Politics with Amy Walter: The Old South vs. The New South
Amy Walter: It's Politics With Amy Walter on The Takeaway. Since Georgia flipped blue for president-elect Biden, the gulf between the old South and the new South has come into focus. Come January 5th, the state's closely watched runoff election will determine which party controls the US Senate. In one race, Republican Senator David Perdue will face Democrat, Jon Ossoff. In the other race, Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat last year by GOP governor Brian Kemp, faces Democrat, Reverend Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Kemp chose Loeffler to replace Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, who had stepped down for health reasons in part because theoretically as a white woman from the Atlanta suburbs, she would have an appeal to white suburban voters turned off by President Trump. Meanwhile, instead of defaulting to a white moderate candidate, as they had in previous years, Democrats rallied around a Black candidate, Reverend Warnock, early in the campaign.
Here we are in the final weeks of a campaign that has not surprisingly turned ugly and expensive. More than $189 million has been spent in this race alone, just on TV. Religion, specifically Warnock's sermons at Ebenezer Baptist have become a flashpoint. Loeffler has run ads that take pieces of Warnock's sermons out of context, in an attempt to paint him as a dangerous radical. Will attacks on a Black church leader intended to help motivate white conservatives end up backfiring with the same suburban voters Loeffler was supposed to appeal to? What does it tell us about the ways in which Black and white Americans, specifically Georgians, see the role of religion in the political and social justice sphere?
To better understand these dynamics, I called up Reverend Dr. Robert M. Franklin Jr.-
Reverend Dr. Robert M. Franklin Jr.: Professor in moral leadership at Emory University, Candler School of Theology.
Amy: - and Jim Galloway.
Jim Galloway: The political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
Amy: We started by discussing the world that some Republicans hoped Loeffler would play.
Jim: She was intended as a kind of lure to these white college-educated voters in North Metro Atlanta who fled the party in 2018. The problem with that strategy is that US representative, Doug Collins, immediately jumped into the contest as well. It ended up being a 21-candidate field. The Republican side of the race was concentrated between those two. Loeffler was forced to run far, far and hard to the right. She had ads out that compared herself favorably to Attila the Hun.
Jim: That appealed to the white suburban women just went out the window. We're not going to consider jumping into the 2014 race for US Senate and passed on that. What it's done, it's really put a focus on the new alliance that Democrats are building between the suburban Georgia and urban Georgia. They are giving up on the centrism approach that we've seen in decades past. The thing that really opened everybody's eyes in 2018 was that, by following Abrams's formula, they got a larger share of white voters. I don't think you're going to see Democrats retreat from this.
Amy: Does the fact that Loeffler had to run so far to the right, had to out-Trump Trump suggest that Republicans are going to have a hard time post-2020, finding those candidates who can appeal to the suburban Atlanta voters that used to vote for them consistently?
Jim: It's going to take a while for it to trickle down from the presidential level down to the local level, but Republicans know that suburbia has been lost and it's something to be regained. One thing that Republicans did right in this past cycle, you had the House Speaker David Ralston. He pretty much freed up his suburban Republican members to pursue legislation that could really help them in November. For instance, one Republican backed hate crimes bill, which Georgia was one of two states that lacked one. It passed. We had another suburban Republican go after George's just dreadful maternal mortality rate, which is specifically very, very bad for African-American women.
I think you're going to see a shift in tone away from the hard right, but you do have this Trump element that's not going to go away and is going to be probably trying to gum up the works on that approach.
Amy: Dr. Franklin, I wonder if we can start by you telling us about the role that the Ebenezer Baptist Church plays in the state, both its politics, its influence, and also talk a little bit about its congregation.
Dr. Franklin: The Ebenezer Baptist Church is part of that late 19th century, early 20th century flourishing of African-American congregations in Atlanta, especially downtown and Southwestern portion of Atlanta, where, by the way, the historic Atlanta University Center is located. Those extraordinary colleges, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Atlanta University became a kind of leadership incubators producing ministers, physicians, lawyers, business people who helped to define Atlanta as a city with a strong and growing Black middle class.
Those folks wanted churches, and they were not comfortable in the traditional smaller storefront folk churches that populate so many urban centers. They wanted established congregations, and even a few cathedrals. Ebenezer began to emerge as one of those centers of hope that balanced personal piety, moral reform with social justice messages, holding the city, the state, the nation accountable, particularly on issues of racial and economic justice.
The early pastors, Pastor A.D. Williams, the explore bears of Martin Luther King Jr. and certainly Dr. King's father, as we called him "Daddy King," continued to operate in that role as the prophetic voice of the city holding institutions accountable, but also a hospitality toward others, including their white Christian counterparts. Ebenezer emerged as, if you will, more than a traditional Black church, it became a public church with a public pulpit. White visitors were comfortable there.
Even today, every national Martin Luther King Jr holiday, there's a special service, many of your listeners will be familiar with this, and you get national and international guest speakers coming. That's a public pulpit, not unlike the National Cathedral in Washington DC or Riverside Church in New York City. Young Dr. King himself was never a senior pastor of Ebenezer, but he was the assistant pastor to his own father during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
When the church looked for someone who could step in and understand those dual roles of forming good people, virtuous people speaking to the issues of piety and living a good life and good family, and on the other hand, speaking truth to power, they did select an extraordinary young leader in Raphael Warnock.
Amy: Within that context, help us understand now the role that the Loeffler campaign, Republican campaigns have put Raphael Warnock in, that he is being portrayed as a radical, as a socialist, his sermons, there are clips of them in these ads, suggesting that he is too far out of the mainstream. It seems that it's not very subtle, but their job is to scare those white, suburban voters away and to make what you pointed out was this rock of moral authority, the Ebenezer Church something to be scared of. How is that playing?
Dr. Franklin: That's not playing very well at all in African-American communities, but even in moderate, suburban white communities, many of my students are pastors in those communities, so I do have some pulse read on what they hear, and they find it deeply offensive. A problem is that Raphael Warnock has a long track record in the city of Atlanta as a moderating voice, as a convening voice, a reconciling voice, as well as a voice of social justice. He has worked with the Jewish community here. He and Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple convene annual gatherings, I've participated in many of them.
This guy is really a bridge builder. He's a reconciler. To have this rather one-dimensional harsh mischaracterization of Raphael Warnock's quite balanced ministry is, I think, not serving Senator Loeffler well. I'm disappointed in her. I've had high hopes. One other interesting note here is that this could have been a more interesting race from my perspective as a scholar of religion. If Doug Collins was running in this race, because he, too, is a pastor and a chaplain, that doesn't often get highlighted, but just an interesting reappearance of religious figures in these highest levels of elective office. Interesting to be.
Amy: It's fascinating to me as well. Jim, you can weigh in on this too, because I know you have actually written a column about Loeffler's appearance at the church on Martin Luther King Day. Also, talk to us about the role that those two churches play in Georgia, and the different ways in which they interpret their role.
Jim: Kudos to Dr. Franklin for everything that he said. I would argue that Doug Collins is already in this race. You mentioned the column that I'd written a couple of weeks ago. What prompted me to write that was Doug Collins campaigning on Kelly Loeffler's behalf, with Kelly Loeffler standing right by his side. Collins said that you cannot be a pastor and support abortion rights. He called that a lie from the bed of hell.
Then, he told the crowd, "It's time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church." Very, very rough statements, but in essence, what is happening here in Georgia is, Raphael Warnock is being subjected to a religious test. You have a good portion of the Republican Party who will say, "You cannot be a Christian and support abortion rights," that is. That's a very, very bright line that's being drawn between the two candidates.
Amy: It also seems, though, that so much of this debate, Dr. Franklin, is also this theological, that the idea of how Reverend Warnock is interpreting or preaching on the gospel, versus how that gospel would be preached at a white Evangelical Church?
Dr. Franklin: It's very important you highlight that, because that's a deliberate decision made by certain leaders, as Jim is suggesting, to make abortion the religious test. It's interesting if you go back earlier in time, white evangelicals were on the front lines of abolition in this nation. Many contemporary white evangelicals may not be even aware of their own roots, but early leaders from John Wesley, who really launched the Methodist Church in America here in Georgia, Charles Finney, British preachers who had an enormous influence on American preachers like Charles Spurgeon, were speaking out against slavery.
Their American counterparts, like Wesley and others, picked up that message and said, "Slavery is a social sin, a social evil." They challenged their own parishioners. That led to some very heated debates, but white evangelicals could have traveled a different path to follow the Wesley tradition in this case, for instance. Instead, many embraced this effort to defend slavery, essentially placing their economic interests above their faith, identity, and theology.
Of course, the Black church was always committed to racial equality and justice. The prototype of the Black preacher as a politician, in Georgia, is a name some will recognize, but everyone should know, Henry McNeal Turner, because Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church served in the Georgia legislature and was also a strong church father, as he's called, planting churches and suggesting that politics and the gospel go together, that Jesus spoke and proclaimed a liberation message.
Yes, he wanted us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but he also wanted every single person to be treated with equal dignity, which meant slavery could not exist. Jim Crow was immoral. You hear that in Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1963 letter. I hope everyone will go back and read that during these coming days.
The letter from Birmingham Jail, says very clearly, the king's indictment is- "The church is not a tool or a servant of the state, it's not the master of the state. The church is the conscience of the state." If the church loses its prophetic zeal, its love of social equal justice, it will become in his memorable diagnosis and irrelevant social club. I think, for many, we see that happening in many white evangelical churches, and in some Black churches as well.
I'll just conclude by saying that it's unimaginative to highlight, in these political ads, a few excerpts from Raphael Warnock's sermons, where he's written an entire book. They haven't touched his book, but go back and look at that, I think, 2014 volume, and its title is interesting and revealing. The Divided Mind of the Black Church. There he talks about theology, piety, and justice.
I think it's important to try to hold together these traditions of piety, protecting families, women's bodies, unborn babies. That's a legitimate point of ethical argument and policy, but there are these other issues of inequality, of poverty, of how we treat immigrants and refugees, people who are incarcerated, that are right alongside those other pietistic issues. Powerful leaders have selected one agenda rather than holding them together.
Amy: Jim, you also talked about what happens now with the Ebenezer Church in terms of its role in Atlanta politics, or as Dr. Franklin pointed out, in national coverage of the Martin Luther King Jr. service in January. Post-special election after January 5th, what role do you think the church continues to play? Do you think that Republicans are going to continue to come in and sit in the pews and sit in the services, or has that bridge now been burned?
Jim: The one thing to remember is that Ebenezer Baptist is the location. The King Day celebration is put together and coordinated by the Martin Luther King Center, which is run by the family. They issue the invitations. It's been very important for the family to maintain good relations with a Republican-led State Capitol. I've got no doubt that they will probably invite Loeffler. I'm not sure that she's going to be willing to subject herself to that, if she's re-elected, if she wins this contest, obviously.
Will you see other Republicans there? Absolutely, absolutely. We mentioned Johnny Isakson, he was at that ceremony for 25 straight years, did not miss. He was a great believer in the need for the GOP to avoid becoming a whites-only party. He was just dreadfully afraid of that. Of course, we've seen Donald Trump take Republicans further down that road.
You do have a number of younger people in the party, Attorney General Chris Carr for one, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan for another, who understand what the future needs to look like for Republicans. If they're invited, they're likely to show up. Look, I wouldn't give the current circumstances, it wouldn't surprise me as Governor Brian Kemp decided to accept an invitation. He's up for re-election, remember, in 2022. In a way, these attacks that Donald Trump has made against him since November 3rd might push them in that direction.
Dr. Franklin: Can I weigh in on that just briefly?
Amy: Of course.
Dr. Franklin: Because I think that this could be an interesting example of the Black church setting up its own religious test, as it were, that if Senator Loeffler wins the race and does wish to return, I think that she will not be well-received unless she first acknowledges the harm that she has participated in characterizing and mischaracterizing the theology of the Black church, of the Black Pulpit, and specifically of Reverend Warnock.
I think that she has really taken on and attacked a culture and an institution and a history she herself does not fully understand, I'm sure her advisors and consultants don't understand. It will be important for her to show some remorse, some acknowledgment of harm done. Then, I think Black churches have been exceedingly generous and forgiving as we saw in Emanuel AME and other places. It's possible to return. It's possible to reconcile. After all, this is Dr. King's home church and pulpit. Of course, the possibility of forsaking a negative racial past in rhetoric is possible. George Wallace showed up there years ago, so yes, it can happen, but I think there will be far more Black community interest and celebration of leaders like Secretary of State Raffensperger and the other leaders who stood up for truth, data, evidence, and ultimately, justice in the post-November election period.
Amy: Dr. Franklin, Jim Galloway this has been a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate you all taking the time to do this.
Dr. Franklin: Real pleasure.
Jim: Thanks for having us.
Amy: Jim Galloway is a political columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Reverend Doctor Robert M. Franklin Jr. is a professor of Moral Leadership at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. For a link to Dr. King's 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail head over to politicswithamywalter.org. Thanks so much for listening, it's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway.
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