Religion, Politics, and Double Standards

The New York Times and Washington Post ran admiring profiles this weekend of Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Baptist preacher running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. Warnock, who sits in Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is an impressive figure who rose from poverty to earn a doctorate in theology. He went on from there to a successful pastoral career. The profiles, which document how Warnock has preached on issues from health care to criminal justice reform in the pulpit while taking his religious values to the campaign trail, show why Warnock has become a political force.

But the profiles suggest something else too: why religious conservatives feel excluded from the elite consensus, especially on matters of religious freedom. Imagine comparably admiring profiles of an evangelical preacher running on a Republican ticket on his or her religious values, including those pertaining to abortion and sexuality. In those cases, the press is likelier to warn about threats to the wall that separates religion and politics in America.

Such a warning is notably—and correctly—absent from the Warnock profiles. Journalists have not investigated the views of religious societies of which he is a member, or of private religious organizations on whose board he sits—both of which happened during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. Warnock has, as the stories document, been the subject of misleading attacks. But they do not assert that he has no business involving his religious views in his campaign, and still less that the dogma lives loudly within him.

Religious conservatives should be treated comparably, with a similar presumption that their views are the product of sincere religious conviction and that they are welcome in the public square. Americans like to opine about keeping politics out of the pulpit and vice versa. But without politics in the pulpit, there would have been no American Revolution. As Warnock’s church demonstrates, there would have been no civil rights movement. 

Nothing about the First Amendment either compels religious observance or prevents cross-pollination between politics and faith. It would be strange if faith played no role in the politics of someone who spent a career in a pulpit. But religious conservatives can be forgiven some skepticism when their views are seen as constitutional threats while those of liberal clerics are greeted with applause.

Leave a Reply