DALTON, Ga. — When former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann — an erstwhile presidential hopeful and outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump — entered the sanctuary of Salem Baptist Church on Friday evening here, the audience rose to its feet.

She mounted the stage slightly hobbled by the walking cast she wore for a broken toe. Behind her was a red backdrop proclaiming “Biblical Citizenship Barnstorming Tour,” along with a back-lit Christian cross.

This small, north Georgia town of 35,000 — among the hills and straight-line pines that continue on to Tennessee — was the first stop on a weekend tour, intended to get out the conservative vote for next month’s runoff Senate election. The tour stopped at Eatonton on Saturday in the afternoon, hours before Trump held a rally in south Georgia at the Valdosta airport.

At stake are Jan. 5 runoff races for two Senate seats that will tip the chamber to either Republican or Democratic control and determine whether President-elect Joe Biden will work with a politically unified or divided Congress when he takes office. It pits incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue against the Democratic challengers the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.

A woman sings along at a WallBuilders Live Barnstorming Tour event at Salem Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., Dec. 4, 2020. | Chris Aluka Berry, for the Deseret News

“The whole world is looking at Georgia right now because everyone recognizes this is it. This is the zero hour,” Bachmann proclaimed to a crowd of hundreds — some came from as far as Missouri, North Dakota and Washington, D.C., in a pink bus sponsored by the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee — that responded with occasional shouts of “Amen!” and “That’s right!”

She called her home state of Minnesota “one of the worst this year” when it comes to “voter fraud.”

“In my state we have (Democrat) Ilhan Omar ... as the member of Congress in Minneapolis,” she said, and the scattered amens became a few boos. “And so of course like so many states there were more votes than there were people. So that should be a clue.”  

Her voice rising, she continued, “From the legal point of view, from the moral point of view, America is not on board with Joe Biden as the next president of the United States,” she paused for applause. 

Bachmann then infused faith into unfounded claims that the presidential election was illegitimate and rife with fraud.

“Why would we be like drones, chumps and fools to go along with this? I’ll tell you why we won’t” — she then stood — “The reason why we won’t is because this is the magnificent society!” she cried. “In all of world history there has never been a nation like the United States of America. Do you know we began out of a prayer meeting?” Bachmann asked, referring to the Pilgrims. “It was people who came to Jesus Christ. … It was a wild revival movement.” 

She said on the 400th anniversary this year of the Pilgrims landing at Cape Cod “Satan was snatching away from America rule by the consent of the governed, in other words, stealing from us our right to vote.”

Her voice rising into a shout, she continued, “I am highly offended, insulted, angry and I’m not going to stand for the fact that my vote was stolen.” 

The crowd rose — their cheering, clapping, whistling punctuated by a hearty “Amen!”

Attorney General William Barr, a strong Trump defender, said last week that he has “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” But that hasn’t stopped the rallies and the claims leading up to the January Georgia election.

“Hence, Georgia. Hence, Georgia,” Bachmann said. “We have got to have those two Senate seats in Georgia. And that’s why the church is so important because you get truth, you get the importance of the word of God.”

“In this Baptist church tonight, we’re gonna cry out to the holy God of the universe … who can deliver and we’re gonna ask him for those two Senate seats and we’re gonna ask him for a second term for Donald J. Trump!” 

As she sat down the cheering crowd leapt to its feet. 

People sit in the balcony at a WallBuilders Live Barnstorming Tour event at Salem Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., Dec. 4, 2020. | Chris Aluka Berry, for the Deseret News

Before the event closed with a prayer, Bachmann and local organizers and sponsors of the event detailed ways to get out the vote: registering, talking to friends, making sure they have a voting plan, following up, taking people to the polls if need be. 

The Constitution and the Bible

From Friday’s revival-like meeting to the Rev. Warnock’s candidacy, faith is front and center in the Senate runoff campaigns in Georgia. Religion is so omnipresent that some observers liken the Loeffler-Warnock race to a theological contest, appealing to voters’ deeply-held religious beliefs to turn out support.

Those who attended the barnstorming tour at Salem Baptist Church were inclined to agree. 

Susan Rubin, a 50-year-old nurse and mother of two who lives in nearby Canton, said that while she is voting for Republican Sens. Loeffler and David Perdue, she wasn’t voting based on political parties. It’s about which side “aligns with Biblical values.”  

Rubin, who was raised Catholic but now attends a nondenominational church, is leading a women’s Bible study group under the banner, “Biblical studies during the election.” 

She says that all the women in her group are Republican and that they’re also discussing the Constitution.  

“It’s not the Constitution and the Bible,” Rubin says, holding her hands apart to represent two separate texts. “They’re like this,” she clasps her hands together, as though in prayer. The Constitution, she said, is “God inspired.” 

The candidacy of the Rev. Warnock confounds her, however.  

“That is the question, that is the question,” Rubin answers. “I don’t understand how he can be a minister and know the same God that I know and think that abortion is OK.”  

According to Rev. Warnock’s campaign website, the candidate “believes in a woman’s right to choose and that it is a decision between her and her doctor – not the government.”

Asked if there is a difference between being supportive of abortion rights and believing that “abortion is OK,” Rubin responded, “I don’t know how there is a difference.”

Kevin Jones, a 51-year-old contractor from Chatsworth, Georgia, also says that he doesn’t cast his vote by party but because of “the Christian principles that the Republican party is based on.” Of particular importance to him is “religious liberty,” he said, “the foundation that the Constitution is based upon.” 

Jones said that Christians are “being persecuted against and our liberties are being taken away,” Jones says, adding, “I compare politics to a battle between good and evil.” 

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Religious and racial undertones

The Rev. Warnock is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the late civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presided. And observers say that rather than separating his role as a politician from his ministering, the Rev. Warnock is campaigning as a pastor.

His politics, supporters say, are inextricable from his Christian values. And his theology is exactly what Loeffler’s campaign and evangelicals more broadly are calling into question, says Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. 

“Religion is certainly being deployed in this election,” Gillespie remarks. “What we are witnessing is a clash of different Christian traditions — not so much in the Perdue-Ossoff runoff, but in the Warnock-Loeffler runoff. What you have is Loeffler trying to prime white evangelical voters by challenging the Black liberation theology of Raphael Warnock.” 

Black liberation theology holds that nonwhites are oppressed and that Christianity can play a key role in fostering racial equality.

Gillespie sees Loeffler’s campaign as an attempt to mobilize the Republican voter base by appealing to Christian voters who supported Biden in the presidential election because they didn’t like Trump but they have no conflict with the GOP’s senatorial candidates, Gillespie says. 

“What she was trying to do is portray Warnock as unpatriotic and un-American and portray him as a radical and use religious sentiment to do it,” Gillespie says. 

In fact, Loeffler’s campaign includes a website: radicalraphael.com that names the Rev. Warnock “The Most Radical and Dangerous Candidate in America.”  

While religion is being deployed in the messaging, Gillespie says, “the racial undertones” of Loeffler’s campaign are “also unmistakable.”

“Evangelicalism is a code for white evangelicals,” says the Rev. Dr. Dwight D. Andrews, leader of First Congregational Church — a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta. He also points out that Loeffler’s campaign is not only portraying the Rev. Warnock as a radical but that the depiction dovetails with “all the tropes of Black men — that they’re dangerous and untrustworthy.” 

As of late Saturday, the Deseret News had not received a reply for comment from Loeffler’s campaign regarding accusations of racist messaging.

Racial and religious undertones are also a part of the runoff between Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish.

Observers point to an ad run by Perdue’s campaign — in which Ossoff was depicted with an enlarged nose, an anti-Semitic caricature — as evidence that the fight for the Senate seats are about race and identity. Perdue’s campaign pulled the ad, calling the enlarged nose “accidental,” according to a statement quoted by The New York Times.

“Anybody who implies that this was anything other than an inadvertent error is intentionally misrepresenting Senator Perdue’s strong and consistent record of standing firmly against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate,” the statement said.

Numerous Jewish organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women, have been working in Georgia to get out both the Jewish and non-Jewish vote. Michael Rosenzweig, a board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America — an organization that has endorsed both Ossoff and the Rev. Warnock — says, “We identify and endorse and then try to get elected candidates that embrace traditional Jewish values and Democratic party values, recognizing that there’s a lot of overlap in those two sets of values.”

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‘The promise of America’

The Rev. Andrews says he is taking a nonpartisan approach to getting “the souls to the polls” — a strategy many churches across the ideological spectrum have embraced to encourage voter engagement, he says. 

“My take on this important race is that it will be determined by who comes to vote,” he said. “What has changed a lot in Georgia in the last several years is that there has been a great and concerted effort to engage more voters — younger voters, voters of color — and that has played a key role.”  

The New Georgia Project is widely credited as having been instrumental in that broadening of participation in the election process and in support of Democrats. While the project is secular, it is rooted in faith, explains attorney and pastor Francys Johnson — a former president of the Georgia NAACP and chairman of the project.  

Looking only to events that are happening inside of the church framework might offer a misleading picture of which way Georgia will go on Jan. 5, Johnson adds.

Members of the audience listen as former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann speaks at a WallBuilders Live Barnstorming Tour event at Salem Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., Dec. 4, 2020. | Chris Aluka Berry, for the Deseret News

“Our work has not just been the traditional ‘Let’s pair with churches and their leaders,’” he explains. “The electorate — many Black and brown people — are suspicious of institutions and those institutions include the church.”   

He emphasizes that distrust doesn’t mean these people aren’t faithful.

The Rev. Johnson reflects that, on the whole, “This election is about lifting the pain and the promise of America — it is a faithful dialogue about whether America will live up to all that she can be.” 

“America is an experiment; America is an idea,” he adds. “And faith to that idea is shown … when we go to the altar that is the ballot box.”