CHARLOTTE — A North Carolina-based advocacy group that works to expose religion-based bigotry and discrimination against LGBT people is asking the N.C. Baptist State Convention and its newly-elected president to explain why they have chosen a pro-LGBT company to handle their financial investments given the denomination’s penchant for anti-LGBT discrimination and exclusion.

Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, was elected to the convention’s presidency this week during their annual meeting in Greensboro. Delegates to the meeting also endorsed an impending anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment that would ban marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Rev. Mark Harris. Courtesy First Baptist Church.

Harris told The Charlotte Observer on Tuesday that he supports the ban and would be working with the convention and other pastors to see it passed by voters when considered on May 8, 2012.

Investment relationship questioned

A day after Harris’ election, Faith in America Executive Director Brent Childers issued a statement asking Harris and the convention to explain their affiliation with Graystone Consulting, a Morgan Stanley subsidiary. The convention’s foundation uses Graystone to manage its investment assets, valued at $128 million in December 2009.

Morgan Stanley has consistently held a perfect 100 score on a list of LGBT-friendly companies by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization. The company is also a corporate sponsor of the group.

Additionally, former Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, who currently serves as chairman of the company’s board of directors, has endorsed marriage for same-sex couples. In April, Mack, who has a gay son, was one of several signatories on a letter from New York businessmen in support of efforts there to extend marriage to gay families.

At the time, Mack told The New York Times that the issue was a “simple” matter of fairness. “I grew up in North Carolina,” Mack said. “I’m 66 years old. I grew up when there was segregation. It makes an impression on you.”

The difference in Morgan Stanley’s corporate record and the Baptist convention’s position statements show clear contradictions, Childers said. He points to the Baptists’ support of the anti-LGBT amendment and its strict ban on affiliating with churches that “knowingly act to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior,” a rule adopted into the convention’s articles of incorporation in 2006.

Southern Baptists also criticized

Faith in America is also criticizing the national Southern Baptist Convention and its financial entanglements with Merrill Lynch. The national denomination uses the company to manage its $179 million in foundation assets. Merrill Lynch is a subsidiary of the North Carolina-based Bank of America. Like Morgan Stanley, the Charlotte bank has consistently scored a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality rankings. Bank of America is also a major corporate sponsor of the national group and of local LGBT organizations, having sponsored the annual Pride Charlotte Festival for several years in a row.

Harris was chair of the convention committee that studied the 2006 articles change. At the time, he told the Baptist Press that no one had “sought out” the issue and that it would establish a “standard for the North Carolina Baptist Convention.”

Harris added, “No one sin is worse than another. As believers, we have a responsibility to stand against an agenda which is contrary to Scripture. Nothing would please me more than if this discussion was unnecessary. However, this convention must stand with courage.”

Childers isn’t holding back on the criticism.

“You cannot escape the hypocrisy,” Childers said. “Here is an anti-gay religious organization that tells its churches that they will be expelled from the convention if they affirm or support LGBT people. But yet when it comes to managing the tremendous financial blessing God has bestowed upon North Carolina Baptists, they turn to a company that not only affirms LGBT people and all their human dignity but whose top executive actively supports the fight for their equality, including marriage equality.”

Childers added, “What the N.C. Baptist Convention says is bad for its churches and members obviously isn’t bad for the convention.”

Officials with the N.C. Baptist State Convention declined to comment in response to Faith in America’s statements. They referred qnotes to officials with the North Carolina Baptist Foundation. Its president, Dr. Clay Warf, was out of the office on Thursday and a message left for Director of Development Bill Overby was not returned.

Harris: Homosexuality a choice

Harris also declined to comment directly in response to criticisms over the foundation’s investments. In an interview via telephone on Thursday, however, Harris explained his positions on LGBT equality and the impending anti-LGBT amendment.

“I believe the bible makes it clear,” he said. “The bible introduces marriage as between one man and one woman.”

Harris also said he believes homosexuality is a choice.

“I believe, if you read the book of Romans, the first chapter, you begin to understand homosexuality being a choice,” he explained. “It is a decision a person makes to give up natural relations for unnatural relations.”

Harris insisted he was speaking for himself only. “I’m not speaking for anyone in the North Carolina Baptist Convention,” he said. “Everyone certainly is free to have their own convictions.”

Harris’ opinion that sexual orientation is a choice differs significantly with other schools of thought within the Southern Baptist denomination.

In March, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler told The Christian Science Monitor that Baptists had engaged in homophobia and that sexual orientation was not a choice.

“We’ve lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia,” Mohler told writer Jonathan Merritt. “We’ve used the ‘choice’ language when it is clear that sexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice.”

Three months later, Mohler reiterated his position at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering in Phoenix, Ariz.

“But we as evangelicals have a very sad history in dealing with this issue,” Molher said, according to The Associated Baptist Press. “We have told not the truth, but we have told about half the truth. We’ve told the biblical truth, and that’s important, but we haven’t applied it in the biblical way.

“We have said to people that homosexuality is just a choice,” Mohler continued. “It’s clear that it’s more than a choice. That doesn’t mean it’s any less sinful, but it does mean it’s not something people can just turn on and turn off. We are not a gospel people unless we understand that only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ gives a homosexual person any hope of release from homosexuality.”

Though he differs with Mohler on the idea of choice in matters of sexual orientation, Harris does agree that the church has failed to live up to higher calls to service and care.

“I would agree without question there has been a failure in many cases of the church to reach out to individuals that are in the homosexual lifestyle — to reach out with love and with wanting to minister to them,” Harris said. “There are some folks that take a position that in no way, shape or form do they reach out and love the homosexual. I feel that is as un-biblical as it gets.”

Harris said the church should be willing to reach out with messages of repentance without sacrificing its standards.

“We should maintain our standards and biblical positions that we have held,” he said. “That means calling that person to repentance to come and receive forgiveness and to move into a different lifestyle that Christ would ordain.”

Still, Harris said there can be room for disagreement and debate.

“I think the beauty of living in America is that there’s always an opportunity for civil debate and discussion of any issue,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that I’ll be moved from my position and it doesn’t mean that the person I’m having a conversation with will be moved from their position.”

He added, “There’s no question that there’s a lot of emotion behind this type of issue. It’s always my hope and prayer that while there is a certain amount of emotion that we can demonstrate Christlikeness in really, truly just being open to people having conversation. You can still have conviction and still have a conversation.”

Harris’ term as president of the N.C. Baptist State Convention is for one year. He’ll be eligible for reelection at the convention’s annual meeting next November.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.