Committing voter fraud is easy in North Carolina, according to the state’s lieutenant governor. Recent revelations about the handling of absentee ballots by a paid criminal operative of Charlotte-area pastor-turned politician Mark Harris could prove it’s even easier.
Last month, Rev. Harris — a member of the 2016 SBC Resolutions Committee that originally sought to recognize the Confederate Flag as an “emblem” of honor and valor before convention messengers supplanted the insensitive language with a call to “discontinue” the flag’s display altogether — bested his 9th Congressional District Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by a mere 905 votes. Harris previously defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger by only 825 votes in the party primary.
He was defeated four years ago in the state’s Republican primary, coming third place with a mere 17 percent of the vote. Eventually, Harris shaved his mustache and resigned his church to devote his full energies to winning a seat in Congress. His chances of securing the election outright faltered earlier this year when old sermons came to light in which Harris called for female submission and questioned the propriety of women working outside the home.
Nevertheless, it is not Harris’s views on women that have threatened his political ascent. Recent history informs us that a candidate for public office can openly denigrate women with little electoral backlash.
The problem for Harris is the increasingly likelihood that his campaign knowingly employed a convicted felon to lead balloting efforts in a rural North Carolina county. The case against Harris is fairly strong, and the State Board of Elections has refused to certify the results.
In one instance, a set of 161 ballots showed the same nine people signed at least 10 ballots each. Another three witnesses signed more than 40 ballots each, and another signed 30, according to one document review. In an affidavit submitted this month, one North Carolina voter claims to have overheard that Harris would pay a $40,000 bonus to his felonious employee if he won the election.
The situation gets even muckier: in Bladen County, 495 requested absentee ballots were never returned; in Robeson County, 1,180 never made it back. These return rates — 40 percent and 62 percent, respectively — are two and three times higher than the state average. The GOP-controlled state legislature made an attempt this week that would allow them to bounce Harris from the ballot if a new election occurs. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the measure, but the State Senate overrode that veto on Tuesday. It now goes to the house for an override vote.
North Carolinians may be running from Harris in search of a more palatable, less paleolithic conservative standard-bearer.
Doubtlessly, Harris’s views rubbed some North Carolina voters the wrong way. At the very least, they saw him as a polyester preacher hawking misogynistic anachronisms. At the worst, they think he’s a fraud.
And herein is one of the problems with Harris: the Baptist Faith & Message is not a statement of public policy; it is a statement of faith. It is not a political platform; it is a confessional framework.
Too often when preachers turn to politics they fail to understand these nuances. The same is true on the Left as it is for the Right. Even more disconcerting is the thought of what clumsy theological articulations the First Baptist Church of Charlotte — once the pulpit of the irenic, though avowedly conservative pastor Charles Page — might have endured while its pastor tinkered with the notion of public office.
The circumstances surrounding the congressional campaign of Mark Harris are a black eye for North Carolina Republicans and a national embarrassment. Hopefully, it is a reminder to Southern Baptists to be extraordinarily cautious about whom they choose to serve as their pastors, or their convention leaders for that matter.
And hopefully, there are some Southern Baptist theologians thinking through the ramifications of elevating eccentric anthropologies to equal confessional importance with Christological orthodoxy. It should bother every thinking Southern Baptist that the world knows more about their views on women’s roles than what they believe about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Mark Harris hasn’t helped that problem either from his pulpit or on the political stump.