The Reverend Senator’s Civil Religion
Raphael Warnock and the power of prayer in politics
“It’s been called!”
The Analytics team erupted. From the fortieth floor of an Atlanta Marriott, we had been analyzing precinct returns with a birds-eye view of Georgia’s capital. After sifting through spreadsheets and combing through county websites for hours, we had the data: Raphael Warnock was the final winner of the 2022 midterm elections.
Finding the victory party was simple: we just followed the joy downstairs. “Lifestyle” and other Atlanta rap staples blared as the crowd swayed, drinks in hand and open bar in use. Clearly, the pastor knew how to throw down.
Some of these folks, like me, had taken the midnight train to Georgia to support Warnock’s re-election. But others had seen the state through many campaign cycles. Before Warnock and Jon Ossoff shocked the nation two years prior, the state hadn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in twenty years. This historic night — Warnock’s second runoff and fifth victory since 2020 — was not just the celebration of a single election, but the culmination of decades of hard work.
How did Raphael Warnock defy political wisdom to form a winning majority? He answers that question in his victory speech. The Reverend Senator integrates his dual identities as a preacher and legislator, pushing for democratic action against the backdrop of civil religion.
“Our tent is big”
When politicians speak to voters’ faiths, they cater to what Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed “civil religion” — intentionally vague references to universal religious themes, without the alienation of specific theology.
That’s why Thomas Jefferson wrote that we were all “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” stopping short of a prescribed supreme being; why Ronald Reagan envisioned America as a “shining city upon a hill” without mentioning Matthew 5:13; and why Joe Biden concludes his public speeches with an inclusive prayer: “May God bless you all. May God protect our troops.”
As one of only seven ordained ministers in Congress, Raphael Warnock’s statesmanship has always been informed by his sermons. But when referencing his own religious beliefs, he makes overtures to those unfamiliar or uncomfortable: “If you’re not given to that kind of religious language, that’s fine. Our tent is big.”
Warnock maintains this tent by intentionally balancing civil religion with political language. His victory speech opens with a familiar hymn (“to God be the glory”); a mere 26 words later, he pivots to a democratic ode (“the people have spoken”). The two concepts come together in the speech’s thesis: “a vote is a kind of prayer.”
Throughout his speech, Warnock’s civil religion animates his ideology and commitment to service. If a vote is a kind of prayer, then “democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea.” An “American covenant” binds the Senator to lower costs and create jobs, policies that serve the Georgians who elected him. Even the speech’s two Latin references bolster parallel spiritual and civic themes. Because we were created in the Imago Dei (“image of God”), our voices have inherent value; since we deserve to be heard, we must fight for a democracy that embodies E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one.”)
Weaving civil religion into political action has a long history in civil rights rhetoric. Warnock took time in his speech to acknowledge not only those who died in the battle for voting rights, but the diversity of lived experiences within their ranks:
Our ballot is a blood stained ballot. We stand here on the shoulders of the martyrs; Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman, two Jews and an African American who lost their lives fighting for that great American right to vote. Viola Luiso and James Reeb, a white sister and a white brother who also lost their lives.
In this midterm victory, Warnock subverted an election procedure constructed to dilute the voting power of African Americans. His winning majority “rose up in a multiracial, multi-religious coalition of conscience” — a direct homage to his predecessor at Ebenezer and the “foremost practitioner” of civil religion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The piecemeal wisdoms I had begrudgingly absorbed in Hebrew School resurfaced as I heard the Reverend Senator speak. When he invoked the Lord’s Prayer for “our daily bread,” my mind wandered to the manna I was told dropped from the sky during our Exodus from Egypt. And when he reminded the audience that “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness overcometh it not,” I thought of Hannukah celebrations, separate miracles of light. I may not have been steeped in Warnock’s gospel, but I certainly knew what he was saying.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I didn’t have a “successful” religious upbringing. I asked my Rabbi questions I knew he couldn’t answer, and memorized just enough Hebrew transliteration to share a b’nai mitzvah with my sister. But even I could understand the sacred elements of the Reverend’s speech, how he persuaded and preached his way to a more repaired world. I recognized universal themes, unalienated by the specifics.
And if I, a Jewish kid from New Jersey, could see my experiences in the Reverend Senator from Georgia, couldn’t anybody? If not someone raised in or adjacent to a synagogue, then a mosque or a mandir?
Take it from someone who has worked in political data: no one knows for sure what’s going to happen when the polls close on Election Day. The odds that an individual vote will swing an election — 60 million to one for a presidential race — can seem discouraging. But voting to win is only one part of why people wait in lines or overcome bureaucratic hurdles to participate in the democratic process. Voting is an expression, a tiny and forceful and deeply personal push for a particular kind of world. A ballot box becomes a personal pulpit — or bimah, in my case — and our votes become prayers brought to life.
– Jakob Hess
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