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Pastor wins congressional primary, concerned that ‘vitriol & anger’ not resonating with voters

WASHINGTON (BP) — Mark Walker’s transition from pastoral ministry to congressional candidacy was based on his concern about tone as much as substance.

Walker, who had served in multiple pastoral roles in Southern Baptist churches, gained a decisive upset July 15 in a runoff for the Republican nomination for the House of Representatives in North Carolina’s Sixth District.

The pro-life, pro-marriage conservative began contemplating a congressional run while he served as associate pastor of music and worship at Lawndale Baptist Church in Greensboro. Though concerned about the erosion of freedom facing his three children, he also was burdened about the way some communicated his party’s message.

“[A]s a Republican, I felt like we had reached the place where a lot of our message was shared with great vitriol and anger and rage, and it wasn’t resonating with people,” Walker told Baptist Press.

While he affirms the Republican platform, Walker said he “felt like there was a way to go and share that message that was much more palatable but also to share it with genuine compassion for our fellow man that hopefully is driven from a walk with Christ.”

Other Southern Baptist pastors also have sought seats in Congress this year:

— Jody Hice, who was pastor of The Summit Church in Loganville, Ga., until April, won the GOP nomination in Georgia’s 10th District primary July 22.

— Mark Harris, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., finished third in North Carolina’s Republican primary for the Senate in May.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma is seeking a Senate seat after serving in the House for four years. Lankford was the director of the Falls Creek Youth Camp for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma for 13 years before his election to the House.

Walker entered the primary race after serving Southern Baptist churches for about 15 years in such roles as executive pastor as well as lead pastor of a church plant.

Walker won 60 percent of the vote against the favorite at the start of the primary season, Phil Berger Jr., a county district attorney who had vastly greater financial resources and the support of the GOP establishment, including Rep. Howard Coble, who is retiring after 30 years in Congress.

Walker’s victory counts among some upsets or near-upsets of members of Congress or establishment-backed candidates in Republican primaries this year. The most notable was the failure of Rep. Eric Cantor, majority leader of the House of Representatives, to survive the primary in his bid for reelection in Virginia.

The primary results this year, a conservative leader told BP, indicate GOP voters have grown frustrated “with what had become a bipartisan consensus in Washington to grow government, restrict freedom and insult our values.”

“It is clear that Republican primary voters this cycle are looking for bold, reform-minded conservative candidates,” said Wes Goodman, an evangelical Christian and managing director of the Conservative Action Project, in an email interview.

“Even when ‘establishment’ candidates have prevailed in some primaries, by and large it has been because they have run away from the record and agenda of the political establishment in Washington, painted their conservative opponents as liberals and embraced some form of a conservative agenda,” Goodman said. “In other words, even a political establishment largely bereft of ideas is discovering that embracing a principled and courageous conservative agenda is a winning strategy.”

Walker’s primary win differs from the upset of Cantor, a social conservative in North Carolina told BP.

Walker and Berger have “almost identical views, especially on the issues that matter to us — life, marriage and religious liberty,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition and a trustee of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“I believe Mark Walker won because he was able to turn out his supporters,” Fitzgerald in an email interview, “and because of the negative campaign run by a super PAC,” Keep Conservatives United, which spent about $200,000 in support of Berger.

Walker’s “personality and charisma were a plus factor in the race and account for his broad support from the grassroots,” Fitzgerald said. His win proves “money is not always the recipe for success. Grassroots can still win the day when done effectively,” she said.

Fitzgerald predicted Walker will be a “very good” congressman if elected in November. “He is articulate; he understands the complexity of a myriad of issues; and he is a man who serves God first and foremost.”

Walker believes “you can make a case” that his win is part of a pattern in Republican primaries, but he thinks “it comes down to the individual race, the individual candidate and the platform.”

“So I don’t think there is a general rule, even though I think there’s a concept that people are tired of what’s gone on in Washington. The lack of Congress holding [President Obama and his administration] accountable has gone to a new height in frustration level. … And I think people are looking to send people who live and work and breathe in everyday life,” said Walker, who asserts he is “not a career politician obviously.”

Walker said he determined not to accept money from special interests, political action committees or lobbyists, raising about $330,000 in individual gifts in the process. How did he gain the victory?

“People are calling me all over the country asking that,” Walker said. “And without being too spiritually minded, I do believe that God just put His hand on this.”

He pointed to the “unprecedented” turnout for a second primary as support for his belief God “just saw fit to allow us to move forward.”

“When things happen that are unprecedented, or things that people have to say, ‘Well, that’s never happened before,’ it just provides such a great opportunity to give God the glory,” Walker said. “When you say a thing’s never happened before, there’s usually a supernatural reason behind it.”
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Scott Barkley, production editor of The Christian Index. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).