Ben Carson’s religion has been cast in a harsher light in recent days, as Donald Trump, whose support among evangelicals is falling, suggested that the doctor is not a mainstream Christian because he is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
Each time Ben Carson prepared to cut into a human brain, the neurosurgeon, who was the first to separate twins conjoined at the head, said a prayer. He would scrub his hands, close his eyes and ask for God’s help. “Lord, you be the neurosurgeon,” he has described himself thinking. “I’ll be the hands.”
Since packing up his scalpel and becoming a Republican presidential candidate, Carson has not shied away from talking about his Christian faith and sprinkling policy pronouncements with prayer as he travels the country talking to voters in his blunt but soft-spoken style.
So far it has worked — on the eve of Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate, he had overtaken Donald Trump in a new national poll of Republicans and was beating him in Iowa, the crucial caucus state.
Carson is the choice of 26 percent of Republican primary voters, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released Tuesday, while Trump now wins support from 22 percent, although the difference lies within the margin of sampling error.
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But Carson’s religion has been cast in a harsher light in recent days, as Trump, whose support among evangelicals is falling, suggested that the doctor is not a mainstream Christian because he is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
“I’m Presbyterian,” Trump proclaimed at a rally in Florida last Saturday. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about.”
In an election season where religion and politics have collided frequently, Carson’s faith remains a mystery to some and could prove to be both a strength and a liability as he moves forward.
It is not the first time that a leading Republican presidential contender has faced questions about how evangelical Protestants, who make up a large section of the party’s electorate, would view his religious beliefs. In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney had to explain to voters what it meant to be a Mormon, and despite losing the last election, he won nearly 80 percent of the evangelical vote.
The Adventist legacy is rooted in the 19th century and grew out of what was known as the “Great Disappointment.” Most followers consider its initial founder to be William Miller, a Baptist preacher from upstate New York who calculated that Jesus Christ was due to return to Earth on Oct. 22, 1844. When the savior failed to show up, the flock was left in a state of despair.
One of Miller’s followers, Ellen G. White, reconstituted the denomination under the doctrine that Christ had actually relocated to a heavenly sanctuary where he would begin judgment of the world. She was seen as a prophet.
Unlike members of other Christian denominations, Adventists honor the Sabbath on Saturdays instead of Sundays. They tend to be vegetarians and they continue to wait patiently for the Second Coming and the end of the world.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church counts more than 18 million members globally and 1.2 million in North America, but some skeptics see it as a sect out of touch with mainstream Christianity. While the church avoids involvement in politics, Carson’s emergence as a prominent political figure has presented an opportunity for it to gain credibility.
“We do not endorse any candidates and we do not use our church for political reasons,” Alex Bryant, secretary of the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said of Carson’s candidacy. “But we do look at it as an opportunity to tell the world, tell this country about Seventh-day Adventism, our beliefs, and our desire to lift up Jesus Christ.”
A twice-baptized Adventist, Carson has become one of the church’s biggest stars. In his autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” he recounts his mother’s conversion, which began in the ward of a mental hospital.
It was not until he was 14 that Carson became truly captured by his faith. Known for having a hot temper back then, the young Carson let a petty dispute turn into a tantrum that ended with his knifing a friend. The episode could have been deadly had it not been for a fortunately placed belt buckle that blocked his blade. From that time on, Carson prayed away his anger.
“My temper will never control me again,” Carson wrote in his book. “Never again. I’m free.”
Carson, who declined to be interviewed for this article, attends church regularly and taught Bible school at his Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland. Now that he is a politician, he speaks often about the role that God has played in his life, but he has tended to vary discussion of his religious beliefs depending on the venue.
During a 1999 interview with the Religion News Service, Carson said he was happy to attend other kinds of churches. “I spend just as much time in non-Seventh-day Adventist churches because I’m not convinced that the denomination is the most important thing,” he said. “I think it’s the relationship with God that’s most important.”
More recently, however, Carson made clear that he would always defend his Adventist beliefs against skeptics.
“I’m proud of the fact that I believe what God has said, and I’ve said many times that I’ll defend it before anyone,” Carson told the Adventist Report in 2013. “If they want to criticize the fact that I believe in a literal six-day creation, let’s have at it because I will poke all kinds of holes in what they believe.”
For theological reasons, Adventism has faced tensions with the Catholic and Baptist churches over the years. Last spring, Carson was invited to speak at a Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in Ohio but faced opposition because of his beliefs and eventually backed out.
“Dr. Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist,” a group of pastors from the Baptist organization B21 wrote in protest of his visit. “Their official theology denies the doctrine of hell in favor of annihilation,” they wrote, “and believes that those who worship on Sunday will bear the ‘mark of the beast.’ ”
The church has also had a strongly anti-Catholic strain, and when Carson decided to attend Pope Francis’ visit to Congress last month, Adventist message boards lit up with questions about his presence with the pontiff. Some questioned his referring to the pope as the “Holy Leader” and wondered, “How do such words come from the mouth of a Seventh-day Adventist?”
On the other hand, some Adventists have been disappointed in a perceived lack of tolerance regarding Islam from Carson, who said recently that he did not think a Muslim should be able to be president. His fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which he has compared to slavery, has also rankled some in the community who say that the law is in keeping with the religion’s focus on promoting health.
“It was certainly disappointing for me,” Sam Geli, a retired Adventist chaplain who considers himself an independent, said of Carson’s remarks about Muslims. “It was very sad.”
But will Carson’s religion affect his prospects with conservative evangelicals in places such as Iowa? So far it has not been a problem.
“I think a lot of evangelicals would say they would rather have a practicing Adventist than a nominal Presbyterian who doesn’t seem to have basic theological understanding about Christianity,” said Thomas Kidd, a professor of history and religion at Baylor University in Texas. “Even if he’s not an evangelical like us, he’s sort of a friendly fellow traveler in a way that Trump is not.”