Right-wing media unleash a familiar playbook ahead of the Georgia runoffs: Full-blown racism

With control of the U.S. Senate in balance over two upcoming runoff elections in Georgia, right-wing media are targeting one Democratic candidate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, with attacks on his faith and character strongly echoing past racist political fearmongering from conservatives. 

Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church -- made famous decades ago by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr -- is challenging Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in one of two runoff elections for U.S. Senate seats in Georgia. If the Democratic candidates win both runoffs, then the Senate will be split 50-50 between the two parties -- handing Democrats an advantage with incoming Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Accordingly, the Georgia runoffs have drawn an enormous amount of outside interest, and right-wing media is running a familiar playbook.

As a Black Democrat from a deep Christian tradition, Warnock has become the target of attacks on his faith from some of the same people who said attacks on faith were unforgivable during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a white conservative Christian.

Right-wing media is also targeting Warnock’s politics and character in ways that reinforce racist tropes, calling him a far-left radical, suggesting guilt based on an arrest (which authorities called a “miscommunication”), and simply accusing him of being racist against white people. 

Below are just a few of the attacks right-wing media has used against Warnock ahead of upcoming Georgia’s Senate runoff elections.

Attacking Warnock’s Christianity

On November 17, conservative outlet The Washington Free Beacon attacked Warnock for a 2011 sermon in which he said, “America, nobody can serve God and the military, you cannot serve God and money, you cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve.” The Free Beacon and several others in right-wing media, including Fox’s Laura Ingraham, MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt, and Breitbart, are pretending that Warnock said Americans can’t serve God while also serving in the military. In reality, Warnock’s words invoked the well-known Sermon on the Mount, specifically Matthew 6:24, explaining that “no man can serve two masters” to discuss what Warnock’s campaign called “the need to commit to moral life before pursuing other priorities.” 

Tying Warnock to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright

On October 12, Fox News’ website published an article about Warnock having been one of several pastors who defended Wright after right-wing media tried to use his old sermons decrying racism in American society to smear Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign -- similar to current right-wing media attacks against Warnock. The Wright angle spread to several other right-wing outlets, including Fox News’ TV programming. Regarding his previous support for Wright, who later made several anti-Semitic comments, Warnock said he’s spent his whole career denouncing “bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, wherever it shows up and whoever the source is."

Smearing Warnock with child abuse allegations

In 2002, Warnock was arrested for allegedly obstructing a child abuse investigation into a summer camp his church was involved with. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, authorities say Warnock interrupted an interview, but Warnock said he wanted an adult present for the police interview of an underage camp counselor. A deputy state’s attorney described the arrest as a “miscommunication” when they requested charges be dropped; they also apologized to Warnock and said he’d been “very helpful” with the investigation. Despite Warnock assisting the investigation and authorities apologizing to him for the arrest, right-wing media have used the incident to encourage questions of Warnock’s involvement in the case. 

Suggesting Warnock supports Fidel Castro

In 1995, Warnock was a youth pastor at a New York City church which invited then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro to deliver a speech. Conservative media have spun this into false suggestions that Warnock is a supporter of Castro-style communism, with Fox’s Karl Rove (a fundraiser for the GOP candidates in these runoffs) even falsely accusing Warnock himself of hosting Castro. Warnock has said he “had nothing to do” with planning the event. 

Claiming that Warnock hates white people

Using all of the above and more as alleged evidence, some conservative commentators have even said that Warnock’s preaching reveals that he is a “vile, hateful racist who hates white people” who’s preaching tradition is “filled with bigotry” against white people.

As others have noted, many of these attacks against Warnock across right-wing media are rooted in racism. As New York magazine put it, Warnock’s preaching style follows “the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which religious leaders called a straying people back to God from wickedness and competing deities” -- much like Warnock’s predecessor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was also frequently smeared as a far-left, un-American radical over his religious and political beliefs. This prophetic tradition is a mainstay of Black churches but can also be found in Protestant evangelism, where conservatives embrace it as a political force against abortion rights and LGBTQ equality. 

Additionally, while criticizing a politician’s past is certainly legitimate, focusing on Warnock’s “miscommunication” of an arrest in 2002 echoes how right-wing and mainstream media frequently pore over arrest records of Black people in the national spotlight -- especially those killed by police officers -- to find any detail that can be spun as incriminating. Since Black Americans are five times more likely to be arrested than whites, arrest records can unfortunately be fertile ground for conservative media seeking to derail Black political figures with vague suggestions and racist fearmongering.