Herschel Walker is running. The greatest college football player of all time hopes to score votes as he seeks the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. Blocking for him as he advances through the primary field are megachurch pastors who transform their Sunday morning worship services into Walker campaign rallies.
On April 3, Walker spoke during the service at Rock Springs Church in Milner. As Pastor Benny Tate interviewed him on stage, Walker also made sure people knew about his campaign. He even attacked the incumbent Democratic senator, Rev. Raphael Warnock.
“I’m running against someone that believes in abortion,” Walker declared. “I believe in life. I believe in Christ. When you believe in Christ, you’re going to do what’s right. And that’s the problem we have right now: People are afraid to mention Christ.”
“Don’t be afraid to speak his name. And that’s the reason I got in this,” Walker added. “This country’s trying to get us to get rid of Jesus, trying to get us to get rid of our faith.”
The athlete-turned-politician also hit on other hot-button political issues as he attacked people for using the “them” pronoun, teaching gender identification, or thinking they “can identify as a cat.”
“We’re in a terrible, terrible time right now when people can’t even identify a woman. It’s written in the Bible,” he said to cheering before offering his own problematic definition. “If you can’t have, you can’t produce a child, you’re a man.”
(Fortunately for women struggling with infertility, Walker’s definition reducing women to one biological function isn’t in the dictionary.)
In case anyone in the congregation missed the partisan altar call, the church’s pastor made it clear: “This is why so much I wanted to come alongside you and support you, and I believe in you.”
Tate’s no stranger to such partisan politics. He prayed at a Donald Trump primary rally during the 2016 campaign and hosted Donald Trump Jr. for a rally at the church just before the 2016 general election. So, it’s no accident that Walker showed up. In fact, Tate noted the presence of conservative religious-political activist Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who now heads the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
And this wasn’t an anomaly. Walker has spoken during Sunday services of at least three other Georgia megachurches this year. It’s a campaign strategy that hasn’t garnered much media attention despite the large crowds. That’s why I wrote a piece published this week by Sightings (a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School on religion’s role in public life) about Walker’s Sunday politicking.
The services are fairly similar as Walker was interviewed each time by the church’s pastor. He recounted the same key moments in his life, peppering in new thoughts as the pastors mentioned different issues. So, at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Walker talked more about race because the church’s pastor brought it up. But given the church’s history on this topic, the rhetoric warrants greater scrutiny.
While my piece for Sightings gave a short summary of the 1963 civil rights sit-ins at FBC Atlanta as Black Christians sought to integrate the church, this issue of A Public Witness will go deeper to consider that history and the theology at play — then and today. And it includes exclusive comments from the leader of that civil rights effort, Rev. Amos Brown, who today is pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco (the home congregation of Vice President Kamala Harris).
Despite a turbulent personal life (and exaggerations about his business and academic track records), both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell anointed Walker as their chosen candidate to defeat Warnock. That general election race is polling close, with control of the Senate potentially hanging in the balance. But since Walker’s sporting a large lead in the GOP primary, he’s skipping debates in favor of supportive audiences at carefully-controlled events — like at predominately White megachurches.
These Sunday appearances give him a friendly venue to reach voters and even receive a pastoral endorsement. Thus, these services put congregations in violation of the IRS’s rules prohibiting tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits from engaging in partisan campaigns. Walker’s campaign didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Walker spoke on Jan. 23 at Free Chapel in Gainesville. The church’s pastor, Jentezen Franklin, served as a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council. Franklin told the congregation it was an “awesome, awesome honor” to have Walker there to discuss what’s “next on his agenda” as Walker runs for the Senate.
“We want you to know that we will be praying for you,” Franklin told Walker. “And if people want to know more about what you stand for, I know that you’re pro-life, I know that you’re pro-faith, I know that you’re pro-church, I know that you’re pro-freedom. And you love the military, you love the police, you love people who make a difference, and you love justice. And we honor you today. We’re thankful for you.”
Similarly, when Walker spoke on March 13 at Sugar Hill Church in Sugar Hill, Pastor Chuck Allen encouraged people to tweet something Walker said but to add “#SugarHillChurch #RunHerschelRun.” After noting various accomplishments of Walker, Allen added, “And now a man running for the U.S. Senate. Surely God had to of played such a significant part in your life.”
“This country needs some desperate change,” Allen added. “But it’s not about politics, it’s about faith. It’s about faith. It may play its way out in a political ballfield, but it’s about faith because at some point America’s got to get Jesus in the right priority if she’s ever going to be the country she was intended to be.”
Walker, whose comments during the service about evolution sparked a bit of controversy, similarly leaned into framing his candidacy in spiritual terms.
“Right now this country is hurting, this state of Georgia is hurting. So, what type of man would I be if I didn’t step up?” he explained. “I was in my home and I heard the Lord tell me this is what he’d prepared me to do. … Jesus Christ is going to Washington with me.”
As Walker tag-teamed with pastors to gain applause and likely votes, these moments not only advanced his candidacy but also the cultural and political agendas of the ministers. And that’s why there’s another Walker church appearance we need to spend more time exploring.
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