriotism, here lies a true American patriot who risked his life and limb for the hope and the promise of democracy.” Many on the right were quick to condemn the speeches at the funeral of Congressman Lewis as being, quote “too political.” I wonder what you made of those condemnations?
Rev. Warnock: Well, we talked about civil rights at the funeral of a civil rights leader. Surprise, surprise, surprise. I mean, what else would you be talking about?
Phillip Picardi: I’m not sure.
Rev. Warnock: And I heard, I heard somebody say, well, he was a nonviolent fighter. That’s true. But what was he fighting for? He was fighting for civil rights and human rights. And there’s a kind of sad irony and hypocrisy in those kinds of remarks, because the truth is they all love John Lewis now that he’s gone. And I know that may sound a bit harsh, but we’ve seen this play out in the same way in which everybody loves Martin Luther King Jr. now that he’s gone. They love Martin and they love John Lewis, while at the same time doing everything in their might to undermine their legacy and the work that they’ve been trying to do. Mitch McConnell stood up just a few feet away from John Lewis’s bier to speak about what an honorable man he was and how he was a man of integrity. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell knows that the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted and asked the Congress to fix, and which now bears John Lewis’s name, is not sitting lost in a dungeon somewhere, it’s sitting on his desk. And if he has half the integrity that he says John Lewis had, he ought to use his power as the leader in the Senate and put it up for a vote.
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely, absolutely.
Rev. Warnock: There’s no greater tribute to this great patriot and lover of our democracy. Mitch McConnell, if you think that John Lewis is a man of integrity and if you believe that America is better because of the work he did, if you truly believe that, then put the Voting Rights Act up for a vote.
Phillip Picardi: Hmm. It does feel suspicious in a way, you know, losing John Lewis and in exploring his legacy and also witnessing the movement for Black lives that has really created a groundswell of activism and engagement all across the nation. How do you hope to engage the movement and its goals should you become elected?
Rev. Warnock: I’ve been engaged in his work for years. You know, it’s pretty unusual for a Senate candidate to be talking about his rap sheet, but I’m an activist preacher. I’ve been arrested standing up for health care, you know, but the first time I got arrested, I was a seminary student in New York City and a young African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the New York Police Department. I believe they shot at him 39 times, if my memory serves me well, they hit him 19 times, killed him while reaching for, he was reaching for his own wallet on his own front stoop. He was a student, he was promising, he was a human being. And he was blown away in cold blood. And I, along with throngs of New Yorkers, went down to 1 Police Plaza in New York City and in an act of civil disobedience, offered myself for arrest. And that was 1999. And now I’m a 51-year old pastor of America’s Freedom Church, the Church of Martin Luther King Jr., and I’m seeing a whole generation of young people who don’t even remember that. They don’t remember Amadou Diallo. They were alive in 1999, they were really young, and they’re fighting the same fight. And Sam Cooke says in that old song: it’s been a long time coming, but a change is going to come. And I’m inspired by this new generation, this coalition of, this multiracial coalition of conscience pouring out into American streets, saying that at our core, we’re better than this. And I’m running for the Senate, but my campaign is human rights, civil rights. My campaign is for the future of our democracy.
Phillip Picardi: I guess in closing, we’ve talked a lot about some very heavy and important topics today. You talked about the two viruses that our country is experiencing at the same time, which I thought was, you know, quite accurate. And a lot of people are now expressing a lack of hope, right? A lack of ability to continue to engage with the news, and feeling despondent about the future of America. I’m wondering if we can, I guess, take off your politician hat and talk to the pastor in you. What words would you offer to the people who can’t seem to tap into their well of hope these days? How does your faith inform your own outlook on the future?
Rev. Warnock: Yeah, if you would allow the pastor to say, if you’re leaning just on yourself, you’re going to run out of fuel. But in the broadest sense of the kind of spirituality that connects all of us, if you lean on others, then we gather strength from one another. And for, and then for some of us, there’s another power beyond that that’s at the center of that. But I think there’s something deeply spiritual and transformational, even if you’re you know, regardless of your perspective on religion, when we connect to one another and we see the ways in which we have a stake in this future together. And so when I get tired, I draw strength from others, whether that’s people who are in the room with me or pulling on the great traditions of wisdom that come from so many traditions that have been informed our humanity over time. We cannot afford to lose hope. There’s too much at stake and there’s really no reason to lose hope. If you just watch what’s going on in the news cycle and never take a break away from that, I see, I feel how that can become overwhelming. But I’m inspired, quite frankly, by people like John Lewis. I was not here for the civil rights movement. I’m a post-civil rights generation baby, but I’ve been a serious student of that movement. And I think 50, 60 years after the movement, we act as if the victories that were won were likely, as if they were inevitable, as if they were probable. They were quite improbable. There was no reason to believe that they would succeed. They had no real reason to believe that they could win. And yet they stood up because, as Dr. King said, it’s always the time is always right to do what’s right. And ultimately, it was proven that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. John Lewis, in his own time, Fannie Lou Hamer in the same way, in a different way, the Mississippi sharecropper who stood up challenging the Democratic Party and said “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” They in their generation did the hard and difficult work of bending that arc. Now it’s our time. We’ve got to keep pulling. We’ve got to keep bending on that arc. We’ll have some setbacks, but we’ll have to keep pushing and there’ll be a generation after us that will build on our work. But I have great faith in humanity. I have great faith in the high ideals of the American covenant, and that’s the work I’m committed to doing. And ultimately we win. When we stand up, we win.
Phillip Picardi: Reverend Raphael Warnock, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it. And good luck with the rest of your campaign.
Rev. Warnock: Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: I know there have been many listeners at this podcast, many of you progressive Christians, who have been wanting to hear about the kind of Christianity that has come to shape your lives and inspired your commitment to social change. I hope today’s episode offers this perspective. My conversation with Reverend Warnock does give me hope that there is the kind of faith that doesn’t aim to control politics for personal gain, but instead to empower the very people faith calls us to uplift every day. I personally am on the fence about the role that religion should play in American politics. All I can really hope for is that politicians across the board, regardless of their denomination, are using their moral compasses to ethically guide laws that help to achieve a more equitable society. It’s hard not to be skeptical when we’ve seen the damaging role religion has played in American politics for too long. But maybe, as Reverend Warnock is trying to do, faith can be wielded not as a dogmatic power grab, and more as a guide to divest power and help others. And speaking of, we need to fight back against voter disenfranchisement and gerrymandering in Georgia, and all around our country. To learn more about how you can donate and get involved to help this fight visit fairfight.com. For all other actions regarding the November elections, including a state by state guide, visit, votesaveamerica dot com. We are almost two months away from Election Day and we need to make this one count.
Unholier Than Thou as a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Alyssa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and our executive producers are Lyra Smith and Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.