Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. Last week, Reverend Raphael Warnock made history after winning one of two Senate runoff elections in Georgia. The senior pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Reverend Warnock will become the first Black Senator from the state after a heated race against Republican, Kelly Loeffler.
Reverend Warnock, won't be the first ordained member of the clergy to be in Congress, however, from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to John Lewis, he joins a long legacy of people moving from behind the pulpit to the halls of the Capitol. The other Democratic Senate candidate, Jon Ossoff, was also declared the winner of his race, making him the first Jewish Senator from Georgia. Here to discuss the intersection of faith and progressive politics as Yolanda Pierce, the Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. Yolanda, thanks for joining us.
Yolanda Pierce: Thank you so much for having me on the show.
Tanzina: How did Reverend Warnock talk about faith and his faith, in particular, on the campaign trail? Was it a big issue for him? Was it something that he really leaned into?
Yolanda: I think Dr. Warnock really did lean into his faith. It was clear that he was approaching his run for Senate from a justice-centered standpoint. Knowing him, knowing his work, knowing his background, I know that's deeply connected to his work as a minister, his time that he spent pastoring, but also to his academic background and his theological background. He is the product of Black liberation theology. I think it shows up on the campaign trail, and I think it will show up in the way that he will be a Senator for the next couple of years.
Tanzina: Yolanda, help us define that, what does it mean to say Black liberation theology? Where does that school of thinking come from and how has it evolved?
Yolanda: In emerges as a school out of the 1960s, the Black Power Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and which primarily, African-American theologians were using this vantage point of liberation theology, and liberation theology itself made popular in Latin-America at the time. The basic idea is that God is on the side of oppressed people, God is on the side of the poor and the marginalized.
Instead of a theology in which God is in the centers of power with the powerful and the rich. In fact, God cares deeply about those who are on the underside of history. Dr. Warnock is a student of James Cone. James Cone and the Academy, for many of us, is the father of Black theology and Black liberation theology. It centers itself around a justice ethos in which the marginalized, the poor, the least of these have a voice before God and that God cares for them and is on their side.
Tanzina: Reverend Warnock has long been a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was the spiritual home of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Is that more than symbolic?
Yolanda: It's much more than symbolic. Dr. Warnock has also been a pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, Maryland. I think the symbolism of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was the minister, where King's family has had a long history, and where, in fact, John Lewis, the late Congressman was a member. It symbolizes a place in which Black religion and politics have always lived together, have always gone hand in hand.
This church, like many other African-American churches, is deeply political. I think most people would argue that you cannot be a person of faith without having some foundational political beliefs. You see in Ebenezer, a long history of men in the pulpit who have taken seriously acidic call to duty to serve at the highest levels here of government but are certainly in politics more broadly and also connect it to their faith. It is part of the Progressive National Baptist Movement, which, of course, King, himself was one of the founders.
Tanzina: How has this runoff and particularly, the Reverend Warnock's a win here, put the traditions of Black churches back into the spotlight?
Yolanda: I think that for some people who were unfamiliar with the African-American church, they did not realize that there has been an over 200-year history of African-Americans who are on the left, who are religious, and there is a religious left. Unfortunately, for, I would say, the past 20, 25 years, so much of the conversation has been dominated about religion in terms of the religious right, that those are the voices that we hear, those are the voices that have come to the forefront.
The African-American church has always represented the religious left. It is a religiously progressive movement, and it has been since its founding as a protest movement. I think people are hearing that for the first time and some, of course, are choosing to label it as radical. I think those of us on the religious left would see it as our faith inheritance from our ancestors who protested the racism of the white church, and so, therefore, founded African-American churches. We've always been here.
Tanzina: Yolanda, I'm wondering, in this country right now, there is a very motivated group of young Americans in particular who have turned out to the polls, from all different backgrounds. We saw young Black people, young white people, young Latinos turning out to the polls this year. As the United States in many sectors becomes less religious, is someone like Raphael Warnock going to be able to connect with perhaps the political power of the youth vote that might not be in sync with a spiritual or religious message?
Yolanda: I think, actually, what we're seeing is that while people are less religiously-affiliated, they don't tend to belong to a particular church or denomination, they don't tend to ascribe to a fairly narrow group of religious beliefs. I think there actually is a deep spirituality among young people, particularly those who are involved in contemporary protest movements. Because I believe there's a deep spirituality, I think someone like Dr. Warnock actually will be someone that they will turn to and look to.
I think people have a very deep sense of spirit of God that they're out there for a cause, that justice is just beyond the laws of the land. There's a spiritualism undergirding a lot of what young folks are doing. I think Warnock is going to be a figure that they can lean on while he belongs to the Black Baptist faith tradition. I think his message will resonate for young folks who know that it's just more than marching and rallying that there's something bigger and beyond us.
Tanzina: Yolanda, Jon Ossoff defeated his Republican opponent, David Perdue for the state's other US Senate seat. Ossoff is Jewish, and I'm wondering how much of that came up in his campaign?
Yolanda: I love that what we are about to see in the United States Senate are two senators who represent a historical coalition, Black voters and Jewish voters coming out of the South. This is a reminder to your listeners that African-Americans and Jewish-Americans work together during the civil rights movement. Here we are 60 years later and we have these two men emerging out of faith traditions and historical traditions that have historically seen themselves as allies.
I think it's a very big deal that we will have a Jewish Senator from the South a reminder that, like Christianity, Judaism in America goes back 400 years that there have always been Jewish Americans at the forefront of political life. I think the fact that he's from the South makes this such an interesting movement, but there have always been Southern Jews. I think people are really getting a wonderful lesson in American religious history. Folks have been around for a very long time doing this kind of work in their religious communities, particularly in the South.
Tanzina: There is, as you mentioned, a history of Black and Jewish communities working as allies together in the fight against racism and antisemitism. Does that history is as known as it should be particularly? Do you see this as a moment to really explain that history to more folks who may not be as aware?
Yolanda: That history is definitely not as known as it should be. There are some people who know a little bit about Black-Jewish coalitions during the civil rights movement, but they don't realize how extensive it was. It goes back to this idea that there has always been a religious left. Black-Jewish coalitions have always been in favor of criminal justice reform, for example. They have always occupied some of the more left-leaning political ideologies within this country.
There's been a long-standing tradition, and both of these communities have experienced persecution because of their faith, have experienced all of these of forces and powers that are under the majority, looking at their faith as somehow lesser or radical or even inferior. I think that there's far more in common with these Black-Jewish coalitions galvanized around faith traditions than most people realize in this nation.
Tanzina: When it comes to faith-based organizing, in Georgia, but of course, more broadly across the South, Black churches are part of that civic infrastructure. I recall, visiting a Black church in Florida under president Obama and he was trying to get out, the president himself wasn't in the church, but they were trying to get out messages about healthcare and they were using the Black church that I visited in order to do that. I'm wondering, what is it about the infrastructure of churches and maybe more broadly, religious institutions that lend itself to political organizing.
Yolanda: In the case of African-American churches, because they were founded as a protest movement, because they were founded due in part to African-Americans not being allowed to worship in white churches, you see a standing history of connecting themselves with political movements. Politicians show up at African-American churches because they know these are folks who are going to be politically engaged. The 'soul to the poll' movement, which African-American churches have been participating in for a number of years, is the idea that it is a responsibility of people of faith to show up at the polls.
It is what John Lewis once said, almost sacred for them to participate in the political processes of the nation. You have a deep connection between voting and being active politically and hosting politicians which work hand in hand with just the regular religious beliefs. For many of these churches, the politicians showing up on any given Sunday is an idea of, well they're introducing themselves to the community, but more probably, it's the community saying you have to show up for us and not just on election day and not just during the campaign season, but after you're elected. Hear our people, look at us in our face, you are accountable to us. I think that that has been a tremendous part of the legacy of Black churches who have been doing this for a number of years.
Tanzina: We're also seeing a president who is a Catholic, Joe Biden is Catholic. We have not had many Catholic presidents in the United States and I'm curious to know your thoughts on how much that might influence that level of political office, how much Biden's Catholic faith might factor into how he decides to run the country?
Yolanda: I think his faith shows up in a number of different ways, but not necessarily the way most people think. They're worried about the influence of Catholicism more broadly, or the influence of the Pope. What I see with President-elect Biden is someone who is quite devout and deeply pious. We see him week after week returning to his church and in Delaware, the press is they're taking pictures as he's going to mass.
He is actually showing up, he's walking the walk. He's not just saying, I'm a Catholic in name only, but by his devout attendance mass, by the way that he returns back to his home church, I think we see someone who takes what he does really seriously. I think that will resonate with our nation.
Tanzina: We can't, of course, neglect to mention Vice President Kamala Harris who has described her religious upbringing as in part being a Baptist and also taking into teachings from her mother who was an immigrant from India, where she would go to Hindu temples. She is now married to a Jewish man. She's participated in some Jewish traditions and celebrations with her husband, Doug. What does that tell us about where we are when it comes to diversity of religion and religious practices at the highest office right now?
Yolanda: It is a wonderful moment of rich religious diversity in America. You have Judaism, you have Catholicism, you have Hinduism, you have Black Baptist, Black Christians traditions. This is what the nation looks like. Many families have not only interracial but interreligious roots. Many families are grappling with traditions around the holidays and who celebrates what? This is an incredible moment for our nation, that at the highest leaderships, the religious diversity that already exists in the nation is being represented.
Families have had to figure this out for generations, how to live together, work together, worship in their respective traditions, and respect one another. If families can do it, then we have to believe our nation's highest leadership can do it. That is a model for all of those who are people of faith, as well as people of no faith, as well as people who might be atheists and agnostics because they're a part of this American fabric as well. This rich religious diversity is welcome.
Tanzina: Yolanda Pierce is the Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. Yolanda, thank you so much for being with us.
Yolanda: Thank you for having me.
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