Jaime Harrison’s pragmatic faith and record funding have lifted a liberal contender in South Carolina

Harrison has run on a spiritual brand of politics that may feel alien to many of the Democrats from outside South Carolina who have provide him with unprecedented funding. 

(RNS) — Born to a 16-year-old mother and raised by his grandparents in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Jaime Harrison said his house “didn’t have money” when he was growing up.

But they did have church — specifically Orangeburg’s Shiloh Baptist, which his great-grandmother helped build and which Harrison said uplifted his family with a “hope that things would get better.” 

“My grandparents brought me up in the church,” Harrison told Religion News Service by phone on Tuesday (Oct. 27). “My grandma would often tell me, ‘Jaime, even though we are the least of these, you still have an obligation to take care of the least of these.’”

Harrison says he still carries the “weight” of that lesson — a spiritual approach that mixes community, hope and pragmatism — everywhere he goes. That includes the campaign trail: Harrison, a Democrat, has repeatedly made mention of his faith while campaigning for U.S. Senate this year against incumbent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

In fact, while national headlines have focused on Harrison’s record fundraising, much of which came from outside his deeply red state, religion has been a constant in his speeches and his campaign ads — including the video he used to launch his campaign — which often feature him quoting Scripture. They have stamped his campaign with a spiritual brand of politics that may feel alien to some Democrats who have funded his campaign, but right at home in the Palmetto State.

Harrison, a former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and onetime lobbyist, weaves his faith into discussions of everything from personal responsibility to the ongoing pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.

“I talk about faith quite often because it is a part of who I am,” Harrison said. “The foundation is my faith: my belief in helping others, taking care of the least of these, being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

Appeals to faith are common for politicians of both parties in South Carolina, where church attendance is almost a given. As of 2016, South Carolina was ranked the fifth-most-religious state in the country, with 70% of residents classified as “highly religious,” according to Pew Research.

Among the faithful are Black Protestants, who make up 19% of the state population as of 2015, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, and a sizable proportion of the state’s Democrats. Black voters in South Carolina, including many mobilized to vote by Black churches, are widely credited with providing Joe Biden with the 2020 South Carolina primary victory that catapulted him to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Harrison is careful to say that he has no interest in imposing his faith on others and believes in a “divide” between “religion and government.”

Jaime Harrison speaks at Nichols Chapel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina on February 23, 2020. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins,

But he’s equally quick to praise pastors and churches who provide community services and said he is often on Zoom calls with pastors to discuss efforts to aid communities hard hit by the pandemic.

He also argues government officials should partner with religious groups when appropriate: His campaign works with churches as part of his “Harrison Helps” initiative, an effort that embraces community service projects, such as providing school supplies for children and job interview training for adults.

“The Lord pushes us and teaches us that there’s some work that we have to do in order to get things to be better,” he said. “I tell folks, yes, I’m going to pray. At the same time, God gave me hands and feet to work, and to get it done.”

Harrison spoke about this approach to faith back in February, when he attended Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston. Asked to address the congregation, he invoked the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.’ My story is rooted in that same hope.” 

He then pivoted to one of his favorite Scripture passage: “The Bible has taught us that hope and faith alone are just not enough,” he said. “I’m talking about James chapter two, verse 26: ‘Faith without works is—’”

Before he could finish, members of the congregation shouted out the end of the line: “Dead!”

How far Harrison’s faith — and work — will take him on Election Day is an open question. Many polls place him in a statistical tie with Graham, but his prospects are still uncertain in South Carolina, a state that has not sent a Democratic senator to Washington in two decades.

But no matter what, Harrison says he hopes to be someone who “fights” for people like his grandmother.

“That’s what the Lord has taught us to do: be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper,” he said.