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Are Ads Against Ga. Senate Candidate Also An Attack On Black Churches?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today is the last day for Georgia voters to cast the ballots that will decide control of the Senate. NPR has reported that almost $500 million have been spent on ads in just the last two months in Georgia. On the Republican side, some of the money has gone into attacking Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock. He is a political candidate, of course, but is also a pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which was the church of Martin Luther King. Jonathan Lee Walton, dean of the Wake Forest School of Divinity studies, argues that many of the attack ads misconstrue the political tradition of Black churches.

JONATHAN LEE WALTON: I mean, I think what many people find troubling is the rhetoric that is taking the sermons of Reverend Raphael Warnock and trying to frame him in some way as unpatriotic or un-American or the term that's constantly being used to describe him as, quote, unquote, "radical," just because of the fact that his sermon - and he comes from a sermonic tradition that is known for actually being a moral conscience of this nation. And so to equate any level of criticism of American society with a lack of love or disdain for American society is just a specious argument.

INSKEEP: The first statement that comes to mind that I remember people focusing on after the general election when it became clear that there was a runoff was a video of Warnock saying, I believe in the pulpit, nobody can serve God and the military, which was taken as an anti-military statement. Was it?

WALTON: Well, I read somewhere in the Bible something about one can't serve two masters, right? So rather than being a anti-military statement, I think it could be read as an anti-militarism statement. And those are two very different things. I mean, it's one thing about where one places one's ultimate faith, power and trust. And so the sermon and the content of the sermon the Reverend Raphael Warnock was giving was about we put our trust in God, we put our trust in ideals of love and justice, not in by our military might or by power.

INSKEEP: There's another quote that you focus on in which Warnock is quoted saying, "open up the jails and let our children go." How is that quote being used, and what do you think is being missed?

WALTON: Well, the larger quote for that was about unjust drug laws. I mean, we know that we - the war on drugs largely has become and became a war on poor Black and brown people. And this is something that's been acknowledged on both people on the political left and right. When you have unjust laws that make the difference between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine - right? - five grams of crack cocaine versus 500 grams of powder cocaine gets you the same amount of time.

And when we're thinking about how it's become profitable and even fashionable for some in big business to make great money off of marijuana distribution while we have too many young people that are trapped in dungeons and jails right now for having marijuana on them, that is the point that Raphael Warnock was speaking to.

INSKEEP: So what is the proper way to describe statements like that politically? Is he offering a radical leftist point of view, which is what Republicans would say? Is it merely a liberal point of view? Is it actually a centrist point of view at that point? How would you describe Warnock's politics?

WALTON: Well, one might call it a moral point of view. I mean, we have to remember that one can be political and amoral, but one can't make moral claims and not have political implications. And the moral claims that Raphael Warnock, from my understanding that he's making, that he represents this tradition that's grounded in a gospel reading of Matthew 25 - as you did it to the least of these, Jesus says, you did it also to me. When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you give me something to wear? When I didn't have a place to live, did you help me find a roof over my head as you did it to the least of these?

It's about keeping track of the most vulnerable in society. And so it's this kind of grand progressive tradition that I believe that Raphael Warnock is standing on the shoulders of those like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., like Reverend A.D. Williams, Martin Luther King Jr.'s grandfather, all of these towering progressive pastors that have been in this grand lineage of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

INSKEEP: Do you find something unusual that African American pastors would be criticized for this kind of sermon by a party that very strongly supports the departing president of the United States, who has often been critical of the United States himself and has said that the United States commits horrible violations like other countries and isn't actually that much different from other countries around the world?

WALTON: Well, one does have to be mindful and be very cognizant of how critique often - it's often about who is the messenger. And it's interesting how when it comes to people of color, how it comes to women, when it comes to LGBTQ, when it comes for people who are trying to expand notions, narrow notions of freedom and expand our conceptions of democracy, often, somehow, they're framed as enemies - when they are certain on the conservative and they tend to be more white and they tend to be more male, they are heralded as patriots. I mean, so we can't ignore that reality here.

INSKEEP: Are the political differences between people of faith on the left and the right really just a question of emphasis, which parts of the Bible you read?

WALTON: I think it could be about which parts of the Bible that you read and which parts of the Bible that you are most inclined to identify with. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that certain privileges make liars of all men. And so for those of us who benefit from certain privileges and access to power in society, we're going to look for the places in the Bible that reinforce our sense of self. And often that can take the shape of finding texts and stories that will baptize our bigotry. And so that is the tradition where - you had a theological tradition that could justify the enslavement of Africans. You have a theological tradition that can justify the segregation and exploitation of certain races. And so this is just a staple of religious traditions. I heard one writer put it this way - you always know when you've made God in your own image because God hates all the same people that you do.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Lee Walton is dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Thank you so much.

WALTON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB BALDWIN, LORI WILLIAMS, KIM WATERS' "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING (LET US BE ONE) - INSTRUMENTAL" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.