By Jim Morrill and Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer
Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who faces a Baptist minister in next year’s primary, is airing a new TV ad urging people to put “Christ back in Christmas.”
“I’ve dedicated my life to sharing God’s love through Jesus Christ,” Pittenger says, standing in front of a Christmas tree and fireplace. “Let’s end political correctness and put the true meaning of Christ back in Christmas.”
Pittenger faces a primary rematch with Rev. Mark Harris, former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church. He beat Harris by 134 votes in last year’s 9th District GOP primary.
While Pittenger has invoked religion in campaigns before, it’s unusual for any candidate to make such a direct religious appeal.
But in 2016, Harris tapped his evangelical base in winning the support of many primary voters. He won two of the district’s eight counties and finished second to a third candidate, Todd Johnson, in five others. Pittenger won the primary thanks to his support in Mecklenburg County.
In last year’s contest, Pittenger aired an ad on WBT-AM and on Christian radio stations touting his “deep Christian faith” and his record as “a conservative standing up for pro-family values.”
Pittenger’s latest ad comes a month before Christmas and six months before the May primary.
“It says he knows he’s got his work cut out for him, and he learned his lesson from last cycle’s race,” said David Wasserman, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
Harris spokesman Andy Yates said don’t expect Harris, a former president of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, to run ads emphasizing his faith. As head of the Baptist group, Harris was a high-profile leader in the 2012 campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. This month former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, himself a former Baptist minister, came to Charlotte to campaign for Harris.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have to run a TV ad to say ‘Mark Harris is a Christian’ or to remind people that he believes Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ,” Yates said.
Rabbi Yossi Groner of Ohr HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish community in south Charlotte, said he is not offended when Christians wish each other “Merry Christmas.”
But he said Pittenger’s comment in a press release touting the new ad needs clarification. In that press release, the congressman says it’s his “privilege … to help inspire every American to proclaim Merry Christmas.”
“When (he) says ‘every American should say Merry Christmas,’ the fact is that every American is not Christian,” said Groner, whose synagogue of 150 families is in Pittenger’s district. “America is not a Christian country. It is a country that embraces all faiths. That’s very clear.”
Pittenger, a member of Charlotte’s Forest Hill church, has strong ties to evangelicals.
As a student at the University of Texas, he went to a speech by Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ, and went on to work for him for a decade. In 1975 he helped Bright start the Christian Embassy whose goal was “evangelizing official Washington.”
Since then Pittenger has traveled to Moscow and Guatemala with Franklin Graham on outreach missions for Samaritan’s Purse. In 2013, weeks after Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, Pittenger gave all 535 members of Congress a copy of “The Cross,” a video featuring Graham calling for a spiritual reawakening.
Two years ago, Pittenger’s campaign circulated in churches an online slideshow featuring contemporary Christian music star Michael W. Smith. And last year, Pittenger traveled to Germany to meet with Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor released by Iran after three years in prison. The congressman worked for more than two years, along with Franklin Graham and others, to secure Abedini’s freedom.
In the new TV ad, Pittenger cast himself not only as a defender of Christian values but a foe of political correctness.
“I’ve dedicated my life to sharing God’s love through Jesus Christ,” Pittenger says in the TV ad. “Let’s end political correctness and put the true meaning of Christ back in Christmas.”
At least two Democrats – Christian Cano and Dan McCready – also have announced in the district that stretches east from Charlotte to Robeson County.