From Senate subcommittee to Easter sermon: Raphael Warnock on life as a pastor-politician

Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service | 4/6/2023, 6 p.m.
Raphael Warnock, U.S. senator and Baptist pastor, was wrapping up his time on Capitol Hill before heading back to his …
“My life is a sermon that I get to preach on Sunday and embody and make come alive in my work in the Senate,” said Georgia Sen. and Pastor Raphael Warnock. Photo courtesy of Religion News Service

WASHINGTON - Raphael Warnock, U.S. senator and Baptist pastor, was wrapping up his time on Capitol Hill before heading back to his native Georgia in time for what is perhaps the busiest week of the year for Christian clergy.

The Democratic senator spoke at a hearing Thursday, March 30, of the Senate Sub-committee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources about the plight of forest landowners and how much they can deduct from their taxes if their timber harvests are destroyed by a natural disaster.

“The answer is zero,” Rev. Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator said at the hearing.

From testifying to members of Congress about farming, topreaching Holy Week sermons from the pulpit of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, such is the back and forth life of the pastor-politician who won reelection to the Senate in 2022.

The heir of that pulpit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated nearly 55 years ago on April 4, Warnock spoke to Religion News Service of how that day will always be a solemn one for him.

“I was born a year after his death and yet his commitment to service recruited me to Morehouse College,” said Warnock, little knowing at the time that he’d come to serve the same Atlanta church that King did. “I wanted to be at the school that inspired him.”

In this undated file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaches in Albany, Ga. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

In this undated file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaches in Albany, Ga. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

“I would not be serving in the Senate and doing what I’m doing were it not for the sacrifice of Dr. King and those who worked alongside him. And the best way I can express my gratitude for that is to continue the work of building what he called the ‘beloved community’ and for me, that means ensuring people have access to affordable health care and affordable housing, that their children can be educated without finding themselves so beleaguered with debt, and to promote peace and justice both here and abroad.”

Just after leaving the subcommittee hearing, Warnock spoke to RNS in his Senate office about preparations for Holy Week, juggling his pastoral, familial and political duties, and sharing his church’s 137th anniversary with the rabbi and congregants of a local historic synagogue.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With Holy Week almost upon us and your recent announcement of extra services on Palm Sunday and Easter, what’s it like to prepare for that key time of the liturgical calendar, when you are also pushing for passage of legislation?

It’s a busy time. But I am deeply honored to represent the people of Georgia in the United States Senate, and to serve the people of Ebenezer Church. And my work in the Senate is an extension of that lifelong commitment to service. I feel like, in a real sense, that my life is a sermon, that I get to preach on Sunday and embody and make come alive in my work in the Senate the rest of the week.

We talked about your juggling act as pastor, politician and dad last year. So I’m wondering how you’re managing those three dimensions of your life and if they changed in any way, as you now have a six-year term commitment as a senator.

It means some of the most important people in my life are probably the three people who handle my schedule (laughs). My life is very scheduled. But, look, as dad, as senator, as pastor, all of those roles are important to me, none more important than dad. And so while they compete for my time, there is a continuity between those three things. For me, they’re much more complementary than conflictual. I mean that.

I think being a pastor first has made me a better senator. I’m used to walking with people, even as I work for people. When I can’t solve their problem immediately, I understand the importance of what I call the ministry of presence, which is why I spend a lot of time with the people of Georgia, whether we’re talking about people who are trying to pay for their insulin, or farmers who are trying to save their farm or make sure they’re profitable or someone who wants to start a small business. My work in the parish has informed my work in the Senate. My work in the Senate has deepened my perspective for preaching. And (my children) Chloé and Caleb keep me grounded. They don’t allow me to take myself too seriously.

The other day, I was on my way to do an interview on MSNBC to talk about my insulin bill. I had gotten Chloé and Caleb ready for bed. And on my way out the door, Caleb, who is 4 — let’s just say he had a little accident. So cleaning that up on my way out the door keeps things in perspective (laughs).

When you spoke at Union Theological Seminary’s celebration of your second Senate win you talked about how your role as a pastor informed your work on reducing costs for insulin for people with diabetes. Why is that particular policy a point of passion?

I have over the course of my career as a pastor stood at countless bedsides. I’ve been there when people have gotten the news that they have to get an amputation or they’re going to have to go on dialysis. I had a member of my congregation years ago give a kidney to another member. They were both a part of the culinary committee that provided my breakfast on Sunday. I remember standing in a waiting room as these two women were each in a hospital bed, offering prayer as they went into surgery. I’ve seen the ravaging impact of diabetes up close. It’s the reason why I’m proud to partner with my Republican colleague, Senator (John) Kennedy (of Louisiana). Now that I’ve capped the cost of insulin for folks on Medicare, I’m focused now on capping it for folks who have private insurance and people who have no insurance at all.

How do you divide your work? Do you do weddings and funerals, and how do you bifurcate the two aspects of your life, such as if you’re sitting in a hearing and get a text about a crisis at your church, like a longtime member passing away or a broken pipe.

No, I don’t handle broken pipes. I wouldn’t be able to do that. I have amazing staff, here and at the church. That’s how I’m able to do it. I got really good people. And I enjoy my work. I preach at Ebenezer every Sunday, virtually every Sunday (generally in person for one service). And usually if I’m not preaching there, I’m probably preaching somewhere else on Sunday morning. I do funerals but not many these days, and even fewer weddings.

White evangelical churches, as well as Black churches, are sometimes criticized for their role in politics. And Black churches are known as a place people show up who are running for office the Sunday before election. What are your thoughts about that kind of tradition in Black churches, probably including your own? Do you think it should stay that way or change?

We got elected officials who are members of my church. So they’re there every Sunday. And now you got an elected official in the pulpit. Look, I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. For me, that’s bedrock for how our democracy works, I have no interest in living in a theocracy of any kind. In my view, we live in our faith and under the law. The values of my faith writ large, that informs my work in the Senate, not the doctrine about particular religious tradition. And those values I think, are resonant in all of the great faith traditions: justice making, truth telling, compassion, love of neighbor. And it is my belief that we are all created in the image of God and for those who don’t have or are not given to a religious worldview, that we all have value. That’s why I fight for voting rights, and also because I think the best check against tyranny and abuse of power is democracy.

Can you talk about the interfaith aspect of the 137th anniversary service of Ebenezer a couple of weeks ago?

Rabbi Peter Berg and I work together all the time, mainly on the issue of mass incarceration. And our congregations have a long, storied history of peace and justice work together. So both are historic. The Temple (where Berg is senior rabbi) was bombed in 1958 during the movement because of their stand around civil rights, both for African Americans and Jews.

So for our church anniversary, one of the questions you have to ask yourself each year is who’s going to be the guest pastor? And the more I thought about it, I realized the guest pastor would actually be the rabbi.

I thought you had a different call at the end. Was it more interfaith, where you said people need community as opposed to saying people need Jesus?

Yeah, people know I’m a Christian. And I always tease the rabbi when he comes to preach because it happened again. People came and joined our congregation. And so I jokingly said to Peter, “You brought a lot of people to Jesus today.” But Jesus was a Jew, so that’s appropriate. (laughs)