The boost evangelical voters gave Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson in the polls this week — catapulting him for the first time to a clear GOP lead — is evidence of what experts are calling a continued evangelical shift away from identity politics.
In other words, it’s not the 1980s anymore, people.
News on Tuesday of Carson’s rise among GOP primary voters followed an effort by longtime leader Donald Trump over the weekend to paint Carson’s faith as strange and unconventional. Trump called his own Presbyterian affiliation “down the middle of the road,” in contrast to Carson’s, about which he said: “I don’t know.”
Several prominent GOP evangelical strategists predicted the comment by Trump would offend evangelicals.
“I’m hearing the Seventh-day Adventist attack is backfiring in the worst way,” said one longtime Christian conservative political operative.
Russell Moore, leader of the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted something religion sociologists are also saying: Most Americans don’t associate Carson with Adventism or even know much about his faith. But it probably doesn’t matter, Moore said.
“Evangelicals are a narrative people, and they resonate with someone who went if not from being ‘lost’ to ‘found,’ then at least from poverty to success,” Moore said. “A lot of people have a caricature of evangelicals [as] 1980s TV evangelists. If Trump thinks using Carson’s religion will help him with evangelicals, he’s wrong. And that’s especially true coming from where Trump is religiously, or more accurately where he is not.” Trump declined to name a favorite Bible verse in August.
Since Carson began his rise, various supporters and political observers have pointed to the constant and also ecumenical way he speaks about his faith. While Carson says he is an orthodox Adventist and doesn’t part from his faith community anywhere in particular, as far back as 1999 he told the Religion News Service that he wasn’t convinced “denomination is the most important thing. … I think it’s the relationship with God that’s most important.”
That pretty much sums up the way evangelicals and many other religious Americans like to hear religion talked about these days, said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies religion and politics.
“Religious affiliation has become less and less salient to people, as religiosity has become more salient,” Green said. “To many evangelicals, the fact that he’s a Seventh-day Adventist is less interesting than the fact that he’s a very observant one.”
Evangelicals are likely to care more about Carson’s views on abortion than his denomination. While most Republicans name multiple other issues as most important in their vote, the Iowa entrance poll in the 2012 caucuses found born-again Christians three times as likely as other voters to say abortion was the most important topic to them (19 percent compared with 6 percent). Evangelical Christians are among the U.S. religious groups most opposed to legal abortion.
Right now, evangelical leaders and others in the antiabortion movement said Carson is looked upon as a reliable ally.
Recently, the candidate has cast himself as fiercely antiabortion. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Carson said he wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned and opposes abortions for unwanted pregnancies and in cases of rape and incest. “I’m a reasonable person and if people can come up with a reasonable explanation of why they would like to kill a baby I would listen,” he said.
But his past remarks on the topic have provided fodder to political opponents.
Carson’s tone toward abortion has sharpened as his White House bid came closer. In “One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future,” Carson lays out the rationale of both abortion rights advocates and antiabortion groups, stating abortion is a “difficult issue on which to reach compromise, but that should not mean the members of opposing sides demonize each other.” In his medical career, Carson has, according to news reports, referred pregnant women to doctors who perform abortions and conducted research on fetal tissue.
“It’s evident on a daily basis that he hasn’t given all these things a lot of thought,” an adviser to a rival Republican presidential campaign said Tuesday. “The more he speaks, the more you realize that he does not have depth on any of these issues.” However, the adviser noted that Carson’s favorables are “astronomical,” which makes it difficult for any of the other contenders to really attack him on the topic.
The entry into the presidential race of a candidate from a small, not-well-known faith is reminiscent of when Romney brought Americans’ attention to Mormonism. Yet Americans know even less today about the Adventist faith. Adventist Today, a major independent Adventist news site, reported Tuesday that “in major surveys of the general public conducted for the Adventist denomination, about half of Americans say they have never heard of the Adventist faith and nine out of ten say they know nothing about it even if they recognize the name. The Adventist message has not connected with most Americans, leaving them uncertain about what it is.”
Among the most significant aspects of Adventism that many Americans may have heard about is its intense belief in the importance of observing the Sabbath — and doing so on Saturdays, as early Christians did, and Orthodox Jews do today. While more progressive Adventists are less firm on the divine importance of Saturday — a few churches even switched services to Sunday — the vast majority of Adventists consider Saturday observance a core truth, something that potentially could separate out God’s favored when Judgement Day comes.
Another basic part of Adventist culture is physical health, which is why there are many large Adventist health-food stores and hospital chains. Adventists believe the body and soul are one and discourage members from drinking alcohol and using drugs and tobacco. A large percentage of Adventists are vegetarians.
Which is why Carson’s career as a neurosurgeon makes cultural sense.
“When I was growing up, anyone who wasn’t a religion major was a pre-med major,” said David Neff, retired editor of the evangelical news site Christianity Today, who grew up Seventh-day Adventist but is now an evangelical Episcopalian.
Aside from the Saturday Sabbath thing, Neff said, “you’d have a hard time telling a Seventh-day Adventist from other conservative Christians.” Adventists see themselves as part of the evangelical mainstream, he said.
Yet the history and present of the relationship between evangelicals and Adventists isn’t quite that simple.
While Adventists may see themselves that way, most evangelicals who know anything about Adventists wouldn’t consider them part of “orthodox Christianity,” Moore said.
This is in good part because of lack of familiarity, but there are also differences in theology. The question is how important distinct doctrines are today to Americans, as long as they see another person or group as being largely on the same page in terms of lifestyle and values.
The differences go back, and the two communities’ historic efforts to address these differences may wind up paying off for Carson in 2016.
Hoping to join the evangelical mainstream, Seventh-day Adventist leaders in the 1950s initiated a series of meetings with evangelical leaders that ended with a kind of quiet evangelical acceptance.
Adventists initially had rejected the concept of the Trinity. Their faith continues to teach that when you die you cease to exist — in other words that there is no soul — because it requires the resurrection for God to remember who you are and make those worthy whole again. And then there was the difference of the Sabbath, which, put most sharply, means that some Adventists think Sunday-Sabbath people are doomed. One of the founders of Adventism, Ellen White, was believed to have prophetic visions, something mainstream evangelicalism rejected because it was outside of the Bible.
In the mid-20th century, a more evangelical, pragmatic group of Adventists came to power and reached out to evangelicals in a series of dialogues. It ended with an authoritative book revered by many evangelicals — sort of a who’s-in-who’s out, litmus test of a book — called Kingdom of Cults, declaring Adventism “an evangelical, albeit unique Christian denomination.”
The reality is that Adventists, like other faith communities, vary widely on how literally they take their teachings. Adventists have swung over the decades in leadership from more or less literal. This year, Adventists broke into controversy when their governing body affirmed that women can’t be considered ordained clergy — despite the fact that many Adventist churches in the West actually have women they consider their pastors — and voted to confirm that their denomination believes in the literal six-day creation story.
But theology isn’t the issue for evangelicals — it’s culture, according to Dean Inserra, pastor of the influential Southern Baptist City Church. Evangelicals are attracted to candidates who put off “this idea that we’re trying to take back America” to a romantic time when Christian values were ostensibly more dominant, he said. They like Carson in that context.
“We jump on candidates who use a few Christian buzzwords and now the flavor of the month is Ben Carson. We have to make sure we’re voting for him for the right reasons,” Inserra said. “But evangelicals realize we’re not electing a bishop or pope, we’re electing the leader of the free world, the commander in chief.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.