A way to read Hershel’s utterances

Regarding the two Black candidates in the looming Georgia runoff for the U.S. Senate, too much has been said and written already. But the insight I heard from a panelist at the Candler School of Theology two days after the Nov. 8 election seemed worthy of deeper thought. I’ve been thinking about her comments for a week now.

Professor Andra Gillespie’s insights may benefit from her unusual “intersectionality,” as academics like to say about overlapping identity categories. She is Black, an associate professor of political science, and media-savvy enough to be a frequent guest for Bill Nigut (moderator of the panel) on his Georgia public radio program, “Political Rewind.” But she is also an evangelical Christian. It was startling to hear her not only “self-identify” that way, but to explain more than once the position of evangelical Christians like herself: that Jesus Christ is Lord and that they are redeemed by faith in his death and Resurrection. Just like that, said not as preaching but just a fact articulated in rapid-fire on an academic panel at liberal-Methodist Emory University.

Prof. Andra Gillespie

So, her insight was this. When Hershel Walker uses the language of personal forgiveness and redemption, even if he gets the words wrong, evangelical Christians get it. He’s one of them, because he has enough of the right words: saved, redeemed, healed, pro-life. She didn’t mean this cynically. In fact, everybody on the panel agreed that Hershel Walker’s religious faith was sincere, not like his friend Trump’s. It was a diverse panel, politically and religiously: Nigut, Republican consultant Eric Tanenblatt (two who self-identified as Jewish), Gillespie and Michael Thurmond, the Black CEO of deep blue DeKalb County who was a civil rights activist and almost went into the ministry.

More devastatingly, when he accuses Warnock of being a fake pastor, Christian evangelicals get that, too, she said. Senator Warnock may be a “Reverend” and occupying the very pulpit that was Martin Luther King Jr.’s in Atlanta, but he’s that kind of Christian who, to evangelicals, has the education of a Pharisee, not the heart of Biblical Christianity. He’s pro-abortion, they say.

For example, take Walker-supporter Johanna Hollis, one of a balance-scale of six voters the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently profiled from Milledgeville, Ga. “I’d rather take someone who is a redeemed sinner, is self-aware, who is willing to admit” mistakes in life, Hollis said. She’s seen Walker up close in his campaign. “He is one of the most kind, gentle giants I have ever seen.”

I don’t know if right-wing media is accurate in its drum-beat about Warnock being the most extreme advocate in the Senate for “abortion on demand” at any time of pregnancy up to birth. Warnock doesn’t address the attack, as far as I can tell.

I am fed up with the political captivity of the abortion “issue.” For years and years, as a journalist and an Episcopalian, I explored the nuances of this as a religious, moral and Constitutional issue. But no one talks about it as a moral issue anymore (even if moral language is used). No one wants to revive Roe v. Wade (with adjustments like the Casey decision as time and science advance), because those were messy compromises. (Sorry, but I am persuaded that only compromise between “state interest” and “privacy” – in the fuzzy middle where most Americans poll – can shield this moral issue from being a toxic political “Murder vs. Women” issue.) On the right of this compromise, you have the Babylonian captivity for Evangelical Christians, and on the left, a shibboleth for Democrats (“my body, my choice,” which has become a code for a Democratic voting coalition, a cause without a rebel).

A brief aside on this as a moral and religious issue. The philosopher Alastair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue makes an elaborate case that moral arguments such as pro-life and pro-choice are interminable today because we’ve lost the original classical Greek basis for moral discourse – the virtues. It’s like the situation in the sci-fi novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, he says, in which fragments of science and Judeo-Christian faith are recovered and revered in 2600 A.D., but without a Church or the scientific method. In short, he says, our moral arguments today are not only unpersuasive and interminable. They’re incoherent.

“We are witnessing two dimensions of Christian faith, both the justice dimension and the mercy dimension,” the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Franklin Jr. told the New York Times. Franklin is a professor in moral leadership at Candler who was in the audience for the panel, along with many of his students.

Something else makes the Warnock-Walker runoff a mess, besides religion. It’s race. One of Franklin’s Black theology students at the Candler panel asked why the church, meaning liberal Black pastors, couldn’t do more to expose Walker’s hypocrisy and the racism of his white supporters. He cited the viral YouTube sermon of the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of a predominantly Black megachurch in DeKalb County, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

Bryant’s “We Don’t Need a Walker” sermonette was both political (pro-Warnock, anti-Walker) and revivalist. It worked up the worshippers to lifting hands toward heaven and praising God. He began with a sneer at the Georgia Republican Party for moving Walker from Texas to Georgia “because change was taking place too fast in the post-antebellum South.” He used Biblical codes for the victory of two Democrats for Senate on Jan. 5, 2021: There were “principalities” not prepared to send a Black man (Warnock) and a Jewish man (Jon Ossoff) to represent the state in the Senate (which, of course, must approve justices for the U.S. Supreme Court). So they picked another Black man “to delude us.” They thought a football would represent “us” better than a degree in philosophy. “They thought we were so. . .stupid that we would elect the caricature of a stereotypical broken Black man as opposed to someone who was educated and erudite and focused.” The emotion rose from there. “Yall aren’t ready for me today,” he said hoarsely, just warming up.

Oh, Lord. The lofty education of Warnock can play both ways – Pharisee or WEB DuBois? I saw Warnock’s one debate with Walker, and I saw Warnock at a rally with Ossoff by his side. I have to admit, I was disappointed in Warnock. It’s not fair to compare him with King, of course. But it does seem that, for all the strength in his position and education, there’s an odd weakness in the man. I couldn’t admit that to myself – for clearly he is a much better Senator than Walker could ever be. But when Prof. Gillespie explained how evangelicals could de-code Walker’s odd ramblings to match their worldview identity, I could see it. But here’s my thought on that. They seem to want to short-cut a moral revolution that awaits the Coming of the Kingdom, or at least something like the centuries it took for humanity to reject human sacrifice or African slavery.

But Gillespie was not as gullible as many of her fellow evangelicals, white or Black. She called out Walker for his showing no real evidence of repentance, or even acknowledging that his admitted relationships with many women have been sins of fornication and adultery (“Let’s call that out,” she said.) Meanwhile, some of what Walker (and Ron DeSantis, etc.) say in the name of Christian faith, she said, is just plain wrong. They must’ve missed their Sunday school lessons, she said, and should be taken off and taught some basics of Christianity.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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