Senate candidate's interview with Baptist paper draws criticism

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)--The leading Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida is being criticized for comments she made to the Baptist state newspaper.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R.-Fla., who is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, told the Florida Baptist Witness that the separation of church and state is "a lie" and that Baptists must work to elect more Christians in order to battle immorality.

"[I]f you’re not electing Christians then in essence you are going to legislate sin," she told the newspaper. "They can legislate sin. They can say that abortion is alright. They can vote to sustain gay marriage."

Harris also bemoaned the notion that Christians have come to believe they should "avoid politics."

"[T]hat is so wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers," she said. "And if we are the ones not actively involved in electing those godly men and women and if people aren’t involved in helping godly men in getting elected then we’re going to have a nation of secular laws. That’s not what our Founding Fathers intended and that’s certainly isn’t what God intended."

Harris' comments were picked up by the Associated Press and reported in media outlets nationwide, including The Washington Post, CNN.com and FoxNews.com. Two of her opponents in the Sept. 5 primary also criticized her, as did U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D.-Fla., who told the Orland Sentinel she was "disgusted" by the remarks.

One of her GOP primary opponents, Will McBride, told the Sentinel, "I'm a Christian, and I'm a Republican and I don't share her views."

Harris' campaign issued a clarification Aug. 26, saying she "was speaking to a Christian audience, addressing a common misperception that people of faith should not be actively involved in government." The statement also said Harris, in the interview, was explaining "her deep grounding in Judeo-Christian values."

Her campaign manager, Bryan Rudnick, said, "As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I know that she encourages people of all faiths to engage in government so that our country can continue to thrive on the principles set forth by our Founding Fathers, without malice towards anyone."

Harris has led in recent primary election polling, although she trails Nelson in general election polls by 20-30 points. Two of her GOP opponents in the primary, McBride and LeRoy Collins, also granted interviews to the Witness. Both expressed pro-family views but neither was as outspoken as Harris. The Witness also interviewed three of the gubernatorial candidates -- Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher and Democrat Rod Smith.

Few have questioned Harris' conservative credentials. She told the Florida Baptist Witness that she supports the federal Marriage Protection Amendment, believes "life begins at conception" and supported Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to try and keep Terri Schiavo, the much-publicized disabled woman, alive. Harris also said she is "adamantly opposed" to embryonic stem cell research.

"We’ve had enormous successes with nasal cells, other things in terms of adult stem cell research as well as cord blood," she told the newspaper. "There are no successes for embryonic. That is why the private sector is not involved and there is no justification for taking a live embryo and destroying it."

She said she attends Calvary Chapel in Sarasota, Fla., and has a "strong heritage" spiritually -- her grandfather was a missionary to Africa and her aunt and uncle head up a Christian ministry. Her brother-in-law is Christian singer Wes King. In addition, she said she studied at L'Abris under Francis Schaeffer.

Asked what she would say if God were to ask, "Why should I let you into my heaven?" Harris said, "Because I loved Your Son and because I know He died for my sins. I know He was resurrected at Your right hand and I served Him."

James A. Smith Sr., executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, said reporters have tried to get him to say whether he agrees with Harris.

"I have consistently said it's irrelevant what I think -- I'm not the story, Harris is," Smith told Baptist Press. "We ran the interviews in a Q&A format so that there was no interpretation on our part -- here are the questions and here are the answers. This approach permits unfiltered access to the candidates' views so readers can decide for themselves what they think about the candidates' views.

"All the candidates were asked the same questions, with minor variations in follow-ups. The questions were on subject matter that we believe our readers are particularly interested in and, in some cases, questions no other news media outlet would ask candidates for political office," Smith said.


To read the entire interview with Katherine Harris and the other candidates, visit http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/2006primary.fbw.

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