Editor’s note: Third in a series on how the careers of the Republican U.S. Senate candidates have prepared them for office.
The Rev. Mike Whitson was surprised when his friend and fellow pastor Mark Harris told him he planned to run for the U.S. Senate.
“Why would you step down from where you are to become a United States senator?” he asked him.
What some may consider a step down, Harris sees as another way of living his faith, and giving his flock a voice in public policy.
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That’s been his hallmark as pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and as president of North Carolina’s Baptist State Convention. Now he’s brought that blend of missionary zeal and conservative politics to his first campaign.
Harris, who turns 48 next week, is one of eight Republicans vying in the May 6 primary for the right to oppose Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. Though generally considered a top candidate, he’s struggled for traction. He barely cracked double digits in a recent poll.
But Harris is upbeat.
He began running his first TV ads last week. And his campaign is mobilizing a grassroots effort centered around Baptist churches throughout the state.
Last week more than 200 supporters, many in red and blue Harris T-shirts, packed a college auditorium in Winston-Salem. The energetic Harris, his voice rising and falling in the rhythmic cadences of a preacher, brought the crowd to cheers.
“No longer is it a pipe dream,” he said. “No longer is it a pie-in-the-sky vision. The reality is here. And ladies and gentlemen, we can win this race! We can win this race! And we can send a message to Washington, D.C. We can win this race!”
Leading Charlotte church
Harris is a Winston-Salem native, born in then-Baptist Hospital. He went on to major in political science at Appalachian State University and planned to enter law school in the fall of 1987. Instead, he found himself called to the ministry.
“It happened two weeks before my wedding,” he once said. “I told (Beth) that she was not marrying an attorney, she was marrying a preacher.”
After leading churches in Clemmons and Augusta, Ga., he came to Charlotte’s First Baptist in 2005 to co-pastor with the Rev. Charles Page, the popular, longtime pastor who was battling cancer. Page died three months later.
“It was an adjustment for me, it was an adjustment for the church,” Harris says.
Harris brought a more fiery, evangelical style to the uptown church.
“Mark is more of what we would call prophetic, where Charles was more a teacher,” says the Rev. Joe Brown, former pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist. “A prophetic preacher is one who takes the Word of God and tries to apply it to everyday life. A teacher … lets you interpret it on your own.”
Harris has steered the church through a sort of rebranding, identifying “what it means to be a downtown church” at a time when more people choose to worship where they live and downtown attracts a new generation and demographic.
Admirers call Harris a forceful speaker able to articulate a vision and build consensus.
“He’s very committed to things he believes in and able to engender trust and inspire support for others to follow him,” says Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews. “He’s a charismatic and strong leader.”
The marriage fight
Harris extended his reach through the Baptist State Convention, an organization with 4,300 churches and a $30 million budget. He was elected president in 2011.
During his tenure the convention continued a broad restructuring, even eliminating traditional campus ministers. But its most far-reaching effort came on the heels of a resolution passed the day Harris was elected: one endorsing a state constitutional amendment to reinforce the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Over the next few months, Harris helped lead the fight for the controversial amendment, raising money and speaking around the state.
When rhetoric on both sides grew heated, two ministers who opposed the amendment started a dialogue with Harris. They met twice but got no further. Harris said time ran out.
“He was gracious and we had open dialogue,” said Russ Dean, co-pastor of Park Road Baptist. “I was disappointed that we were unable to agree on a way to bring clergy together on an issue that was so divisive to our state and nation.”
The amendment passed in May 2012 with more than 60 percent of the vote.
“His leadership in the marriage amendment was the crowning jewel,” says Whitson, pastor of Indian Trail’s First Baptist church.
It wasn’t the first time Harris has waded into politics.
He invited former Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to speak at his church and even hosted GOP precinct meetings. He endorsed Supreme Court Justice candidate Paul Newby from the pulpit.
Though they’re all Republicans, he likes to point out that before the 2012 Democratic National Convention, he asked a New York Democrat to speak at a prayer service.
“I have felt it was critically important to have the church engaged in public policy,” Harris says. “Because we have to live by the laws and we ought to have a voice in what those laws say and how those laws are constructed. So I don’t apologize for the church having a seat at the table in the marketplace of ideas.”
With swept-back hair graying at the temples, Harris is engaging and affable. He’s conservative in his politics and worldview.
Like many Baptists, he believes in a literal reading of the Bible and rejects Darwin in favor of a “young Earth” theory that creation dates back less than 10,000 years.
On the campaign trail, he invokes Ronald Reagan in calling for small government and strong defense. He wants a balanced budget constitutional amendment and major changes to a “broken” Social Security system. He echoes Reagan in emphasizing traditional values on issues such as marriage and abortion.
“He reflects the rightward direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and its longtime connection with the Republican Party,” says the Rev. Bill Leonard, a professor of church history and Baptist studies at Wake Forest University. “Harris is another illustration of the decision of certain … ministers to move beyond the pulpit and into the realm of politics.”
Harris says faith guides his life and decisions, just as it did his decision to join the campaign. On that, Whitson was not surprised.
“I know he would never have done this,” he said, “had he not sensed this was something God had planned for his life.”