Georgia’s Democratic Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock was one of a number of pastors who defended Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 after tape emerged of a sermon in which Wright said “not God Bless America, God damn America.”
Warnock, the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is in a close race with Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. He has picked up high-profile support from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
In July, Obama joined Warnock at his church to deliver a eulogy for longtime congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.
But long before he was a Senate hopeful, Warnock was, in his own words, “dispatched” to defend Wright — the former pastor of then-Sen. Barack Obama — after a tape emerged of a 2003 sermon called “Confusing God and Government.”
In this June 23, 2020, file photo, Rev. Raphael G. Warnock delivers the eulogy for Rayshard Brooks’ funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)
The culmination of the lengthy sermon, with its furious tirade against America’s treatment of Black Americans, sent shockwaves through the 2008 presidential contest when Obama was then a Democratic primary candidate.
“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisoners, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America,’” Wright yelled. “No no no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people, God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human, God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme.”
Wright has also made a number of other inflammatory remarks, including when he said after 9/11 that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” and blamed “them Jews” for his inability to talk to Obama after he won the White House.
But in the wake of the controversy specifically surrounding the “Confusing God and Government” sermon, Warnock took to Fox News and other outlets to defend the besieged pastor.
In a March 2008 appearance on Fox News, he praised the “social transformation that’s been the hallmark of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s ministry” and suggested the sermon was an example of “truth telling.”
Asked about the speech and other remarks, he said: “We celebrate Rev. Wright in the same way that we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church, which when preachers tell the truth, very often it makes people uncomfortable.”
“And I think the country has been done a disservice by this constant playing over and over again of the same soundbites outside of context,” he said, before noting Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “America is the greatest purveyor of violence today.”
He then described Wright as a “preacher and a prophet.”
In 2013, in a speech at Yale Divinity School, Warnock praised the sermon as a “very fine homily” and said the sermon is “in my mind in the tradition of the consistent with black prophetic preaching” and that of Christian thinkers like St. Augustine as well as King.
He described the controversy as an instance of a “disconnect” between Black and White America.
“In this way there was a disconnect between Black and White Americans as the latter were televisually translate to a Black church on any given Sunday morning, where preachers are expected indeed encouraged to speak the truth, tell Pharaoh and tell it like it is with clarity, creativity and passion,” he said.
As recently as March of this year, when his defense of Wright was covered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he stood by his defense of Wright as well as his own past comments.
“Any fair-thinking person would recognize that everything a government does, even the American government, is not consistent with God’s dream for the world,” Warnock said. “And preaching at its best points out those contradictions but then shows us the path forward.”
In a statement to Fox News, a Warnock campaign spokesman said Warnock “deplores and disagrees with any kind of remark that is antisemitic or discriminates against anyone.”
“He doesn’t agree with all of the positions other pastors support, and has said such throughout this campaign,” spokesman Terrence Clark said. “Rev. Warnock loves this country, and he supports honoring the dignity of all people, but also finding common ground to reform our broken systems. Once again, our opponents are playing the same Washington games to try to divide and distract people instead of standing up for health care in the middle of a pandemic.”
Loeffler’s campaign said in a statement to Fox News that Warnock’s defense of Wright is “appalling, disgusting and has no place in this country—much less in this Senate race” and noted past remarks in which Warnock had accused police in Ferguson, Mo., of having a “kind of gangster and thug mentality.”
“As a political outsider and businessperson, I am running to protect our conservative values that are under attack every single day by radicals like Raphael Warnock,” Loeffler said. “We live in the greatest country in the world, and I’ll NEVER apologize for saying the words ‘God Bless America.’”
A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Warnock ahead with 31%, Loeffler at 23% and Collins at 22%.
Should no candidate reach the 50% threshold, it will go to a runoff between the top two candidates.