Rev. Warnock blasted for being a ’pro-choice pastor,’ but his position isn’t uncommon

Warnock’s remark has turned the run-off election into something of a debate over religious Americans' support of abortion rights.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks during a campaign rally on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. Warnock and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler are in a runoff election for the Senate seat. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(RNS) — Since the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Georgia pastor and Democratic senate candidate, described himself in a tweet on Dec. 9 as a “pro-choice pastor,” he has drawn fire from everyone from his Republican opponents in the state’s Jan. 5 runoff election, to a host of fellow Black ministers.

Doug Collins, a GOP congressman Warnock defeated in a primary on Nov. 3, declared at a recent rally, “There is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor. What you have is a lie from the bed of Hell.”

But the Rev. Cari Jackson, director of spiritual care and activism at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said there is no contradiction in supporting abortion rights while maintaining a Christian faith.

“Rev. Warnock, by being consistent through the years, even as he’s running for elected office, about his stance for reproductive freedom, (is) really creating an opportunity to shift the public narrative,” said Jackson. “Religious people can be pro-choice.”

Many Christians agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, including 60% of white mainline Protestants and 56% of Catholics, according to a 2019 poll from Pew Research. Black Protestants were even more supportive, with 64% of those surveyed saying the same.

Only white evangelical Protestants exhibited majority opposition, with 77% saying the practice should be illegal in all or more cases.

Nevertheless, Warnock’s candidacy in the Georgia run-off election has turned into something of a debate over religious supporters of abortion rights, shining a spotlight on their views while testing how well they resonate with voters in the Deep South.

Warnock, for his part, has strongly affirmed his stance in the face of pushback from the right. The pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, once home to Martin Luther King Jr., has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to abortion rights, tweeting out his dedication to “reproductive justice” and telling a Georgia radio host that his position is not in conflict with his faith.

“I’ve been focused on women’s health, women’s choice and reproductive justice,” he said. “That is consistent with my view as a Christian minister, and I will fight for it.”

His opponent for one of two Senate seats being contested in the runoff, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Catholic, has voiced passionate disagreement. In a recent debate, Loeffler chided Warnock for invoking Scripture, saying, “I’m not going to be lectured by someone who uses the Bible to justify abortion.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, center, stands with Georgia Republican candidate for Senate Kelly Loeffler, right, and Bonnie Perdue, left, wife of Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, after a campaign rally Nov. 11, 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

She has had help from Republican North Carolina Congressman-elect Madison Cawthorn, who has campaigned for Loeffler. In a recent interview on Fox News, Cawthorn said that Warnock “says he’s a pastor, but he’s all about abortion.”

Earlier this month, a group of 27 Black ministers published a letter urging Warnock to rethink his abortion stance.

“Precisely because we share so much in common with you, we feel compelled to confront your most recent statements concerning abortion,” read the letter, which argued that Warnock’s support for abortion rights “represent(s) grave errors of judgment and a lapse in pastoral responsibility.”

The Rev. Dean Nelson, the executive director of the anti-abortion group Human Coalition Action who helped organize the letter, insisted Warnock’s position is unbiblical.

“I think that it is a misplaced understanding of Scripture to somehow talk about justice or reproductive justice for women while neglecting to address anything regarding justice for the child in the womb,” Nelson told Religion News Service.

But Jackson said faith leaders were some of the first to advocate for abortion rights in the 1960s. Clergy in New York City, she pointed out, formed the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which worked to connect low-income women with physicians who could perform abortions so they would not attempt the procedures themselves.

In this Jan. 12, 2018 file photo, the Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Warnock, Jackson said, is simply an extension of that tradition.

“Rev. Warnock as I understand him has always been about seeking to increase the experience of liberty and justice and freedom in people’s lives,” said Jackson, who has known Warnock since they were students at Union Theological Seminary in New York at the same time. “Why would he stop that when it comes to something that is most central to someone’s life — and that is their reproduction?”

Most pertinent to next month’s runoff, however, is what Georgia voters think. According to a 2019 poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, nearly 58% said they believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, whereas roughly 38% said they believed the opposite.

In addition, 50.3% of Georgia Protestants said it should be legal in all or most cases, and 53.7% of Catholics agreed.

Singling out Warnock’s religious views could backfire, Jackson said. “It suggests there can be only one expression of true faith.”

Indeed, while not mentioning abortion specifically, nearly 12,000 people of faith and 45 religious organizations came to Warnock’s defense on Wednesday (Dec. 16), saying in a letter that they condemned “immoral and dangerous” attacks on Warnock’s faith. They framed the criticism as part of an “attempt to hijack religion for dishonest, hateful political purposes.”

In this Nov. 15, 2020, file photo, Georgia Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, gesture toward a crowd during a campaign rally in Marietta, Georgia. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

The same day, nearly 800 faith leaders announced they were endorsing both Warnock and fellow Democrat and U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff.

“As Christians and siblings from many faiths, guided by our values and conscience, we pledge our public support for Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Georgia U.S. Senate election,” the endorsement read.

Even Nelson, who argues that the abortion rights movement is part of white supremacy and hosted a press conference on the issue on Friday, currently appears primarily interested in nudging Warnock closer to positions held by anti-abortion Democrats or even relative moderates.

“I honestly would have been happy for him at least to use language of the Clinton era: ‘safe, legal, and rare,’” he said, referencing Bill Clinton’s abortion stance. “While I don’t support that, it would have been at least some semblance of taking the (Democratic) Party in a direction that is more consistent.”

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