ATLANTA — As Georgia’s black faith leaders toed the line between their religious and political beliefs in the final days before the midterm elections, some have significantly stepped up their criticism of the state’s Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker.
Religious leaders have long been influential voices in their communities and play an important role in mobilizing black voters, a key Democratic constituency. They have long emphasized that their efforts to enroll and expel their community members are explicitly nonpartisan.
But on Sunday, the Rev. Jamal Bryant gave a fiery sermon denouncing Mr. Walker. Republicans who recruited Mr. Walker, a former University of Georgia football star, to run for office did so based on racial stereotypes rather than his qualifications, he told his parishioners at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Georgia, just outside Atlanta.
“They assumed that if they picked someone who they thought would actually represent us better with a football than with a degree in philosophy, they would be deceiving us,” he told the predominantly black congregation in a sermon , which generated millions of views online. “They thought we were so slow — that we were so stupid — that we would choose the lowest caricature of a stereotypical broken black man, as opposed to someone who was educated, educated and focused.”
Towards the end of his remarks, Mr Bryant said: “In 2022 we don’t need a walker, we need a runner.”
When asked for comment on the sermon, Mr. Walker’s campaign referred to his remarks during a campaign rally in Augusta, Georgia, on Tuesday.
“I thought that in church you should talk about brotherly love, you should talk about treating your brother well. At the church I go to, we talk about brotherly love,” he said. “They said they don’t need a walker, they need a runner. Has he ever seen me run? Jesus Christ will be my blocker.”
Mr. Bryant’s message drew attention to the racial dynamics at play in Georgia’s Senate election, where two black male candidates with vastly different educational and professional backgrounds are running against each other. It could also be seen as an endorsement from Mr. Walker’s opponent, Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who is himself a black church leader as senior pastor of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church. Mr Warnock’s campaign declined to comment on the sermon.
Although Mr. Bryant did not directly ask his community to vote for Mr. Warnock, his comments, if interpreted as political speech, could violate a federal rule.
The Johnson Amendment, an adjustment to the 1954 federal tax law, prohibits any tax-exempt religious or nonprofit organization from participating in campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to political candidates. It also bans religious leaders from supporting candidates from the pulpit.
However, the provision is rarely enforced. In 2017, former President Donald J. Trump said he would repeal it entirely — a move intended to appeal to his white evangelical supporters.
Asked about the potential conflict, Mr. Bryant said in an interview that his words were not uttered as an endorsement of Mr. Warnock and should not be interpreted as his church’s official stance. He also noted that he believes black churches are being unduly scrutinized for their political involvement.
“White evangelicals have been very prominent in who they push and why,” he said. “But when the black church clears its throat, we hear, ‘What is the line between church and state?'”
Gregory Magarian, a constitutional law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies law and religion, said Mr. Bryant’s comments, taken at face value, appear to violate the federal rule. But he added that they “represent just one data point in a really large phenomenon of churches and faith leaders violating the Johnson Amendment.”
Black churches have long served an important political organizing role in their communities, particularly through initiatives such as “Souls to the Polls,” which encourage congregants to cast their votes after Sunday services.
Georgia’s new election law, SB 202, has given new urgency to their efforts because it limits provisions such as Sunday voting. The bipartisan Georgia-based Faith Works initiative, founded in response to the election law, launched this year with an initial budget of $2.6 million for voter education and turnout. Mr. Bryant is a founding member.
Other leaders have spoken out against Mr. Walker outside the walls of their church. A radio ad sponsored by the Democratic group American Bridge 21st Century features Cynthia Hale, an Atlanta-area pastor and another founding member of Faith Works, encouraging voters to pray for Mr. Walker instead of casting their vote for him.
“As Christians, we are taught to forgive Herschel,” she says. “But we are not commanded to vote for him.” A voice-over at the end of the ad encourages listeners to vote for Mr Warnock.
And in the face of Republican-led attacks on Mr. Warnock, black church leaders have viewed their resistance as a defense of themselves — something they have done before.
When Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, ran against Mr. Warnock in 2020, she used recordings of Mr. Warnock’s sermons to portray him as a “radical” figure. A coalition of more than 100 black faith leaders wrote an open letter to Ms. Loeffler, saying her words represented a broader attack on the traditions of the black faith.
Mr Warnock’s church has been a problem in this race as Mr Walker’s team has targeted the businesses it runs. The campaign sent out a series of press emails about a building owned by a for-profit company with ties to Ebenezer, whose residents have received eviction notices for rent violations. Mr Warnock said in the debate and subsequent press conferences that the church had not evicted any tenants.
Ms. Hale, who described her comments about Mr. Walker as among the most directly political statements she has made publicly in her career, said she stands by her words.
“I don’t regret anything,” she said. “I think I did what I had to do to help people understand it, because sometimes it takes a voice that people listen to and respect to say, ‘No, we can do that not do’.”