On the last Sunday before Election Day in the Georgia town of Hiram, local pastor Derek Berry told the faithful who had gathered before him that he would “ask the Lord to do something mighty this election season.”
The crowd quieted. The red “Run Herschel Run” hats came off.
“I pray in the name of Jesus, God, that Christians turn out all over the state of Georgia, all over the United States and that we vote our conscience and vote for the person that is the most like you, Lord,” Berry preached. “And I believe that is Herschel in the great state of Georgia.”
When Herschel Walker took the stage at the rally in his honor, he pledged that a vote for him would get them all to the promised land. He said that he and his opponent, Democratic Sen. Rafael Warnock, didn’t seem to be reading from the same Bible.
“I’m not that politician,” Walker said. “I’m that warrior for God, and I’ve been waiting to go up against this wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
A day later, on the eve of the election, Warnock was describing voting as a kind of prayer. The longtime pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who won a pivotal seat in the Senate in 2021, said that a person casting a ballot creates a covenant with a candidate.
“Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea,” Warnock boomed from a church parking lot in Columbus under a darkening, cloud-splotched sky. “This notion that each of us in our diverse and variegated humanity are in some ways sparks of the divine. We were created in the image of God.”
Walker then told the crowd that if they weren’t “given to that kind of God language, that’s fine.”
“Just put it this way,” he said. “We each have value.”
In the final days of the midterm elections, Walker and Warnock are not the only candidates on the campaign trail communicating through their faith. But in no other Senate race have the two leading candidates centered their pitches so fully around their relationships with God, and with such diverging visions of how that relationship connects to their politics.
It’s perhaps fitting that the Georgia Senate race would soar to such lofty heights. The spending has been similarly momentous; outside groups have spent upwards of $250 million on TV ads in the race, making Georgia’s contest one of the most expensive Senate contests this cycle. And few other races remain as competitive down to the wire, or have produced such drama.
Walker, a former football star who won the Heisman Trophy in the 1980s, has been beset with scandal. The list of allegations against the Republican include accusations of threats and stalking, of failing to publicly acknowledge his children, and of encouraging and funding two different women’s abortions despite once saying he supported no exceptions to abortion restrictions. His campaign has denied some allegations and remained silent on others, with Walker sharing his struggles with dissociative personality disorder and suggesting he has turned his life around, thanks, in part, to the Bible.
Through every bout of bad publicity, Walker has publicly leaned into his faith, while suggesting those trying to undermine him were less righteous. When he took the stage in Hiram, the first thing he did was acknowledge his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Then, he told a joke about a man who died and chose to go to Hell over Heaven because when he visited Hell, he saw his friends there having a party. But when he returned for good, it was hot, and people were screaming and crying.
“The guy said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, a couple hours ago, when I was here, there was a party going on,’” Walker said. “And Satan shows up, and says, ‘A couple hours ago, I was campaigning.’”
As the crowd’s laughter died down, Walker pivoted to his point. “I tell you that right now because my opponent, Senator Warnock, is campaigning.”
Warnock takes a more optimistic approach to wrapping his politics in his religion. He likes to say his faith guides his work. In the church parking lot Monday evening, he spoke about the “great spirit” of Columbus and recalled speaking in the city’s pulpits. He said that being a pastor taught him that serving people meant loving them, knowing them, and spending time with them, and that a pastor’s best lessons don’t present themselves in church, but in hospital rooms and cemeteries and court rooms.
“My faith is not, for me, a weapon,” Warnock says. “Too often in our country today, faith has been weaponized to demonstrate who’s in and who’s out. My faith for me is not a weapon, it’s a bridge.”
And yet, Warnock’s bridge doesn’t quite reach all the way over to Warnock, at least not in the throes of an intense, high-stakes election.
“I’m a pastor, so I believe in redemption,” Warnock says when he’s asked about Walker’s story of faith. “Here’s what I’ve learned about redemption: you have to repent.”
Despite the candidates’ focus on religion, it wasn’t always the main reason their supporters were there to see them. The voters who came to support Warnock in Columbus and at an earlier stop in Macon on Monday brought up his work to cap insulin costs far more than they brought up his career as a pastor. Many of them have family members who depend on the drug.
Sitting in a lawn chair Monday night, Verray Caldwell, a 79-year-old Vietnam veteran, says he likes Warnock because he’s genuine.
“He’s not one of those fake Christians,” Caldwell says. “He’s got an interest in people. And that’s that religious background he’s got. I’m a minister also. I’m a former pastor. So I like him because of the way he approached that.”
Warnock says he does not see the election as a contest between a typical Republican and a typical Democrat. He sees it as a fight between “right and wrong.” He considers Walker a flawed candidate. Many Republicans do, too. But in a tough national environment for Democrats, a redemption story and an “R” next to his name could be enough to push Walker over the edge.
Walker’s story of religious redemption is “very much targeted to his base,” says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
“The base includes white evangelicals,” she says, “And he’s rendering it in a pretty evangelical way, and talking about how those mistakes were part of his path.”
Mark Whittaker, who attended Walker’s rally, is a practicing Catholic who identifies as pro-life. He couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump in 2020, but couldn’t remember any Democrats he had voted for recently either. He said the revelations about Walker’s past weren’t a barrier to his support.
“Somebody may have said or done something ten, fifteen, thirty years ago, and we act as though it happened yesterday,” he says. “And he may be lying. I don’t know. Only him and God knows the truth …If he committed horrible acts, that should be addressed. But I don’t think it’s something that he’s run away from.”
In the final days before Tuesday’s moment of reckoning, Walker’s campaign was continuing to highlight his redemption as a major theme of his campaign. As Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, stumped for Walker on Sunday, she mocked critics who suggested that Walker’s background didn’t make him right for the job of Senator.
“Yes, he’s a great athlete,” she said. “Yes, he won a Heisman. But he’s a good person. He’s a good person who has been put through the ringer.”