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Just a handful of pastors sit in Congress. Raphael Warnock will boost their ranks

Incoming Georgia senator plans to keep preaching

Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock greets supporters during a campaign event in Atlanta in November.
Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock greets supporters during a campaign event in Atlanta in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“What do a senator and a pastor have in common?” Raphael Warnock tweeted last fall.

For him, the answer now is everything. When the newly elected Georgia Democrat takes the oath of office in the coming weeks, he will become one of just two ordained ministers in the Senate, joining Oklahoma Republican and fellow Baptist clergy member James Lankford.

On the House side, at least five lawmakers have worked as ministers, bringing the total in Congress to seven. 

Warnock will easily be the most prominent, thanks to his role as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Founded in the 1880s, the church was the spiritual home of both Martin Luther King Sr. and his son Martin Luther King Jr. Both father and son used their ministry to challenge segregation laws and advance civil rights.

“Long before I came to Ebenezer Church, I was inspired as a kid growing up in Savannah, Georgia, by Dr. King and his voice,” Warnock told MSNBC the day after his election. “I was just enamored by the ways in which he used his faith to bring people together to solve big problems in the public square.”

It’s a different path from Lankford’s ministry. Before Congress, he led the student ministry for the Baptist Convention of Oklahoma and was director of the Falls Creek Youth Camp, which has more than 50,000 attendees each summer.

As for the ministers in the House, the newest addition is Missouri freshman Cori Bush, who became a pastor of Kingdom Embassy International, a church she founded in 2011. Fellow Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II was pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and founded an organization that promotes interfaith dialogue. 

Warnock plans to keep preaching on Sunday mornings at his church while working as a senator. It will only help train him for the hardest parts of public office, he’s said in the past. 

“As a pastor, I’ve counseled people in tough times who government has forgotten. As senator, I’ll always be there for you,” he said when unveiling a campaign ad last summer, likening constituent outreach to working with congregants. 

And the training goes both ways. The Senate could really use a pastor, Warnock has said. “We are at an inflection point in American history,” he said last year, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There is a fundamental question about the character of our country and the soul of our nation. We are in a spiritual crisis.”

The double job title comes with a certain level of respect, according to Matthew Green, who chairs the politics department at Catholic University of America. “Members of the clergy often bring spiritual wisdom to the deliberations of Congress,” he said in an email to CQ Roll Call.

Other lawmakers have also remained involved in ministry. Lankford’s financial disclosures indicate he earned a little more than $11,000 across seven Oklahoma churches in 2019 for religious services. Warnock’s campaign did not immediately respond when asked if he would still collect a salary for preaching after being sworn in.

Senate rules permit members to earn outside income as long as it is not does not conflict with their official duties. And total outside earned income is subject to a limit, which is $29,595 in 2021.

While the contingent of ordained ministers in Congress is small, the number is entirely Protestant. There have been only two voting members of the Catholic clergy: Democratic Reps. Robert Drinan of Massachusetts, a Jesuit, and Robert Cornell of Wisconsin, a Norbertine priest. 

They served together in the 1970s, but Pope John Paul II declared in 1980 that no priest should run for public office, causing Drinan to retire in 1981 and forcing Cornell to abandon a comeback bid.

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