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Georgia's U.S. Senate race pits the Black church against white Christian nationalism

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On the surface, the Georgia Senate runoff is a race between incumbent Raphael Warnock and former NFL superstar Herschel Walker. But these two Black men have come to represent two very different religious traditions - the civil rights legacy of the Black church and a growing movement of mostly white Christian nationalism. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: The first sermon Reverend Raphael Warnock gave after his 2020 election as Georgia's first Black U.S. senator was about God's victory over violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: We have to resist the violence of prejudice and fear and bigotry.

DIRKS: In the wake of January 6, it made sense to talk about rising political violence on the right. But that wasn't all. Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s pulpit, preached about King's final unfinished work - his 1968 Poor People's Campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARNOCK: And the minimum wage has less purchasing power in 2020 than the minimum wage had in 1968. That is a kind of violence that crushes on the humanity of poor people.

DIRKS: This is a kind of liberatory theology that sees freedom from systems of oppression as part of the work of God's people. It has a long history in the Black church, says Anthea Butler, the chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

ANTHEA BUTLER: African Americans are thinking about Jesus bringing justice, about a God of justice, a God of mercy, a God that looks out for those who have been downtrodden, and that's from slavery on forward.

DIRKS: Butler says on the other hand, white evangelicals are often more focused on an individual relationship with God. That's reflected in specific language Herschel Walker has been using on the campaign trail. He talks about overcoming his mental health struggles through God's redemption and personal salvation. These are signals to evangelicals that he's one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY GEORGE: Lord, we know that this is a battle he's facing.

DIRKS: The morning after an ex-girlfriend of Walker's came forward with a story that he had pressured and paid for her abortion - an accusation Walker's denied - a prayer circle gathered around him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE: It's more vicious than any sports field he's ever played on.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

DIRKS: This is the language of evangelicalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE: We call forth your ministering angels.

(CROSSTALK)

GEORGE: And we ask you to rebuke the devil.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

DIRKS: Daniel Darling, a pastor and director at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says evangelicals have always been called to help the most vulnerable.

DANIEL DARLING: We're trying to share the good news of the gospel - that Jesus saves sinners, that he's rescuing sinners, that he changes lives.

DIRKS: Darling knows that Southern Baptists have a racist history. The denomination began as the church of slaveholders. But they've made moves in recent years to apologize and confront the past. And he says just look at this political race.

DARLING: You have a contest between two African American men in a state in the Deep South. I think this is a real sign of progress in our country.

DIRKS: But Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania says it's really an illusion of progress.

BUTLER: It allows them to not think that they are racist. That is the whole point of Herschel Walker.

DIRKS: She points to white evangelical support even in the face of scandals surrounding Walker.

BUTLER: But in reality, what they're doing is supporting the stereotype that they have of a Black man in their mind.

DIRKS: If the history of slavery and Jim Crow is what shapes the theology of Black church, that more individualistic-based evangelical ideology is also shaped by that history, says Public Religion Research Institute's Robert Jones.

ROBERT JONES: The way that I think many white Christians have made peace with really white supremacy, racial domination, segregation, slavery was to just narrow the Christian concern to my own personal relationship with Jesus.

DIRKS: That personal relationship can be incredibly powerful and not just for white folks. It was for Bradley Onishi, who was born again when he was 14. He left the evangelical church in his 20s. He's now a professor of religious studies at San Francisco State. And he says he's seeing more evangelicals outwardly embrace the idea that America should be a Christian nation, that...

BRADLEY ONISHI: The country should be ordered in a way that white Christians are on top of the social, political and cultural hierarchies.

DIRKS: Christian nationalism, Onishi says, is a new name for an old phenomenon. It's a vision with white men at the top - no trans people, no gay people and people of color but only in service of white supremacy, Onishi says. At the same time, as white evangelical Republicans have embraced Herschel Walker, campaign ads and messaging paint Raphael Warnock as not a real Christian.

ONISHI: He represents somebody who's talking about collective change and systemic racism. Well, that would upset the order.

DIRKS: Pastor Daniel Darling says it's wrong to question Warnock's Christianity, but his political record does conflict with core evangelical beliefs.

DARLING: A lot of the conservative evangelicals or conservative voters might look at him and say, you know, the positions he's taken on the sanctity of life and other issues seem to conflict with my understanding of scripture. So I think that is a fair assessment.

DIRKS: It's not just Warnock's support for abortion rights, Darling says. Evangelicals prize religious freedom. They want to be able to support and uplift the families and lifestyles that fit their longstanding historical definition of family and morality.

Reverend Jaqui Lewis, pastor at the progressive, intentionally diverse Middle Church in New York, says the problem isn't with the freedom to practice personal beliefs. The problem is when people want to force those beliefs onto others.

JAQUI LEWIS: It is insisting on its own way. White Christian fascism believes it is chosen to dominate the world.

DIRKS: What's different now, Lewis says, is the right, and white Christian nationalists have incorporated diversity.

LEWIS: And the story that we're being asked to adopt as true is white power matters. And a Black senator might be elected to maintain white power.

DIRKS: Because in the end, that's what this is about - power, the power of a certain understanding of religion to shape politics and of politics to shape religion.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.