Senator Reverend Warnock: “These pastors that you hear me talking about, they gave me an example of what public ministry would look like in a post-civil rights era or during my own lifetime… [they] gave me an example of how your ministry can come alive outside of the walls of the church. And, I think I’ve tried to bring the spirit of that to my ministry”
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) sat down with well-known political strategist and analyst, David Axelrod for a discussion released on CNN’s The Axe Files podcast. During the conversation, Senator Warnock dove into his upbringing in Savanah, Georgia, his early interest in ministry, the impact of Dr. King on his life, and how King and civil rights leaders have inspired him to bring his ministry into the public square. The episode is available to listen to HERE on CNN Audio, HERE on Spotify and HERE on Apple Podcast.
See below transcripts of key excerpts from the interview:
Senator Reverend Warnock on the Influence of Dr. King and Civil Rights Leaders
Senator Warnock: I was born a year after Dr. King’s death. And so I didn’t live through the civil rights period. I grew up in the South, Savannah, Georgia, but I never drank from a colored water fountain. I never sat on the back of a bus because of race. And I’m the blessed beneficiary of the foot soldiers of that movement. Dr. King was great, and part of his greatness was that he recognized the greatness of ordinary people. He used to talk about, the ground crew one day, and in the midst of his many travels, he was on an airplane and he looked out and he saw the ground crew getting things ready for the flight to take off. And he always reminded folks that it’s not just about the pilot, it’s about the people you don’t see who make flight possible. And, it’s really ordinary Americans red, yellow, brown, Black and white. During the movement and in other periods of our country’s history that kept pushing the country forward, that makes somebody like me possible.
SRW: I’m number 11 out of 12 kids. I’m the youngest son. There are seven boys in the family. So faith and talking about faith and the meaning of faith in everyday life was part of my household. But Dr. King absolutely captured my imagination… There was something about the power of his voice and the way in which he used his faith to encourage others to stand up for themselves and never to lose hope. The ability to speak in such a way that people literally laid their bodies on the line in hopes of what could be. And the older I got, the more I studied Dr. King. There’s a kind of integrity through his public ministry. He was a flawed, imperfect human being, like all of us. But part of what inspires me to this day is that he stood on the side of what he felt was right simply because it was right, knowing that he might lose the short term battles here are there. But he kept his mind and his eye on the prize. And, certainly we could use that kind of integrity, that kind of commitment and fearlessness in our politics right now.
David Axelrod: One of the influences [while you were in seminary] was the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and I remember this because I grew up in New York. So, I remember Adam Clayton Powell, who was one of the most powerful Black men in America in some ways. And he, as you are doing now, he pastored on Sundays, and he legislated on weekdays and was quite a force. And then Calvin Butts, who was there when you were there, also quite a force in the community. How much did that influence you?
SRW: So, Dr. King inspired me, but I was born after his death and these pastors that you hear me talking about, they gave me an example of what public ministry would look like in a post-civil rights era or during my own lifetime. So, Calvin Butts was a fearless activist. When I got to New York in the early 90s, I was a seminary student. And so, I spent the weekdays in the classroom, but Abyssinian Baptist Church and Harlem and a ministry that focused on challenging then the tobacco companies that were particularly preying on young on those communities and Dr. Butt’s activism, climbing up on billboards and painting over them in order to draw attention to the issue, it gave me an example of how your ministry can come alive outside of the walls of the church. And I think I’ve tried to bring the spirit of that to my ministry.
Senator Reverend Warnock on Urgent Need to Expand Medicaid in Georgia
SRW: Sadly, we have some 640,000 Georgians in the Medicaid gap. And you know, when you think about the folks especially who like to moralize about the ethics of work and a work ethic, and I believe in work ethic. You read my book, my dad was a hard-working man who poured that ethic to me. But the sad irony is that when you talk about the people in the gap that would be covered by Medicaid expansion, it’s largely the working poor. These people who work every day. These are folks who make our lives better. They are the ground crew. And yet, Georgia is one of only ten states that’s still digging in its heels, fighting the political battles of a decade ago. Earlier this week, I was down at the state legislature trying to encourage lawmakers to finally do the right thing… The federal government would cover 90% of the costs and because I got elected, here’s what we were able to do: Senator Ossoff and I secured about $1.2 billion for Georgia in extra incentives. If they just expand Medicaid, you can think of it as a signing bonus. So, we’ve removed every barrier and I’m still hopeful that at the end of the day, Georgia will do what North Carolina recently did, what Kentucky did, what states Blue and red [did], there are only ten holdouts at this point. Imagine having Social Security in 40 states. Or Medicare in 40 states. It’s unimaginable and, somehow the politicians have got to stop asking, well, what will happen to me if I do the right thing and and they need to center the people.
Senator Reverend Warnock on Overcoming Political Divisions
SRW: I think the moral test of this moment is the question of whether or not we as a nation will give in to the demagogues or will we embrace the high ideals of our country. E pluribus unum out of many one. And I feel in a real sense I’m living at the intersection of that important moral decision. I was elected the first African-American senator, Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish Senator in one fell swoop from the state of Georgia. Jon Ossoff and I, an African-American and a Jew, elected from Georgia on January 5th. I was feeling really good about what we had achieved. But the very next day, January 6th, we saw the most violent insurrection against our capital, most violent attack on our Capitol we’ve seen since the War of 1812, fueled by the big lie. And behind that was the unspoken part. Really what was being said is that this new, emerging, and diverse electorate doesn’t get to decide the future of the country. And so I think in a real sense, we’re living at that nexus between the hopes and the promise of January 5th, where a kid who grew up in public housing, the first college graduate in his family, can become a United States senator and the fears January 6th…
Senator Reverend Warnock on Serving as a Pastor and a Senator
SRW: There’s no question that I’m a better senator because I’m a pastor. You take something like my work around capping the cost of insulin and, folks are like “why are you so passionate about that?” I’m glad we were able to get that done for seniors, I’m trying now to get that $35 cap for everybody because insulin shouldn’t be expensive. But I spent decades doing hospital visitations. I’ve been there when the diabetes has gotten out of control and someone has to go on kidney dialysis or get an amputation. I’ve been there with the families and part of what I’ve learned as a pastor is that in a sense, there’s nothing more important than the Ministry of Presence while you’re working on people’s problems. Very often there’s no simple answer, but while you’re working on it, people need to know that you’re there, that you’re walking with them even as you’re working for them. And I’ve tried to bring that spirit to the Senate and by the same token, as I’m able to look more deeply and spend a lot of time on these public policy issues, I think it’s also made me a better pastor.