Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock’s Senate bid has plenty of money, celebrity support and a party apparatus behind it, but his most important ally may be “context.”
Conservatives have used Mr. Warnock’s comments about Israel, law enforcement and America’s character, along with his past support for controversial figures such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago and the late communist dictator Fidel Castro of Cuba to depict the Baptist preacher and liberal activist as too left-wing for the state’s voters.
“The biggest threat to Raphael Warnock’s campaign is Raphael Warnock,” said Nate Brand, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “His past speeches, writings and letters have proven to be some of the most radical comments made by a major party candidate in recent American history. Georgians know Warnock by his own words and actions, and they know he is too radical to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.”
But where Republicans are urging voters to connect the dots, Mr. Warnock and his backers insist his words and actions are “taken out of context.”
That defense has been used since the November elections kicked Georgia’s Senate races into runoff contests set for Jan. 5.
Mr. Warnock and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler are in a dead heat in the polls.
“Anyone with basic biblical literacy would recognize Warnock’s words, even ripped out of context as they were,” declared a recent article in New York Magazine.
An Esquire magazine piece said that “Republicans attack Raphael Warnock’s sermons out of context,” and a Politico story said that “several Black religious leaders argue the GOP is taking Warnock’s words out of context.”
Mr. Warnock is not the first politician to insist cherry-picked quotes put him in a false frame. For nearly four years, President Trump’s supporters noted that he said white supremacists and their ilk “should be condemned totally” in his remarks after racial protest violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. But it was his “fine people on both sides” words that his political foes used against him.
It remains to be seen whether Georgia voters will offer Mr. Warnock the context they did not extend to Mr. Trump.
Republicans started an aggressive ad campaign to remind voters about multiple times Mr. Warnock took positions they say are at odds with those of most Americans:
⦁ As a young pastor in 1995, Mr. Warnock was associated with a Harlem church that invited Castro to its pulpit. Democrats note that Mr. Warnock was not the one who extended the invitation.
⦁ After a 2018 trip, Mr. Warnock signed a letter comparing Israel’s policy toward Palestinian neighbors to South Africa’s apartheid. Democrats point to his recent claims of support for Israel.
⦁ On multiple occasions, Mr. Warnock defended Mr. Wright’s seemingly anti-American and anti-Semitic remarks. Democrats say the support was for a wider message from Mr. Wright.
⦁ Mr. Warnock’s sermons as the head of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta are cited in matters of respecting the military or law enforcement. Democrats say they should be seen as broader observations on race and faith.
In Georgia’s jungle-style Nov. 3 special election, Mr. Warnock escaped scrutiny because Ms. Loeffler was locked in a tough fight with fellow Republican Rep. Doug Collins for the Senate seat. Now, with the Loeffler campaign focused on Mr. Warnock’s past, the reverend insists he is not being portrayed accurately.
“I think the country has been done a disservice by this constant playing over and over again of the same sound bites outside of context,” he said at a recent press conference held, in part, to address the mounting criticism.
Former President Barack Obama, whose attendance at Mr. Wright’s church became an issue in his 2008 run for the Democratic nomination, sprang to Mr. Warnock’s defense.
Mr. Obama described the criticism against Mr. Warnock as “garbage.”
There is certainly context surrounding each of Mr. Warnock’s moments, as is the case for all speech. It is true that in 1995 Mr. Warnock was not in a position at the Abyssinian Baptist Church to send invitations to speakers. But it is also true that at that time, Black theology in Harlem was under the spell of James H. Cone, a radical left-wing minister who preached “Black liberation theology” and whom Mr. Warnock warmly praised in a eulogy.
It was the environment that produced what The Washington Post in a report on Castro’s speech called “a lovefest” and a packed house chanting, “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” in praise.
When Mr. Wright preached “God damn America” and blamed past U.S. action for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was talking about a litany of genuine and perceived abuses. It is less clear to whom he referred when he blamed “them Jews” after Mr. Obama distanced himself from his longtime pastor during the 2008 campaign.
Mr. Warnock has called Mr. Wright “a prophet,” and it was Mr. Warnock who came out to defend the fiery Chicago preacher when Mr. Obama’s campaign and others were distancing themselves. On MSNBC last week, Mr. Warnock said, “I know Jeremiah Wright. I’m not an anti-Semite.” His opponents noted that he did not include any condemnation of Mr. Wright’s remarks.
Those examples provide plenty of context, Republicans say, but on the charge of dubious support for Jews and Israel, they also cite Mr. Warnock’s own words.
He signed on to a letter that compared Israeli policies to apartheid and was critical of the “hardening of hearts” of Israeli leaders. In his sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mr. Warnock said Israel killed Palestinians “like birds of prey.” He was sharply critical of Mr. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a step long opposed by Palestinians and their supporters.
Republicans insist Mr. Warnock’s seemingly caustic remarks about law enforcement and the military reflect his disdain for those professions.
In 2011, Mr. Warnock praised from the pulpit Troy Davis, who was executed for killing a police officer in Savannah, as “a martyr and foot soldier.” He also emphatically told his congregation that a man cannot serve God and the military simultaneously.
In a sermon four years later, Mr. Warnock spoke of “police power showing up in a kind of gangster and thug mentality.”
All of those comments come against a backdrop of widespread mistrust of law enforcement in many Black communities and an allusion to a biblical passage declaring that man cannot serve “God and mammon.”
Ms. Loeffler’s campaign, along with a barrage of Republican ads in Georgia, is telling Georgian voters that there is simply too much controversy to be waved away.
“For decades, Raphael Warnock has used his pulpit to oppose the Second Amendment, attack the police, condemn Israel, disparage the military and embrace communists and Marxists alike,” said campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson. “No matter how hard Warnock and the media try to explain away his words, Georgians know how radical he is when they hear him.”
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