WASHINGTON – The Rev. and Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock shares more than a party with President-elect Joe Biden: Both Democrats made faith a central part of their political identity on the campaign trail — and their victories are emboldening religious liberals.
Warnock, who leads the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, will become Georgia’s first African American senator after a hard-fought runoff that saw GOP opponent Kelly Loeffler cite his sermons in attack ads that portrayed him as radical.
His self-identification as a “ pro-choice pastor ” angered conservatives, but Warnock’s win in a state that Biden turned blue for the first time since 1992 has religious progressives hopeful that Democrats will keep broadening their outreach to voters of faith.
Warnock’s victory shows that faith communities have a “real and important presence in the conversation” around politics and policymaking, said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the Democratic National Committee’s director of interfaith outreach during the campaign.
Harkins acknowledged that Democrats haven’t always maintained consistent engagement with religious constituencies but described efforts in 2020 as a notable shift, touting the party's "actual mobilization” among religious communities in addition to an increase in faith-focused messaging.
Warnock and Biden are hardly the only two national-profile Democrats driving the party’s evolution toward engagement on spiritual matters.
Harkins pointed to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ openness about her own multi-faith upbringing and interfaith family. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, proved adept at values-based appeals to devout voters during his Democratic presidential primary bid.
Former President Barack Obama made no secret of his Christian faith, making a concerted push to reach evangelical voters and famously leading a South Carolina Black church congregation in singing “Amazing Grace” in 2015 following a eulogy for its pastor, who was killed by a white supremacist.
But Michael Wear, a veteran faith adviser to Obama’s administration and reelection campaign, said the current Democratic approach to religious outreach is “far less deferential” than in the past, when the party broadly sought “a seat at the table" on faith matters.
Democrats are now making a “more forceful claim … on the basis of values,” Wear said, and several of their candidates are “rooting that in religious rhetoric and ideas and tradition.”
Wear gave Trump a measure of credit for the Democrats’ shift. His appeal to a subset of white evangelical conservatives, despite polarizing behavior that risked turning off other devout voters, “gave Democrats confidence that they had ground to stand on in the values debate — where they could not only sort of hold their own but win — and they have,” Wear said.
Warnock told The Associated Press last month that he thinks of himself as “a pastor who is running for political office” but not as a politician. This week he told CNN he plans to keep preaching from the pulpit while in office, and after Wednesday's pro-Trump Capitol riot he invoked his own faith as well as that of his fellow Democratic Sen.-elect, Jon Ossoff.
Noting that “Georgia elected a black man, the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s church" and Ossoff, who is Jewish, Warnock told SiriusXM that “a new America is emerging.”
At the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a leading Christian conservative group that spent more than $4 million on voter mobilization in Georgia, executive director Timothy Head said he would welcome a more active presence in the public arena by liberals of faith.
Addressing a center-left message to Christian voters “may be a portion of a winning coalition” for Democrats, Head said, adding that the party’s previous scattershot religious outreach may have been a boon for conservatives but was not good for the country overall.
“I would love to see religious leaders on the left and religious leaders on the right engage in a very full-throated conversation” about how biblical teachings affect public life, Head added.
Despite coming from different partisan backgrounds, both Head and Wear advised Democrats to avoid embracing religious rhetoric for purely political purposes. Biden's campaign sought to project authenticity through ads and organizing that emphasized his lifelong Catholicism, while Warnock most recently wove a scriptural allusion into his post-election messaging.
Trump and GOP surrogates, for their part, emphasized the defeated president's conservative record and went on the offense against Democrats whom they portrayed as anti-religion.
Biden and Trump split the Catholic vote in November, according to AP’s VoteCast survey, while white evangelicals continued to break overwhelmingly for Trump.
Beyond making sure Democrats stay genuine in their engagement, religious progressives also advised Biden and other members of his party to follow their promises up with concrete policy actions.
“The heart of our public policy must not be far from our words on morality and values,” said the Rev. William Barber II, a leading civil rights activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a nonprofit modeled on King’s organizing work.
The Rev. Shawna Foster, a faith adviser to Buttigieg’s campaign, sounded a similar note in urging Democrats to “vote on those values” of their faiths. She described the disparate religious backgrounds of Warnock, Ossoff, Biden and Buttigieg as an unsung asset for the party.
“The thing I’ve seen the religious progressive left offer is that we really represent America’s pluralism of faith,” Foster said.
And while the 2020 campaign may have propelled growth in Democrats’ ability to talk religion, Foster said the party could do even more.
“I think people are tired of religion as being defined” in black-and-white terms on culture-war issues, Foster said. “I do believe it’s a new generation of people who see religion as so much richer and deeper.”
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