As a Southern Baptist minister for over three decades, Mark Harris has delivered thousands of sermons, spoken at countless Christian rallies and helped lead a statewide campaign in defense of traditional marriage.
Now, as a candidate for Congress, the Charlotte Republican has found himself under fire for past comments, particularly about women and gay people.
National news outlets published excerpts from sermons in 2013 and 2014 in which he called on women to “submit” to their husbands. A liberal website posted a video of him declaring that America is “floundering in moral decay.” In an interview, his opponent, Democrat Dan McCready, attacked what he calls Harris’ “backward views.”
Harris, 55, calls such criticism a distraction from real issues in the 9th District.
“The bottom line is a lot of these are being used by the left to create distractions from issues facing America today,” he told the Observer this week. “They don’t want to talk about the economy. They don’t want to talk about (economic) growth.”
Harris won the GOP nomination in May with his primary upset of three-term Rep. Robert Pittenger. If he wins in November, he would join just a handful of ordained ministers in Congress.
Harris is running as a conservative, not as a pastor. But his long record provides fodder for critics, just as his pastoral experience and religious beliefs shape his views on policy and on the role of a congressman.
In North Carolina, few preachers have been more prominent.
In 2005 Harris was called to pastor uptown Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, one of the city’s oldest. He was elected president of the Baptist State Convention in 2011 and a year later helped lead the fight for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It passed overwhelmingly and was law until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage in 2015.
He says his experience as a pastor fits “hand in glove” with being in Congress.
“To be honest, as a pastor for 30 years, when you look at the social ills, or you look at the challenges we faces as a culture, I genuinely can put names and faces with every one of the issues we’re facing,” he said. “The pastor’s heart is genuinely caring about people. . . . That’s what we need in Congress.”
A consultant says Harris will take that message to voters.
“It’s not a secret that he’s a pastor, he’s not going to hide from that,” says Republican Jordan Shaw. “It’s a big part of who he is. He’s dedicated his life to helping people, and there’s not a thing wrong with telling that story.”
In a state where, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly two out of three people describe themselves as “highly religious,” both congressional candidates have reached out to voters where they worship. Neither shies from talking about their faith.
McCready, 35, is a member of Charlotte’s Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — the larger and more progressive of the two major Presbyterian denominations. A former Marine, he talks about how fellow servicemen helped him “find his Christian faith” in Iraq, where he was baptized in water from the Euphrates river. Like Harris, he has visited churches throughout the district.
As a Baptist, Harris shares a faith with a third of all North Carolinians who call themselves religious. His is the largest denomination in all but two counties in the district. He spoke in churches during his 2014 U.S. Senate campaign as well as a congressional race in 2016. In a sanctuary, he can slip into the rhythmic cadences of a preacher as he talks about his life and politics.
But not surprisingly, the candidates differ in basic beliefs.
Harris is an evangelical Christian who believes in a “Young Earth” theory that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. He disputes the findings of a majority of scientists who say the world is at least 4.5 billion years old.
“I think there’s a lot of issues with the dating,” Harris said this week. “And there are also bodies of scientists that also hold to a Young Earth theory. Do I believe in creation? Yes. And the creative hand of God? I do. That’s part of my faith and that’s what I believe. . . . I will continue to base my faith on the belief in Genesis.”
Harris says he values science and believes the answer to issues such as climate change is “just to be good stewards of the earth.”
McCready says he shares the general opinion of scientists that the earth is billions of years old.
On same-sex marriage, Harris says his views haven’t changed since the fight for the so-called marriage amendment. He believes that homosexuality is a sin and a choice.
“Everybody deserves equality under the law,” he says. “I do not think the government should have any place in our bedrooms.”
Critics have pounced on controversial statements Harris made in sermons earlier this decade.
ABC News first reported on a 2013 sermon in which Harris questioned whether a career was the “healthiest pursuit” for women. This month, Roll Call reported a 2014 sermon in which he cited Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that called on women to “submit” to their husbands.
“Well, what’s the message to the wives? Well, God instructs all Christian wives to submit to their husbands,” Harris said at the time, Roll Call reported.
Harris says the entire sermon dealt with mutual respect in families.
“It’s really mutual submission to one another,” he said. “Really, it’s just surrendering yourself to another. And it’s mutual.”
This month the liberal group Media Matters posted a video of Harris touting brochures published by the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. One featured information about so-called conversion therapy for gays and lesbians.
Harris is a strong supporter of Israel but says that “anyone who rejects Christ as their savior spends eternity separated from him.” McCready says while he believes “Christ is the way to salvation,” it’s “for God to decide, not me.”
Bill Leonard, former dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, says Harris represents “the very conservative element” that came to dominate the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years ago.
“They call it a ‘course correction,’ the moderates tended to call it a takeover,” says Leonard, who has taught about the denomination. “Harris was part of that rightward contingent that led in that change in the denomination.”
Richard Land, president of Charlotte’s Southern Evangelical Seminary, says Leonard is out of step with Southern Baptists.
“It’s fairly demonstrable that Mark Harris and I hold the views that are held by a significant majority of Southern Baptists,” he said. “Knowing that district, Mark’s opponents have to be somewhat careful about attacking Mark’s religious views because they are very typical of evangelicals in that district. And there are lots of evangelicals in that district.”
To McCready, Harris’ views are a throwback.
“People feel like these are ideas from the 1920s,” McCready says. “So I’m seeing a lot of concern from across the aisle.”
Shaw, the Harris consultant, says Harris’ beliefs shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“People respond to people who are genuine,” he says. “What you see from Dr. Harris is a guy who takes his faith seriously and who hasn’t shied away from that in public life. . . . He’s got an ability to talk about issues beyond where the media likes to put him.”
Harris suggested the criticism may actually help him.
“To be honest there’s been a lot of good fodder that came out over the last article,” he says. “’News flash — Baptist preacher preaches the Bible.’”