Have Faith: Principles in politics

The Rev. Cathlin Baker talks about her friendship with senate candidate the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

The Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock and the Rev. Cathlin Baker, pastor of First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. — Courtesy Cathlin Baker

They say never discuss religion or politics at a dinner party, but what about when the two topics seem inextricably connected? We’ve been debating this ever since the country was formed. Thomas Jefferson encouraged the building of a “wall of separation between church and state,” and looking at history we can assume that the early Americans, who had come to the country in pursuit of religious freedom, were wary of entangling government in religious expression.

Over the years, laws were enacted to remove the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from public schools. Lawmakers have addressed religious displays in public places, and then there’s the case of government funds being used by religious organizations. No doubt there are countless other scenarios where we see that connection between religion and politics, but it seems the relationship between the two has always been complicated.

There are examples of politicians who were also clergy throughout history — Adam Clayton Powell, James Garfield, Andrew Young, and Mike Huckabee come to mind. Currently in Georgia, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, is up against Republican Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election set for Jan. 5, 2021. Loeffler, who had inconclusive coronavirus test results over the weekend, was appointed by Georgia’s governor to the U.S. Senate in December 2019 after Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons. Whoever wins the runoff election will fill the Senate seat until Georgia’s regular November 2022 election. In the special election race, neither Warnock nor Loeffler were able to secure 50 percent of the votes needed to avoid a runoff. (If no candidate gets over half the vote, the top two candidates advance to a runoff.)

Some of you already know the Rev. Warnock because he visits the Island regularly and has preached at the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury. He and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Cathlin Baker, have been friends since 1994; they met while both were studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Baker has preached at Warnock’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father before him. I spoke with Baker last week about Warnock’s run for the Senate, and what qualities she sees in him as a possible politician.

The first thing Baker said was that “He values the dignity of every human being and that will carry over into his policies.” (We should remember, too, that Baker spoke to me as a friend of Warnock’s and not in her official capacity as the pastor of a church.) She said Warnock was first approached about running a few years ago.

“I think he’s always been concerned about public life and community,” Baker said. “There’s a tradition in the Black church of concern about equality and social justice, and that brings us out of churches and into the public square.”

She said two of Warnock’s priorities are health care and living wages. “I think the gospel mandate of healing and ending poverty are in his campaign,” Baker said. Island clergy have addressed homelessness in helping to create a shelter and other programs that address disparity in the Island community. “We do engage in work in the public square, and to be able to address these issues in a governmental way is a whole other way of doing it.”

I asked Baker what someone who is a member of the clergy might bring to politics.

“When you think about what it takes to be clergy, there is the ability to synthesize ideas and beliefs and to express them clearly,” Baker said. “I think he’s a great communicator rooted in the Christian tradition . . . there is accountability as a congregational minister, where you lead your people but you’re always taking a lead from them too. You are only effective if you are meeting their needs and you’re moving them in a strategic way. When you’re representing a constituency, you want to listen closely and bring people together towards a shared goal.”

She said that she sees Warnock as someone who is aware of the dangers of power, and the abuses of power.

“I think that we’re all hungry for moral leadership, and in that way it is a good time for him,” Baker said. “We’re looking for leadership that is grounded in accountability. I think we’re all hungry for that.” As clergy, Baker said, you’re meeting the everyday needs of everyday people, something that would carry over into a constituency.

Meanwhile, she said it’s been exciting to watch her friend take on this new challenge. She supports him through prayer, along with other alumni from the seminary. The two pastors have realized over time that their friendship matters, Baker said, especially in their practice of preaching at each other’s churches.

“To be able to stand in each other’s pulpits and talk about our friendship and moving in and out of cultural diversity, and the joy we get from moving in and out of each other’s lives, is something we hope for all people,” Baker added.

The friendship between Warnock and Baker is embedded in their mutual passion for justice, along with humor and joy, Baker said. “He’s so smart and has a ton of integrity and such an interesting mind, so you want to be in conversation with him.”

They supported each other in their work back when they were in seminary, and will continue to do so as their friendship takes them down winding paths that sometimes intersect.

“I’m super excited for my friend, and I’m praying for him,” Baker said.

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