[Read more on the history Raphael Warnock is chasing.]
ATLANTA — For months in 2007, the Rev. Raphael Warnock used his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to call for the release of a young Black man, sentenced to 10 years in prison for a consensual sexual encounter between teenagers. Some of his powerful parishioners, like the congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, had joined the cause, even visiting the young man in prison.
The public pressure campaign was on the brink of success — a lower court ordered the young man’s release, and his family prepared to celebrate. But then the state attorney general, Thurbert Baker, announced that he would appeal the decision.
Mr. Baker also happened to be a member of Mr. Warnock’s congregation. And so it was that on the following Sunday, Mr. Warnock singled him out for special mention. “He has said that it’s his job to be the state’s attorney, and that’s true,” Mr. Warnock said. “But it’s my job to be the state’s conscience.”
At the time, in 2007, Mr. Warnock was still a relative newcomer. Two years earlier, he had become the youngest person ever to assume the role of senior pastor at Ebenezer, the spiritual home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Baker, on the other hand, was Georgia’s highest-ranking Black elected official. A tough-on-crime, somewhat conservative Democrat who had been in office since 1997, he would become the last African-American elected in a statewide race.
Mr. Warnock wants to become the next one.
He is running for Senate against Kelly Loeffler, one of the richest members of Congress. Senator Loeffler was appointed last year by Gov. Brian Kemp and has become a strident Trump loyalist.
The stakes are high: The results on Election Day — a three-way split between Mr. Warnock, Ms. Loeffler and another Republican, Representative Doug Collins — caused a runoff that, along with the runoff for Georgia’s other Senate seat, will determine the balance of power in the Senate. The race has attracted record sums. Mr. Warnock has raised more than $100 million to help make the case that his life trajectory has better prepared him for this moment than anyone else.
This moment, he frequently reminds his audiences on the campaign trail, includes a pandemic with glaring racial disparities, global calls for justice spurred by police killings of Black people, and the stunning fact that Georgia voters, who have never elected a Black senator, just gave the nod to a Democratic presidential nominee for the first time since 1992.
Mr. Warnock is betting that the time is ripe for a Black Baptist preacher in robes trimmed with kente cloth, who speaks of police brutality and voter suppression from one of the world’s most famous pulpits. While he has built a résumé that piles credential on top of credential, he has not hesitated to share personal experiences like being suspected of shoplifting and having an incarcerated brother.
Republicans have tried to paint him as a dangerous radical, noting his denunciation of white privilege, his defense of Black pastors who have criticized the United States and his support of abortion rights. Incidents from his past have come under greater scrutiny, including an arrest for which the charges were later dropped and an incident last year where his now ex-wife called the police after a conflict outside her home.
In response, Mr. Warnock, 51, has largely sought to neutralize the criticism, as with two campaign ads in which he anticipates the attacks on him and professes his love of puppies. To his opponent, he offers a preacherly rhyme: “People who have no vision traffic in division.”
“I have spent my career and my time as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church trying to bring people together,” he said in an interview, when asked about his defense of religious leaders who have criticized the United States. He called bringing people together difficult work. “It requires that we actually talk to one another, rather than about one another,” he said. “It requires deep engagement because, I think, bigotry feeds on fear.”
In the pulpit, Mr. Warnock has positioned himself as a moral compass for government. Now he wants to continue that job — in Washington.
‘My Father’s Business’
Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, named for an archangel and a revered Jewish scholar, gave his first sermon when he was 11.
He chose the one Bible story about Jesus as a child, when Joseph and Mary lost him for three days only to find him philosophizing in the temple. Jesus shrugs off their concern, saying they should have known where he would be.
Mr. Warnock titled the sermon, “It’s Time I Be About My Father’s Business.”
He grew up in a Savannah, Ga., housing project, the 11th of 12 siblings in a blended family. His father, Jonathan Warnock, was from the rural Lowcountry along the Savannah River. The elder Warnock served in the Army in World War II, and family lore includes a time when he was asked to give up a bus seat while in uniform. In Savannah, he salvaged cars and preached on Sundays in a Pentecostal Holiness church, hanging an American flag behind his pulpit and beginning services with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Though many Pentecostal churches do not ordain women, Raphael’s mother, Verlene, also became a pastor, signaling the family’s openness to less traditional interpretations of the Bible.
Still, said Joyce Hall, one of Mr. Warnock’s sisters, “My parents were very, very conservative Evangelicals. Raphael was shaped in an environment where our parents taught us biblical values. And then they let us choose.”
The young Raphael quoted, read and discussed Scripture so earnestly that he was nicknamed “the Rev.” In his campaign stump speech, he tells of how his father used to wake him early each morning to get dressed, put his shoes on, and “get ready” — regardless of whether they had plans. Friends say that, to this day, Mr. Warnock is dressed and shod at the crack of dawn.
He wanted to attend Morehouse College, the elite, historically Black alma mater of Dr. King, and was able to do so with financial aid, including a Pell Grant, low-interest loans and scholarships.
He came to college a Pentecostal like his parents, and graduated a Baptist in the King tradition.
Mr. Warnock joined a campus group for aspiring pastors, and got a standing ovation the first time he delivered a sermon, according to what students from the time have told Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., the dean of the campus chapel.
He recommended Mr. Warnock for a summer internship at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., serving under John Thomas Porter, who had been mentored by Dr. King and helped lead the 1960s anti-segregation campaign in which protesters were met with fire hoses and police dogs.
It was there that Mr. Warnock moved from a tradition that emphasized prayer and personal salvation to one that took a more activist approach, he explained in an interview. “It was the Baptists who preached a kind of Social Gospel that captured my attention and imagination,” he said.
Preaching the ‘uncomfortable’ truth
In the history of Black pastors-turned-politicians, among the most famous was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Harlem congressman and civil rights leader who in 1938 succeeded his father as the leader of Abyssinian Baptist Church.
That is where Mr. Warnock landed a job as youth minister at the church when he was 22. He had moved to New York to attend the prestigious Union Theological Seminary, where he would go on to earn two master’s degrees and later a doctorate. By that time, Abyssinian was under the leadership of Calvin O. Butts III, a fellow Morehouse alumnus.
While there, Mr. Warnock protested negative stereotypes in rap lyrics and criticized the heavy-handed police response to a “Million Youth March.” He also spoke out against the welfare work requirement put in place by Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor, calling it a “hoax” in which “poor people are being put into competition with other poor people.”
In his scholarship, he dove into what would become a lifelong theme: the role of the church in public life.
He wrote a thesis exploring the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Nazi Germany and Dr. King’s struggles in the United States, which he called “two rare moments in which one can feel with unusual intensity the birthpangs of history seeking to give birth to true church.”
In the same paper, he articulated a complaint that he would later lodge against the “prosperity gospel” promoted by some of the suburban megachurches that competed with Ebenezer for members. “The Gospel preached in too many of our churches today is a ‘feel good’ Christianity, co-opted and commodified for ‘a culture addicted to stimulation,’” he wrote.
In his 2006 dissertation and a 2013 book, Mr. Warnock laid out a vision to unite the sometimes competing forces in Black Christianity to confront the ills of a nation plagued by mass imprisonment, drug addiction and a yawning wealth gap. As a candidate, he has adopted a similar platform, calling for criminal justice reform, a living wage and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“The Black church has been the conscience of America,” he said during a 2011 event.
That function has been embraced by many Black pastors around the nation, some using more confrontational language than others. As Mr. Warnock noted in his book, one of his mentors, the Rev. James H. Cone, had described the white church as the “Antichrist.”
Mr. Warnock was a defender of Jeremiah Wright, the onetime pastor of former President Barack Obama who was thrust into scrutiny in 2008 after video clips of a sermon he gave showed him saying “God damn America.”
While Mr. Obama distanced himself from Mr. Wright, Mr. Warnock expressed concern that the clips weren’t being shared in the proper context. In an appearance on Fox News in 2008, Mr. Warnock noted that before Dr. King was assassinated, he was preparing a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell.”
“We celebrate Reverend Wright in the same way we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church — which, when preachers tell the truth, very often it makes people uncomfortable,” Mr. Warnock said in the Fox News interview. He later wrote that the sermon viewed in its entirety “was a very thoughtful and compelling discussion on how a Christian should view government.”
Some of Mr. Warnock’s own preachings are intended to make people uncomfortable. He has pressed Black churches to be more inclusive of gay people, and said they have been “shamefully slow” to focus on gender inequality, saying that churches need to fight both sexism and patriarchal structures — inside and outside their walls.
He has also criticized white churches, writing in his book that they had been active and complicit participants “in slavery, segregation and other manifestations of white supremacy.”
In an interview, Mr. Warnock said it was the white church’s barring of Black worshipers that gave rise to the Black church to begin with.
“When we say the Black church, we have never meant anything racially exclusive by that,” Mr. Warnock said. “The Black church is the antislavery church. It is an independent Christian witness that literally emerged fighting for freedom and insisting that the gospel is about equality, justice and inclusive humanity.”
In a state where three-quarters of the population identifies as Christian, and many white evangelicals embrace conservative political views, Republicans and Ms. Loeffler’s campaign have used his messages and sermons to try and paint him as a “radical” — and their claims have often been labeled by fact checkers as misleading.
One ad by a conservative SuperPAC falsely suggested that Mr. Warnock himself had said “God damn America,” but the video snippet actually shows Mr. Warnock describing Mr. Wright’s rhetoric.
In a 2011 sermon highlighted by Republicans, Mr. Warnock said that “nobody can serve God and the military,” but Mr. Warnock’s campaign noted that it was a reference to the Gospel message that “no one can serve two masters.” In another sermon, Mr. Warnock criticized Israel, describing how people saw the government “shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.” In response, leaders in Georgia’s Jewish community spoke publicly in support of Mr. Warnock.
Christian pastors have also come to Mr. Warnock’s defense, much as he defended Mr. Wright. Dozens joined a letter calling on Ms. Loeffler to cease her attacks.
“We see your attacks against Warnock as a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand,” the pastors wrote.
Delivering the ‘right message for the time’
In his early 30s, Mr. Warnock was tapped to lead a church of his own, Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. He began his tenure by urging members to fight urban blight and drug addiction and encouraging clergy to be tested for H.I.V., at a time when AIDS was ravaging Black communities. He ended one service in 2001 by getting tested himself.
While in Maryland, Mr. Warnock was arrested during an investigation of allegations of abusive bullying involving counselors at Camp Farthest Out, a church-run facility about 30 miles west of Baltimore.
As investigators began interviewing a counselor who was apparently 17 years old, Mr. Warnock and another pastor asked if they could be present during the interview, but the investigators rejected the idea and rebuked the pastors for disrupting the process, according to a police report. The disagreements continued until the investigators arrested the pastors for hindering the investigation.
A later portion of the report describes the pastors as cordial, with one of them saying that “we didn’t mean to get in the way.” Prosecutors later dropped the obstruction charges, with one saying that the case involved a “miscommunication” and that the pastors were “very helpful with the continued investigation,” according to a Baltimore Sun article from 2002.
In 2004, a job came open that seemed almost tailor-made for Mr. Warnock: senior pastor at Ebenezer, the church in the heart of Atlanta, with a storied role in the civil rights movement.
Mr. Warnock was in his mid-30s, and his selection stood in sharp contrast to the retiring pastor, Joseph Roberts, who had served for three decades.
The job came with instant entree to Atlanta’s upper echelons, and Mr. Warnock, sharply dressed and considered one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, walked red carpets and greeted visiting celebrities.
Yet more often, he made the news on serious subjects. A few months after his arrival at Ebenezer in 2005, he led a “Freedom Caravan” to bus people displaced by Hurricane Katrina back to New Orleans so they could vote.
He took up the cause of death row inmates, and Genarlow Wilson, the star athlete and prom king who was sentenced to 10 years for a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old when he was 17. (Mr. Baker, the attorney general and Ebenezer member, ultimately lost his appeal and Mr. Wilson was freed.)
The state’s political class quickly came to know Mr. Warnock, in part because attendance at Ebenezer’s annual King Day service was practically required for elected officials. At the annual Democratic Party dinners, he was invited to give the blessing but did not stop at amen.
“I would always say, ‘You know, Reverend, we want you to say the invocation, but you always have something else to say,’” recalled DuBose Porter, then the state party chairman. “He wouldn’t do a long turn, but it would just be that right message for the time. Every time.”
Mr. Warnock had the blessing of the civil rights old guard, but his interests and style aligned him with an emerging strain of activists focused on social justice. With the rapper T.I., he held a three-day conference on ending mass incarceration. At the Statehouse in 2014, he was arrested while protesting the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
Right after the memorial service at Ebenezer for Rayshard Brooks, who was killed in June by the Atlanta police in a Wendy’s parking lot, Mr. Warnock headed to pick up one of his own brothers from a federal prison on a pandemic-related release. He had been given a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime in 1998.
Over the years, progressives found that Mr. Warnock could lend credibility to their efforts, helping ward off criticism not just from conservatives, but skeptical Democrats. Stacey Abrams got to know Mr. Warnock first in her role as a lawyer for the city of Atlanta, then as the Democratic minority leader in the Georgia Assembly. In 2014, she went to him for help with an ambitious voter registration plan.
He became a spokesman for Ms. Abrams’s New Georgia Project, working with the group to expand its voting drive to congregations, and later replaced Ms. Abrams as chair of the board of directors.
“What I see in Raphael Warnock, every time we talk, every time we engage, is this belief that is core to him: that morality demands that he do good,” Ms. Abrams said in an interview.
As Mr. Warnock’s reputation was growing, Georgia Democrats were struggling, despite predictions that increasing racial diversity would work in the party’s favor. In 2014, candidates bearing two of the state’s biggest Democratic names — Michelle Nunn, the daughter of Senator Sam Nunn, and Jason Carter, grandson of the former President Jimmy Carter — ran for statewide office and lost.
The next year, Mr. Warnock floated a trial balloon: a run for Senate against Johnny Isakson, a Republican incumbent who had recently disclosed that he had Parkinson’s disease. Encouraged by Democratic leaders, Mr. Warnock consulted his flock.
“It was definitely a family talk, I mean, there were no PowerPoint presentations — and he’s big for presentations,” said Robin Hindsman Stacia, an Ebenezer member. “He was clear at that point that if the congregation didn’t really feel like it was the right time, that he wouldn’t do it.”
He didn’t do it.
A private life, in public
The New Year’s Eve service at Ebenezer is always a lively affair, but as 2015 gave way to 2016, it grew electric. The congregation surged to the front to get a better view as their pastor went to stand in front of his girlfriend, Ouleye Ndoye, and pulled a small box from his pocket.
He quoted poetry (“Those who are near me do not know that you are nearer”) and Scripture (“the Bible says that one who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord”), then knelt.
Ms. Ndoye, who is 16 years younger than Mr. Warnock and a graduate of Spelman, Morehouse’s sister college, was seated in a front pew in a glittery black dress, hands clasped to her mouth.
“So will you do me a favor and be my good thing?” Mr. Warnock asked. “Will you marry me?”
The engagement was short — after a private ceremony, the couple wed publicly at Ebenezer on Valentine’s Day.
The Warnocks had two children, a girl and a boy. But in May 2019, Mr. Warnock filed for divorce.
At the same time as his marriage collapsed, his political future began to take shape. In August, Senator Isakson announced that he would retire, setting off a round of jockeying among potential Democratic candidates for the special election to fill the seat.
The contest in November would include multiple candidates from each party, and would proceed to a runoff if no one won more than 50 percent of the votes outright. To ensure that one of the top two candidates was a Democrat, the party needed to unite behind a single contender early.
Again, Mr. Warnock called a meeting at his church, parishioners said. This time, though, things were different. Ebenezer’s members had lived through three years of divisive politics, a surge in overt racism, and Georgia’s senators were still fighting expanded access to health care. The political equation had changed, too: The challenger would be running against an appointed newcomer, not a longtime legislator like Mr. Isakson.
By that time, Mr. Warnock had been at Ebenezer for 15 years and believed he had built a strong team of pastors. He did not ask, members said — he told them he was going to run. He has indicated that he does not intend to step down from Ebenezer if elected, they said. (Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, a longtime Baptist youth pastor, is the only member of the clergy currently serving in the Senate.)
In explaining his decision to enter the race, Mr. Warnock has consistently invoked Dr. King’s vision of the church as actively involved in — indeed, essential to — political life. “Politics is a tool to effect the kind of change that I want to see in the world,” he told Ernie Suggs, a veteran reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In early December 2019, Governor Kemp chose as Mr. Isakson’s successor Ms. Loeffler, a financial services executive with $20 million at the ready to pour into her own campaign. Mr. Warnock had not yet announced that he would run when, six weeks later, she appeared at the King Day service at Ebenezer, calling it a “sacred place” and vowing to live in a way that honored Dr. King and his family.
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Warnock said wryly, “If today you would stand in this holy place where Dr. King stood, make sure that come tomorrow we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”
Mr. Warnock officially entered the race at the end of January. In a contest with 20 candidates, he was the anointed Democrat, with the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the hope that he would appeal to moderate white voters who were turned off by President Trump, and motivate people who leaned left but did not often find candidates to whom they could relate.
‘A really good show’
Two weeks before the runoff elections, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired video of a tearful Ms. Warnock captured by a police body camera — video that was quickly recycled into an attack ad against Mr. Warnock that included the number for a domestic violence hotline.
“I’ve tried to keep the way that he acts under wraps for a long time, and today he crossed the line,” Ms. Warnock tells the officer in the clip. “So that is what is going on here, and he’s a great actor. He is phenomenal at putting on a really good show.”
The Warnock campaign has called the attack “desperate and shameful.” The video was from an episode nine months earlier, when the couple were already separated and in the process of divorce. Mr. Warnock pulled up to her townhouse to pick up their son for nursery school.
Ms. Warnock’s grandfather in West Africa had died the night before, and she wanted Mr. Warnock to sign paperwork that would allow her to take the children, then 1 and 3, to the funeral.
They argued in the driveway. Mr. Warnock later said he had wanted her to sign the divorce papers before he allowed the children to travel overseas. Soon, Ms. Warnock was calling the police to report that he had run over her foot.
Ms. Warnock, shaken but calm, tells the police that she had been leaning into the back seat on the passenger side, with the door open, fastening one of the children’s seatbelts.
Both parties agree, the video shows, that Mr. Warnock got in the driver’s seat and started to move the car with the passenger door still open. Mr. Warnock says he had first asked his wife to move away from the car, but she refused. He also says that when he began to drive, he believed she had moved.
Mr. Warnock says repeatedly that he did not “think” he had hit her foot. Later, he gave a more categorical denial, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “It didn’t happen.”
The first officer on the scene tells his sergeant that Mr. Warnock seems “like a very presentable guy in a Tesla” and that his wife is “hysterical.” The police did not arrest Mr. Warnock, saying several times that they did not believe he had injured his wife, or that he had any intent to do so.
According to the video, when the officer asks Ms. Warnock if Mr. Warnock had run over her foot intentionally, she responds, “I just don’t think he cares,” adding, “This man is running for U.S. Senate and all he cares about right now is his reputation.”
Ms. Warnock can twice be heard asking for medical attention. Medical personnel did not identify any “swelling, redness, or bruising or broken bones” on Ms. Warnock’s foot, the police report said.
Ms. Warnock has not participated in her ex-husband’s run for office, nor are their children pictured in his campaign materials. Through her lawyer, she said, “My children and I have no place in the politics of this election.”
The divorce was finalized last May.
Call and response
On the Friday before early voting began in December, Mr. Warnock went from parking lot to parking lot — stopping at a union building in Atlanta, near a college campus in Athens and behind a church in Augusta, where amid honking horns the audience sang and answered in a call-and-response, much like they might have on a Sunday morning.
Mr. Warnock finessed them with the confidence of a man who gave his first sermon at 11. Back then, he said it was time he was about his Father’s business. Four decades later, for him that has come to mean politics.
“Who are we?” he bellowed.
“We the people!” the crowd shouted back.
Mr. Warnock went on to define “we the people” in this moment: workers who don’t have health care, people who don’t make a living wage, seniors who struggle to pay for prescription drugs.
“Get up,” he called, his speech building to a get-out-the-vote crescendo.
The crowd repeated, “Get up!”
“Get dressed,” he said. They said, “Get dressed.”
Then he said, “Put your shoes on.”
Shaila Dewan reported from Atlanta and Savannah, and Mike Baker from Seattle. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research. Nicole McNulty contributed to this report from New York.