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Choir Practice

Raphael Warnock Offers a Sunday Prayer for Tuesday Voters

In his final worship service before Election Day, the reverend and Georgia senator struck an optimistic tone.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock campaigns over the weekend.

Senator Raphael Warnock took the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, smiling at the choir that had just finished a triumphant trio of songs at the beginning of worship service. It was the final Sunday before the Election Day that would determine whether he remained in secular higher office, or whether he would return to his flock after two years of dual pastoral and political service in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Parishioners remained standing, clapping as Warnock entreated them to trust in God, quoting the hymn “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus.” As the organ quieted and attendees returned to their seats, Warnock began to sing: “We’ve come this far by faith.” Congregants leapt to their feet once more to join him, the sanctuary awash with the sounds of worship.

It was an apt choice of hymn. Warnock won his special election in an upset in 2020, helping Democrats clinch their 50-seat majority. He is now locked in one of the most competitive and closely watched races in the country, one that could make or break tenuous Democratic control of the upper chamber of Congress.

The emphasis on faith threaded through his words on Sunday morning, with a clear message for his supporters: Regardless of the outcome of the election, God’s will would prevail. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future,” Warnock said.

Politics and faith are often intertwined, particularly in a church where a senator serves as reverend, in a parish once led by Martin Luther King Jr. with a long history of activism and advocacy. Warnock’s sermon had lines that would not be out of place at a political rally. He mentioned his father, a World War II veteran who had once been forced to give up a seat at the front of the bus in the Jim Crow South.

“My dad, while wearing his soldier’s uniform, couldn’t even keep his bus seat. Now I sit in a Senate seat,” Warnock said, to applause. Any regular church attendee is familiar with corny pastor jokes. Warnock offered one with a political spin: “Last night, we turned our clocks back one hour; we are not about to allow anybody turning back the clock 60 years.”

But his rhetoric had a theological grounding, specifically based on a passage from Exodus in which the Israelites—who had recently escaped from slavery in Egypt thanks to Moses’s intervention—are wandering the wilderness, between the trauma of the past and the promised land. “This is our Exodus,” Warnock intoned, his voice rising with the passionate tenor of a preacher rousing his flock. “Tell everybody you know to turn out and vote. Tell them that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for our children and ourselves.”

The idea of voting as a spiritual endeavor is not new; Black churches have historically been heavily involved in ensuring congregants cast their ballot. When the Georgia state legislature was considering a restrictive voting measure, a provision to end early voting on Sundays caused an outcry: It would have impeded “souls to the polls” efforts conducted by the many Black churches that provide rides to polling sites for parishioners after service. (Warnock himself participated in a souls to the polls effort on the final Sunday in October.) While that provision was stripped from the bill, the version that passed and was enacted into law still reduced the period of time voters could request absentee ballots, diminished the opportunities for early voting before runoffs, decreased the number of ballot drop boxes, and barred groups from distributing food and water to voters waiting in line.

The congregation clearly took the mandate to get out and vote seriously. In the foyer of the church building, two parishioners manned a table encouraging attendees to vote and to help arrange rides to the polls for those who needed them. Inside the sanctuary, I was seated in front of a woman who proudly sported a “Georgia votes” pin on her red blazer; she made sure to ask me if I had voted before the service started.

Toward the end of his sermon, Warnock relayed that a reporter had asked him what he planned to spend Tuesday doing. He recalled how two years ago, on Election Day, he fell asleep because he knew the future was in the hands of God. He walked around the pulpit, engaging with the congregation directly, encouraging them to do all that they could do and then go home and rest.

“The same God who delivered me the last time, will deliver me this time. The same God who delivered me victory that time, will give me victory this time,” Warnock thundered, his message just as applicable to himself as to the parishioners he was telling to trust in the Lord.

The best outcome for Warnock, and one that seems increasingly unlikely, is an outright victory over Republican Herschel Walker. A more probable scenario would be neither candidate receiving above 50 percent of the vote, leading to a December 6 runoff and another month of political purgatory for Warnock. Or Walker could win outright on Tuesday, and his opponent would once again drop the title of senator from Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock.

That was certainly the implicit hope of the pastor of another congregation a little over 15 miles to the north of Ebenezer. First Baptist Church of Atlanta is a megachurch with conservative politics, its large sanctuary packed with congregants in theater-style chairs ringing around a central stage where Pastor Anthony George delivered his remarks. The logistics would be familiar to anyone who has ever attended a massive evangelical church in the South, with a large choir backed by a full orchestra, single-lens reflex cameras stationed around the room for the livestream audience, multiple screens for the benefit of congregants seated farther from the stage, and a stilettoed singer who belted the song “My Jesus” delivering an impassioned performance worthy of the country music circuit. It also has George, the charismatic leader of the church who encouraged parishioners to take notes during his engaging, almost lecture-like sermon.

George did not offer details in his prayer asking for God’s will to prevail on Tuesday, wryly acknowledging that “I’m not going to pray publicly the way I pray privately.” “I’m praying very specifically in my personal prayer time, but in church we’re going to pray a general prayer that God’s will be done. But I can tell you this: I believe his will was done in Athens, Georgia, yesterday,” George said with a laugh, referring to the victory of the University of Georgia football team over the University of Tennessee. Walker, a former UGA football star before playing in the NFL, held a rally near the game on Saturday.

George has expressed his support for Walker in the past, praying with the Republican candidate in October amid reporting by The Daily Beast that Walker had paid for a former girlfriend to obtain an abortion. Subsequent reporting has found that Walker encouraged another former girlfriend to obtain an abortion as well, actions which are misaligned with his publicly anti-abortion stance. Indeed, Walker has not exactly embodied traditional family values in his personal life: His campaign has been dogged with allegations of domestic abuse and fathering children out of wedlock, and that was before the abortion revelations.

“The dilemma is, do you wait for a candidate who is perfect?” George told Politico in an early October interview. “Do you wait for a candidate who perfectly aligns with everything you not only want them to do when they’re elected, but all of your cultural and moral beliefs? Or do you take what’s given to you and make the choice between the options?”

The rhetoric of perfection was echoed in George’s prayer on Sunday. “There’s so much that’s at stake in our nation, and right here in our state of Georgia. We’re praying that on Tuesday, thy will be done,” George said. “We pray that you would lead people to make the choices according to their values, and their beliefs. Not according to perfection, but according to those who align most closely with what we believe. So we trust you to be involved in that process.”

Georgia is situated in the Bible Belt, where faith plays a critical role culturally and politically. Supporters of the pastor-senator may see God’s will in his victory, while opponents can observe the same in his defeat. Regardless of the outcome on Tuesday—win, lose, or prepare for a runoff—Warnock can rest in his faith that “the one who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”

He concluded his sermon on Sunday with a prediction, an easy smile playing across his features as he smoothed his tie, belying a divinely inspired confidence. “I’ve got a feeling,” Warnock said, “that everything is going to be alright.”