(RNS) — As the fight for U.S. Senate majority turns to the runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats, Republicans are ramping up attacks on one of the Democratic candidates, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, by sharing short clips of his sermons and tying him to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial Chicago pastor whose fiery rhetoric once caused President Barack Obama to disavow him.
On Tuesday (Nov. 17), the Georgia Republican Party tweeted out a video that showed Warnock praising Wright, now pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The video and other ads feature clips of Warnock saying, “We celebrate Rev. Wright” and “Jeremiah Wright is doing what he should do, he is a preacher and a prophet.”
Warnock’s opponent, incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, has also alleged that Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, “defended Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic comments.”
Warnock pushed back on the ads during an appearance on MSNBC last week, acknowledging that “I know Rev. Wright” but declaring “I’ve never defended anti-Semitic comments from anyone — and Kelly Loeffler knows better.”
He added: “It’s Rev. Raphael Warnock who is running for the U.S. Senate, and if she wants to know what I think, she can find me in the Scripture: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
During Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, video of Wright declaring “God damn America!” caused Obama, who attended Trinity United, to deliver a famous speech on race and America titled “A More Perfect Union.” Obama condemned Wright’s words — albeit not Wright himself — in his address, before eventually distancing himself from the pastor altogether later that year.
Republicans from outside the state are also highlighting selections of Warnock’s past sermons in an attempt to frame him as extreme. On Wednesday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted, “Not shocked #Georgia Democrat Senate candidate Raphael Warnock said ‘You cannot serve God and the military’ at the same time.”
In an accompanying video, Warnock is shown apparently discussing a well-known passage of the Book of Matthew in which Jesus declares, “No one can serve two masters” and “you cannot serve God and wealth.” Though the passage directly addresses the pursuit of riches, the saying is often referenced in Christian contexts to warn against placing interests or allegiances over God.
“America, nobody can serve God and the military,” Warnock says. “You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day whom you will serve.”
Rubio added in his tweet, “These & even crazier things is what the radicals who control the Democratic party’s activist & small dollar donor base believe.”
The full context for the remarks about the military is unclear, but his campaign released a statement saying, “You’re going to hear a lot of attacks from Senator Loeffler and her Washington allies in the next two months that misrepresent Rev. Warnock and his beliefs in an effort to scare Georgians.”
Rubio further addressed the biblical “two masters” context on Wednesday during an appearance on the radio show of Hugh Hewitt, a conservative commentator.
“The issue’s not whether you can serve God and the military,” Rubio said. “The issue is one of priority. But I’m, you know, obviously God should be our top priority, and I would tell you that for an enormous number of men and women in the military, God is their priority, and as it should be. That said, they have a job to do, and they do it well, and they do it so that people have the freedom to worship as they please and to say, and have the freedom to speak and say the things they say.”
Loeffler also tweeted out the video and demanded the pastor apologize.
“This is despicable, disgusting, and wrong,” she wrote. “You owe our active military & veterans — who sacrifice so much for our country — an immediate apology.”
Representatives for Rubio and Loeffler did not respond to follow-up questions from Religion News Service regarding their own take on “two masters” theology.
However, several faith leaders and others have rushed to Warnock’s defense on social media, noting that “two masters” theology is a common Christian belief.
“It shouldn’t escape you that a Republican who says they are about ‘preserving religious liberty’ is also publicly slandering the black church and a black preacher for preaching a very basic and historically orthodox Christian principle,” tweeted Kyle Howard, a preacher based in Atlanta.
Others questioned how characterizations of Warnock’s faith as “radical” are different from questions about the faith of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation — something many Republicans senators vocally opposed, including Rubio. (Democrats ultimately stayed away from questions about Barrett’s faith during her confirmation hearing.)
Theological debates aside, the tweets suggest that Warnock’s more than 15 years of sermons, many of them recorded, potentially serve as fodder for Republican strategists to snip into sound bites. For example, Loeffler’s campaign has also been sharing Warnock sermons in which he discusses how Black youth are disproportionately put in jail for marijuana possession and how “faith-filled praise ought to erupt every now and then into faithful protest.”
Loeffler’s campaign titled the video featuring the remarks on protest as “Raphael Warnock Opposes Putting Criminals in Jail.”
Warnock, for his part, tweeted out a response to Loeffler on Tuesday.
“I am glad that Senator (Loeffler) is listening to my sermons,” he said. “One of my favorite sermons is entitled ‘Love your neighbor’. That means you don’t get rid of your neighbor’s healthcare in the middle of a pandemic.”