Raleigh, N.C. — As Mark Harris, the U.S. Senate candidate, has been reaching out for votes on the campaign stump, Mark Harris, the preacher, has been reaching out from the pulpit in churches around the state.
"Is it possible that a nation can fall so far, that a nation can lower its standards to such a level that it goes so low that it cannot rise again? Is that possible?" Harris boomed from the front of Kannapolis' Blackwelder Park Baptist Church in early January.
The sermon, the same one he has given at most of the churches where he has spoken this year, is based on Jeremiah Chapter 8 and speaks to why a nation is in decline.
Certainly, that religious message could resonate with a political campaign that has asserted that character and morals should play a part in who Republicans select to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan this fall. The question is how to keep those messages – and the offerings taken up in return for delivering them – separate.
"When I get up the preach often times, I'll get up and say, 'I realize the pastor when he introduced me said Mark is now running for U.S. Senate,'" Harris said Monday. "I always get up and say, 'That is true, and (my wife) Beth and I are on this journey, and if you want to talk with us afterwards, you're more than welcome to. But I've come here to do what I do, and that's the preach God's word.' And I did it just yesterday, three times on Sunday morning."
Harris is on leave from his own job at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, focusing full time on his campaign. He is among eight Republicans vying for the chance to take on Hagan. Polls suggest that Harris, along with state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary have the best chance of either winning the May 6 primary or surviving into a runoff primary this summer.
During a campaign event in Greensboro, Harris talked about that he could not separate who he was as a Christian and a preacher from who he would be as a U.S. senator and politician. Asked Monday if people should be concerned about politicking from the pulpit, Harris said that he was careful to not step over any legal lines.
"I would be concerned about politicking in the pulpit too, but that's not what we do," Harris said as he greeted voters outside the Wake County Board of Elections office, just to one side of a sign that marked the "no campaigning" zone.
That said, Harris points out that, as a pastor, even before he filed to run for office, he had tackled issues that were in the political realm. He was a leading voice, for example, on the 2012 campaign to amend North Carolina's constitution to ban gay marriage.
"I've spoken to those things the Bible deals clearly with, on issues of sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage," he said. "I think the Bible speaks to the issue of debt and the biblical principal of national debt and the gross immorality we're doing with $17.5 trillion of debt we're leaving on the backs of our children and grandchildren."
'Love' offerings or campaign donations
It is not uncommon for churches to take up collections for a traveling preacher, which can look much the same as when a candidate on a whistle-stop tour used to pass the hat for campaign funds. For a candidate who has to comply with state and federal campaign finance laws, this could be a dicey political line to trod. Churches are typically nonprofits that are not supposed to endorse or financially support candidates, and candidates are required to report donations when they pass the hat for their campaigns.
"I would hope the pastor would made it very clear that we're taking up a love offering for Mark Harris the pastor, not for the campaign," Harris said. "Some of these guys are very aware that I'm on a personal leave of absence without pay, and I have no income. So, should the church take up a love offering, that would be no different from them taking up a love offering when I was preaching revival there or preaching any other meeting." Mark Harris at Blackwelder Park Baptist Church
In the case of Harris' appearance at Blackwelder Park Baptist Church, that line seems to have been blurry. A video posted by the church of Harris' sermon shows how difficult it can be to separate the preacher from the politician.
"Now, I want you to do this also – we're going to take an offering, all right? We're going to take an offering for Dr. Harris, for his coming and preaching, also for whatever you want to do otherwise for supporting him in this campaign," Rev. Bill Saylor said. "I hope you will think about it. He has some materials in his car. If you would like to get more materials and pass them out and thereby get better known in this area, and then when the primaries come, you and all of your friends can vote for him. Amen?"
Calls placed to Blackwelder Park Baptist Church were not returned Monday.
Most churches like Blackwelder Park are 501(c)(3) organizations that are prohibited from directly advocating for the election of one particular candidate. Internal Revenue Service guidance to churches say the following:
"Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes."
Campaign finance experts said Harris and the churches to which he has been preaching could have stepped over that line.
"If it's in the context of referencing him as a candidate, that seems problematic," said Bob Phillips, director Common Cause of North Carolina, an organization that advocates for transparency in election fundraising and spending.
Even if the Blackwelder Park case or other occasions didn't break any laws, Phillips said it may have violated the spirit of tax and campaign rules.
"Would he have been invited had he not been a Senate candidate?" asked Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, another group that pushes for better campaign finance enforcement and laws that take money out of elections.
Harris said that he has long spoken to other congregations, but he acknowledged he has gotten more invitations this spring as other pastors learn he is on the road, speaking from one end of the state to the other.
A review of Harris' most recent campaign finance statement seems to show he has not reported any of the church offerings as campaign donations. Harris said Monday that the collections were not big sources of revenue for him.
"Some churches haven't given me anything, quite frankly," he said.
Other churches, he said, will give him a payment for his travel expenses. Others follow the old Baptist tradition of taking up an offering for the traveling preacher.
"Often time, to be honest with you, a love offering doesn't even cover my mileage," he said.