Mark Harris trades a pulpit for chance to take conservative principles to Washington

Republican Mark Harris was 14 when he got his baptism in politics: stuffing envelops in his hometown of Winston-Salem for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign.

Later he got to immerse himself in government at Boys State in Raleigh and Boys Nation in Washington. He went on to study political science at Appalachian State University with an eye on a future in politics. He was accepted to law school, traditionally a launching pad for such careers.

Then Harris took a quarter-century detour.

Shortly after graduating in 1987, he felt called to preach the Gospel. That began a ministerial career that would bring him to lead Charlotte’s First Baptist Church as well as North Carolina’s 4,300-church Baptist State Convention.

Now Harris has left the pulpit to run for Congress. After defeating incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the 9th District primary, he faces Democrat Dan McCready in November. It’s his third bid for office. He lost to Pittenger in the 2016 House primary and in 2014 lost a U.S. Senate primary.

“I’m in the place I’m supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to do,” Harris, 52, says of his latest campaign.

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His race is one of the most competitive in the country and one of the most watched. Campaigning for him in Charlotte this week, Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, said “the road to the (House) majority runs right through North Carolina.”

A staunch social conservative, Harris is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump. He’s pledged, if elected, to join the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Critics blast not only his politics but his worldview.

“Mark Harris is a rabid fundamentalist,” says the Rev. Ben Boswell, pastor of Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist church, a more liberal congregation. “I would go so far as to call him a Christian supremacist.”

Harris says his critics risk offending many people.

“I find it sad because I find it insulting to the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, who believe in the Bible,” he says. “There are a lot of people who believe the principles are timeless.”

Reaching out

At the pulpit and on the stump, Harris is an energetic speaker. His voice rises and falls in rhythmic cadences, from practiced stage whispers to fiery declarations. He’s had plenty of practice.

Even before he graduated from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest in 1991, he was called to lead a Baptist church in Clemmons. He left a decade later for historic Curtis Baptist in Augusta, Georgia. He came to Charlotte’s First Baptist in 2005 to co-pastor with the Rev. Charles Page, the longtime pastor who was battling cancer. Page died three months later. Harris took over and brought a more evangelical style.

The Rev. Joe Brown, former pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist, once described that style as “prophetic” compared to the more instructive approach of his predecessor. “A prophetic preacher is one who takes the Word of God and tries to apply it to everyday life,” he said in 2014. “A teacher lets you interpret it on your own.”

Like Harris, his supporters say being a pastor is good preparation for politics.

“Whatever issue, whatever pathology is facing the American people, the pastor of a church can put a human face on it because he’s dealt with it,” says Richard Land, president of Charlotte’s Southern Evangelical Seminary. “Mark strikes me as being the pastoral version of Billy Graham.”

Harold Medlock saw that side of Harris.

In 2007 he was a deputy Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief when two officers, Jeff Shelton and Sean Clark, were gunned down outside an apartment complex in east Charlotte. Not long afterward, Harris called. What would Medlock think of Harris holding services at the complex?

“I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea,” recalls Medlock, who attended First Baptist. “He did it anyway. . . He felt like somebody needed to reach out to that hurting community. He’s the consummate servant leader.”

‘Five rogue lawyers’

Even as a pastor, Harris has been politically active.

In the early 1990s he marched in Washington with James Dobson’s March for Life. He prayed at abortion clinics in Winston-Salem and Charlotte. He hosted candidates at First Baptist and at least once endorsed one from the pulpit.

On the day Harris was elected president of the Baptist State Convention in 2011, the body passed a resolution that would put him on statewide political stage. It was in support of a state constitutional amendment to reinforce the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. For months he helped lead the fight for the controversial amendment.

“Mark worked with the faith community across the state,” says Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition and chair of the amendment campaign. “He was easy to work with and a man of high character and high intellect. He also treated me and other women involved with the campaign with great respect and as equals.”

In 2012 the amendment passed with 61 percent of the vote.

But its success was short-lived. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Obergefell v Hodges, legalized same-sex marriage in a 5-4 vote. At a rally a few weeks later, Harris criticized the decision that nullified laws in North Carolina and other states.

“Five rogue lawyers on the U.S. Supreme Court say ‘no’ and suddenly the media is sweeping the county saying same sex marriage is the law of the land,” he told a Rally for Liberty.

“Any person who can read reads the Constitution knows that law is not made by the Supreme Court. Law is only made by the legislative branch, be it federal or state. What five judges did … they simply gave a majority opinion that same sex ceremonies should be legal and recognized.”

Asked about the comments, Harris says he recognizes that same-sex marriage is “exercised currently as the law.” But he maintains that laws are made by legislatures, not courts.

Bill Leonard, a former dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity who teaches about the denomination, says Harris epitomizes a decades-long shift in Southern Baptists.

“What Harris represents is this more hard-right understanding of the nature of religious engagement and political involvement in the country,” Leonard says. “In some ways Harris is reflecting the rightward movement of the Southern Baptist Convention as Republicans cultivated their evangelicals as a voting bloc and constituency.”

Women and the Bible

This summer Harris came under fire when national news outlets published excerpts from old sermons unearthed by a Democratic political action committee.

ABC News reported that in 2013 Harris questioned whether careers were “a healthy pursuit” for women. Later The Hill ran a story of a 2013 sermon in which Harris called on women to “submit” to their husbands. In a statement, McCready said Harris “is out of step with this district and this century.”

Harris defenders say the sermon passages were taken out of context. In part to counter the narrative, a group called Women for Mark Harris launched a bus tour of the district this week. Other women have stuck by him.

“It’s very frustrating to me because honestly nothing could be further than the truth,” says Marti Tidwell, who left a job in finance a decade ago to become Harris’s assistant and now directs First Baptist’s Women’s Ministry. “The irony of that is Mark actually encourages women to pursue their careers and utilize their gifts. Mark treated me not as an assistant but as a colleague.”

Harris lives with his wife Beth in southeast Charlotte. They have three grown children and assets of between $730,000 and $2 million, according to a financial disclosure report filed with the House.

Land, the seminary president, says Harris would treat his constituents like he does his church members.

“Nobody is a deplorable to Mark Harris,” Land said. “Everybody’s a somebody.”

Jim Morrill; 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill