U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler is doing damage control after a photo surfaced of her posing with former Ku Klux Klan “Grand Klaliff” Chester Doles, a longtime fixture in the north Georgia white supremacist movement.
Doles posted the selfie with Loeffler on VK, a Russian social media site (the pre-Parler stomping grounds of the white supremacist right) over the weekend. Doles — who spent years in jail after beating a Black man nearly to death as part of his white nationalist activism — has been trying to legitimize his “America Patriots USA” group for the last few years, with little success. And here he is.
With one hand, Loeffler is claiming that her well-staffed campaign didn’t know who he was when they approached her. Georgians might find that hard to believe; Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon-supporting incoming congresswoman from North Georgia, threw Doles out of a joint rally with Loeffler a month ago.
And with the other, her campaign has been trying to smear her opponent in January’s Senate runoff, Rev. Raphael Warnock, any way they can, focusing on dog whistle attacks that paint him as a radical Black preacher. The sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a fiery Chicago preacher at a church former President Barack Obama occasionally attended, only seem to be relevant to white candidates when attached to Black political figures. It becomes harder every day to dismiss the onslaught of ads trying to connect Warnock to Wright as anything other than deliberately racist propaganda as things like the photo with Doles emerge.
Last month, Doug Collins, a Republican former congressman and ordained minister who came in third in Georgia’s jungle primary-style special election, made his desire to cast Rev. Raphael Warnock out of the ranks of legitimate Christianity plain on the campaign trail. “There is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor,” he said. “What you have is a lie from the bed of Hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
Ebenezer Baptist Church is the pulpit of Martin Luther King Jr. Warnock, a Morehouse College man and a doctoral graduate of Columbia University’s divinity school, was called to be the fifth senior pastor of the storied 134-year-old Atlanta church in 2005. Since then, he’s worked to align the theology of the church with practical efforts to alleviate poverty and suffering. As a minister, he has tried to connect through Bible studies at barbershops and car washes, and worked to provide scholarships and investment for at-risk youth. His advocacy for voting rights might be expected from King’s pulpit. But he has also led high-profile protests for health care access in Georgia, including a sit-in at the Capitol.
The unspoken implications of calling this church and this work at the heart of the civil rights movement in America the “bed of Hell” are hard to miss.
Loeffler followed that up in the debate last Sunday, where she said — twice — that she wouldn’t be lectured by Warnock. “I’m not going to be lectured by someone that uses the Bible to justify abortion to attack our men and women in the military,” she said. “You know, what’s happening here is someone who will not own up to their own record of division. He has called on Americans to repent for their worship of whiteness, that’s divisive. That’s hurtful.”
Her statements at the debate were carefully wordsmithed, and she’d been thoroughly drilled — so much so that her repetition and lack of affect drew attention. Repeating variations on the line “I will not be lectured” suggested a deliberate rhetorical strategy of denigrating the fact that he is a preacher.
And Loeffler’s robotic, repetitive “radical socialist” slur, delivered ad nauseam at the Georgia Press Club debate on Sunday, speaks to a line of political attack on Black religious figures in the South that dates back to the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and before. It should be unsurprising that a pastor who stepped into King’s pulpit endures the same attack.
Sixty years ago, former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and other white southern political conservatives regularly described Black religious leaders engaged in civil rights activism — including King — as stalking horses for communism. It was the standard conservative political line: likening efforts to reach racial equity with the wholesale seizure of the means of production, a Maoist Little Red Book, and the abolition of churches.
Of course, the mental gymnastics necessary to adopt rhetoric attacking the godless communism of actual clergy only makes sense to people who want to render the Black church theologically illegitimate, as somehow not actually Christian.
“Not ‘God Bless America,’ ‘God Damn America,’” Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s clipped, 17-year-old sermon bellows into Georgia’s television sets and computer screens today, over and over again. Wright was noting the many sins of the American government over the decades, from the Trail of Tears to the bombing of civilians in recent wars, to tell his congregation to respect their duty to faith above their love of country or anything other than God. The sentiment is utterly uncontroversial and as common as “Amazing Grace” in any Baptist homily, Black or white. Wright’s language was not.
Warnock’s candidacy comes at a challenging time for religious-political conservatives in Georgia. It’s one thing to note that white southern evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in proportions roughly equivalent to that of Black voters for Joe Biden. It is another to note that the Southern Baptist Convention saw its largest drop in membership in a century this year, continuing a 13-year slide.
Loeffler cannot win without high turnout among this group, and not without historic majorities from it. Loeffler expects to get something approaching zero Black votes in January and has made no meaningful attempt to reach nonwhite voters in Georgia. She rarely campaigns in metro Atlanta. Her WNBA team — Loeffler is a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream — actively protested against her earlier this year after she denigrated the Black Lives Matter movement. She stumbled, badly and transparently, when asked during the debate what she had done to demonstrate her ability to represent communities of color, pivoting almost immediately to unrelated matters. White evangelical Christians are who she has.
The question is whether Warnock might be viewed as a legitimate moral authority by disaffected, formerly evangelical white Christian voters looking for honest representation.
But some younger white evangelicals may see more of themselves in Warnock than in Loeffler. Otherwise conservative white Christians have increasingly been turning away from congregations overly focused on the donation plate — megachurches in particular — and those that associate with “prosperity theology,” or the idea that piety is a path to personal wealth.
Joel Osteen, looking at you. Creflo Dollar too.
One political irony: While most people — right and left — detest prosperity gospel, it is more popular among Democrats. It is more accepted by poor people than others. And Warnock is one of the most authoritative, eloquent, and implacable enemies of this theology in American history. His book, “The Divided Mind of the Black Church,” attacks religious grift thoroughly.
It’s why he’s the guy who gets to preach at the pulpit of Martin Luther King Jr. The question is whether Warnock might be viewed as a legitimate moral authority by disaffected, formerly evangelical white Christian voters looking for honest representation.
The Trump-to-Biden voters flipped because their own economic fortunes depend to a degree on political stability. They’re risk-averse voters who aren’t prepared for political disruption. Loeffler’s team must recognize that Warnock’s view of money and the church is theologically conservative, and the juxtaposition against her own immense wealth might make him attractive to evangelical splitters. She can’t afford to lose them and Republican voters who are abandoning the politicization of the church.
This is why Loeffler has been trying so hard to scuff up Warnock as a “radical socialist” — and why she takes a page from the propaganda playbook of Marxist revolutionaries and “heightens the contrasts” by invoking the specter of Fidel Castro in her ads.
However, the white nationalists of America are also openly calling for their people to boycott the January runoff, in order to demonstrate that their political power cannot be discarded in an attempt to win moderates, given the new political math we can see from the election. Their position is surprisingly rational from a realpolitik perspective: They’re punishing defection. And while polling is questionable right now, it suggests that perhaps 5 to 10 percent of Republicans are responding to that call — call it 125,000 to 250,000 voters. And that’s enough to undermine Loeffler’s bid.
And so Loeffler signed onto the questions about the presidential election’s authenticity. Most Republican officeholders are insisting on saying that up is down right now: With things this close, if the far right stays home, they all lose.
Loeffler needed to send a signal. But it had to be a dog whistle, because upper-middle-class moderate white voters have limits. Posing with Doles is a whistle.