It has not been easy to be a Baptist.
Not since that Baptist in Lynchburg, Virginia, took his religious identity into the public square and launched the Moral Majority. His name was Jerry Falwell and the political movement he launched epitomized the white southern tradition of white privilege, Republican politics, and indifference to the moral issues of oppression, poverty, prejudice, and war.
The Baptist brand has suffered mightily.
To be a Baptist has been equated to right wing ideology. This was exemplified two months ago when the six white ministers who serve as presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries went public with their denigration of the scholarly study of systemic racism. It continued the public link between Baptist leaders and white supremacy.
Many Baptist ministers have abandoned the Baptist tradition; and many Baptist churches have removed the word Baptist from their congregational name.
It’s not easy to be a Baptist, unless you subscribe to the right wing, republican, white ideology of people like John McArthur, Robert Jeffress, and Albert Mohler.
But now, a little relief from this brand of Baptist, and it comes with the public visibility of the Reverend Raphael Warnock.
Dr. Warnock is now the chief representative of the progressive Baptist tradition, one rooted in congregational life, urban affairs, and social justice.
Warnock was raised in public housing in Savannah, Georgia. He attended Morehouse College, one of the 107 Historic Black Colleges and Universities (or HBCU, for short). He then attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he earned the Master of Divinity, the Master of Philosophy, and the Doctor of Philosophy degrees. His intellectual mentor was the late James Cone.
Dr. Warnock is the kind of Baptist I embrace and seek to imitate, even though he is almost two decades my junior.
Not since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a Baptist minister with liberal or progressive commitments had such a public platform.
Of course, many Baptists, especially white Baptists, are not happy. They fill the sanctuaries of preachers who resist the appeal of Hebrew prophets like Micah calling us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Such conservative pastors have a hard time preaching from the words of Isaiah quoted by Jesus as recorded by Luke:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for God has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.”
In fact, one of the real anomalies of modern American religion is the absence of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets from the religious rhetoric of rightwing advocates.
Not so for pastor Warnock.
He is senior minister at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia. It is the pulpit occupied by Martin Luther King, Sr. for four decades, one of which he shared with his famous son.
I have never met Dr. Raphael Warnock. I invited him to visit The Meetinghouse (radio) during the campaign; I thought my modest listening audience in the important small town of Brunswick, Georgia, might entice him to give me a call. But no luck; and now that he is on the Washington circuit, there is no chance; but I will try again. Perhaps some of my Morehouse friends will help me sign him on as a guest.
But if not, I will still embrace him as a senator, scholar, preacher, pastor, theologian, and social justice advocate. All of which makes him the kind of Baptist I want to be.
Which puts both of us in a minority.
Most Baptists will continue to march to that other drummer: restricting women, avoiding politics, fearing justice, demanding privilege, affirming white, embracing yesterday. And loving Trump.
But not me.
Maybe it is too late for me to be the kind of Baptist the world needs; but perhaps the Rev. Dr. Senator Raphael Warnock will do what so many of us have failed to do—live out the very best of what it means to be Human, American, Christian, and Baptist.
I will pray for him (as I pray for both President Trump and President-elect Biden). God bless America.