Local & State Voices

Mark Harris betrayed his moral high ground

Rev. Mark Harris was senior pastor at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church before stepping down to run for office.
Rev. Mark Harris was senior pastor at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church before stepping down to run for office. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

It was likened to a Greek tragedy. Rev. Mark Harris’ long quest for political office died this week when he decided not to run for the 9th Congressional District seat he thought he’d won last November. In reality, the quest ended when his son testified against him. But the real tragedy is not familial, it is that religious values have again been dragged through the mud, and that absolutely no one seems surprised that a self-proclaimed man of God lied for political gain.

We may never know whether Harris knew he was hiring a fraudster, because the hearing was cut short by Harris’s call for a new election. Harris was never fully cross-examined, and some witnesses were never called.

But it seems clear that, after the Board of Elections refused to certify his election because of allegations of fraud, Harris was less than honest when he publicly said he’d received no warnings before he hired the tarnished campaign operative, McCrae Dowless. Harris then riled up his base, saying allegations of fraud were smears by Democrats and the media. And Harris’s public call for a full, complete and transparent investigation now seems hypocritical since his lawyers withheld subpoenaed documents, prompting one board member to question the candor of Harris’s team.

It is clear that Bladen County elections have been riddled with fraud for years. Harris’s supporters will argue that Harris had to play the game or admit defeat; that it would have been unfair to hold him to a higher standard. But when Harris made his Christian values a centerpiece of his campaign, he explicitly called voters to a higher moral standard which he then failed to meet. His supporters, sadly, fail to see that. Even after the hearings, the North Carolina Values Coalition stated Harris was the only “innocent person” in the case.

Mark Harris’s case was, of course, many orders of magnitude less egregious than that of Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who campaigned on the Ten Commandments before multiple charges of child molestation became public. Moore lost the election but received 80 percent of the white evangelical vote, with some religious backers justifying his predilection for young girls with the Bible story of young Mary’s marriage to Joseph. That vote prompted conservative columnist George Will to write that evangelical backing of Moore and Trump had destroyed “Christian witness” for at least a generation, a comment which some Christian writers on Facebook seemed not to understand.

Evangelicals, disappointed by the policies of born-again presidents Carter and Bush, clearly now believe they must back candidates who will enact their agenda regardless of their moral failings. But it is one thing to accept their sins, and quite another to pretend they don’t exist. Evangelicals who overwhelmingly support President Trump don’t seem at all bothered by his prevarications. I’m surprised when my evangelical friend insists Trump doesn’t lie, he just speaks “prophetically.”

The tragedy here is that important values are tarnished by hypocritical proponents and their supporters. It is tragic because society could benefit from a bit more attention to the Ten Commandments. Who would argue that “you shall not give false testimony,” “you shall not steal” or “you shall love thy neighbor as yourself” couldn’t use a bit more airtime?

But one cannot preach about the moral high ground while occupying the moral low ground. That prompts an unquantifiable but real diminishing of respect for some of the principles about which Harris preached. And that’s an impact that will likely last long after a new congressional election is held.

Ervin is a former award-winning journalist for 60 Minutes and Nightline as well as a policy and budget analyst. Email: dana_ervin@fastmail.net