Charlotte mayor should heed pastor’s dangerous example

Editor's Note

What is the proper place of faith in civic life and politics? At what point does an individual’s faith begin to cloud their judgment or affect their ability to govern or represent the people they serve? These are questions I’ve been mulling over the past several weeks, particularly in response to two local leaders who seem to weave personal faith into significant portions of their public life.

The Rev. Mark Harris is pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church. Seemingly no longer happy with his role of moral and spiritual leader of his 1,100-plus member flock, he decided last year he would try his hand at politics. He’s been running against several opponents in the Republican primary for this year’s U.S. Senate race. Current North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis will likely be the winner of the primary, but Harris’ campaign presents troubling questions and concerns for North Carolina’s LGBT community.

Harris first dug his hands into the political dirt in late 2011, when he stepped up as a chief proponent of the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment barring recognition of same-sex marriage, civil unions and other relationships. That, alone, is enough to scare even the most conservative of LGBT Republicans (yes, they exist) from voting for Harris.

But, Harris has continued to skew further and further to the right as he cuddles up with some of the most extremist anti-LGBT organizations in the country. In January, Harris received an endorsement from Concerned Women for America — the same group whose founder has repeatedly equated homosexuality with pedophilia and whose former spokesmen have maligned LGBT people for decades. Additionally, Concerned Women for America is among a who’s who of far-right, hate groups monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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In February, Harris received another endorsement — this time from the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). The group’s affinity for Harris isn’t a surprise. NOM was the largest single donor to Harris’ anti-LGBT amendment campaign, after all. What’s most concerning, however, is NOM’s involvement in broader, global issues of LGBT equality.

I reached out to Mike Rusher, Harris’ campaign manager, for comment several times, but he’s yet to respond. Specifically, the public deserves to know if Harris shares the views of NOM President Brian Brown, who traveled to Russia last June at the invitation of the Russian Duma to advocate against LGBT equality there. Brown’s activism there no doubt contributed to the growing anti-LGBT animus in that nation. As a result, Russia has cracked down on LGBT individuals and has practically forbidden even the slightest public acknowledgment of LGBT people through its harsh “anti-propaganda” law.

Harris serves as a salient example of my concerns — a dangerous entanglement of religion and government. Should Harris make it through the primary and defeat incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, we can reasonably believe his service will be marked by continued anti-LGBT hostility and discrimination — all guided by a personal “faith” that says exclusion and discrimination are signs of God’s will.

Harris, unfortunately, isn’t alone. Even on the other side of the political spectrum, leaders often cozy up to those who have the least amount of care or concern for LGBT equality.

Last fall, qnotes decided against endorsing either of our city’s candidates for mayor. Though both Republican Edwin Peacock and Democrat Patrick Cannon seemed fully committed to equality in matters like employment, neither were willing to come out in favor of full legal equality for LGBT people, particularly as it relates to marriage.

Cannon, in particular, seemed all-too-comfortable with right-wing buzz words often used to describe gay people — using phrases like “practicing,” “exploring” or “engaging in” a “lifestyle” when describing LGBT people and their lives.

Cannon eventually won the mayoral race, and signs of his comfort with anti-LGBT sentiments were evident right from the start of his mayoral tenure. At Cannon’s swearing-in ceremony, Pastor Steven Furtick of the anti-gay, Southern Baptist Elevation Church delivered the closing prayer, doing so at Cannon’s invitation.

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The mayor has continued to involve Elevation and other faith groups. Recently, he announced the formation of a new mayoral interfaith advisory council. Elevation Church, again, took a primary seat at the table. While there are a diversity of congregations and traditions present — including the LGBT-affirming Temple Beth-El and Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church — I’m not entirely sure it ever crossed the mayor’s or his staff’s minds to reach out to Charlotte’s predominately-LGBT congregations. Neither the Rev. Catherine Houchins of Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte nor Bishop Tonyia Rawls of Sacred Souls Community Church had heard about the new interfaith council and say they had not seen an invitation to join.

So, I asked Cannon’s temporary chief of staff, Randy Harris, about inclusion of LGBT congregations, specifically if Mayor Cannon had intentionally reached out to LGBT churches. Harris responded after a couple inquiries with a short statement leaving, I believe, much to be desired.

“All faith-based entities are encouraged to participate,” Harris wrote. “As February was our first meeting, we look forward to seeing our numbers grow in the coming months. If you know of any who want to join, please have them contact the Mayor’s office at 704-336-3131.”

I’m hoping predominately-LGBT congregations in the area will join Cannon’s new interfaith group. In matters of faith and religion, it’s doubly important for LGBT people to have a place at the table and to be visibly and vocally present when voices of exclusion could have influence in local government and Charlotte’s civic life.

Let me be clear: I am a person of faith. My faith obviously informs a great deal of my personal beliefs and values. Yes, those beliefs and values inform my positions on matters of public policy. So, I would never deny any person the right to live their out faith, or lack thereof, in public ways; it’s one of the many things I love about calling this nation my home.

Yet, there is a fine line between using faith as a barometer of personal values and using faith as a basis for public policy and governance. Harris has already crossed that line, and I doubt there’s any way to change his views. I won’t even try. But, for Mayor Cannon, however, I hope he’ll take a little more time and effort to truly reach out to the LGBT community as he continues down the path of faith-inspired leadership in Charlotte. He’ll need to set an example of inclusion and affirmation and keep anti-gay churches like Elevation in check, long before they begin to exert influence on local public policy. : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

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