Politics

Ben Carson’s faith is not likely to turn off evangelicals

Republican candidate Ben Carson prayed during church services in Des Moines, Iowa.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Republican candidate Ben Carson prayed during church services in Des Moines, Iowa.

And on the seventh day, Donald Trump played the religion card.

The freewheeling frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, now in a dead heat with -- or by some measures eclipsed by -- rival Ben Carson, recently stirred the primary pot to a boil again by pointing out Carson’s membership in the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Trump, who’s fighting it out with the rest of the field for the support of Christian conservative and evangelical Republican voters, told Florida backers at a rally Oct. 24 that he’s a nice, relatable Presbyterian, but as for Carson, “I mean, Seventh Day Adventist, I don’t know about.”

Advertisement

If Trump was trying a subliminal scare tactic by dropping a hint about Carson’s faith, Iowa State University Professor Steffen Schmidt doesn’t think early voting Hawkeye state caucusgoers will bite.

Get Today in Politics in your inbox:
A digest of the top political stories from the Globe, sent to your inbox Monday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“I’m not sure [Carson] will lose even one supporter. The reason is that he is a long-standing, known factor in the evangelical world. His book or books have been used by faith-based home schoolers for a long time, and they love him,” Schmidt says of the candidate, whose writings use his own journey from impoverished, troubled child to renowned neurosurgeon as an inspirational example of the power of hard work and religious faith.

“The ones on board with Carson love him, always have, [and] will not leave him.”

Also brushing off Trump’s faith-based foray: Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based group which promotes “Christ-like leadership in the home, the church, and the government” and will host a GOP candidate forum in Des Moines on Nov. 20.

Simply, “This hasn’t been an issue in Iowa,” he told the Globe.

Advertisement

The faith, which counts cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg among its earliest adherents of note, claims 1.2 million believers in the U.S. and more than 18 million worldwide, as well as leadership of America’s second-largest health care and parochial education systems.

The heightened interest in Carson’s religion has spurred his spiritual home to action: On Friday, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America announced the launch of a new website, WhoAreAdventists.org.

The page doesn’t mention Carson by name -- and specifically says the church “doesn’t seek to influence political and civil leaders for the purpose of advancing the Adventist faith or inhibiting the faith of others.”

Carson, who speaks frequently about his faith, is certainly not the only presidential hopeful to face questions or dropped hints about his religion.

The GOP’s 2012 nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, was viewed with suspicion by some voters who considered his Mormon faith -- as some do Carson’s -- anything from a corruption of church teachings to an actual cult.

Advertisement

The pressures and prodding finally led Romney, during his first Oval Office bid, to face the chatter directly by delivering a sweeping address on religious freedom.

In that speech, delivered at the Bush Library in Texas, Romney said inquiries about faith were fair game: “Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are.”

Even as he unequivocally cleaved to his own Mormon beliefs, Romney made clear that he would separate his own church and state as president.

“There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution,” he warned.

Romney, who declined through a spokeswoman to address Trump’s tactics, reprised the argument more recently in a September tweet: “Of course, no religious test for the presidency--every faith adds to our national character.”

Romney and Carson -- who leads Trump strongly among evangelical voters in the latest CBS/New York Times poll of the GOP field -- may both have faced questions about their faith, but their positions may not be on quite the same plane from a theological standpoint.

“When Romney was running for president, most evangelicals recognized that Mormonism was considered a separate religion from Christianity,” says David Brody, chief political correspondent with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

“With Seventh Day Adventism, it’s widely seen as another denomination within the Christian faith, so it doesn’t have the same high hurdle as Mormonism. Therefore, I don’t anticipate Dr. Carson going through the same drill that Romney had to go through.”

Dan Weber, the Seventh Day Adventist church’s communications director, says since Trump brought Carson’s faith into the limelight, “We’re looking at his as a simple opportunity to answer the question he asked: Who are Adventists? If it’s a way for people to find out more about what we believe and who we are, even better.”

The Adventist Church formally became a denomination in 1863, about two decades after what was known as the “Great Disappointment” -- the failure of Jesus Christ to return in 1840s as leaders of the movement had predicted and preached.

Adventism identifies as a form of Protestantism. It is set apart from other Christian sects by adherents’ observance of the Sabbath on Saturday -- the “seventh day” set aside for rest, as described in the Bible account of the earth’s creation -- versus Sunday.

Per their website, “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures” -- 28, to be exact.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been criticized by adherents of other branches of Christianity as a fringe group, and the discord has extended to the 2016 contest.

For example, an April posting on the website of the group Baptist 21 questioning Carson’s potential attendance at the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference said, in part, that Adventism “denies the doctrine of Hell in favor of annihilation” and “believes that those who worship on Sunday will bear the ‘mark of the beast.’”

A campaign representative for Trump, who has said the candidate was not denigrating Carson’s religious beliefs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Biblical battle.

But Carson Campaign Manager Barry Bennett predicts Trump will be losing his dropping religion-themed rhetoric.

“He’s in a new and somewhat uncomfortable position, but I don’t expect him to do this anymore,” he says of Trump.

“I think he found out that it was a pretty hot issue, but the bottom line is Donald Trump’s family Bible and Ben Carson’s family Bible are the same Bible,” he continues.

“They may have the Sabbath on different days, but they are both Christians, and they both have a Bible-based theology.”

Follow Globe correspondent Celeste Katz @CelesteKatzNYC.