Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and the Battle for Evangelical Voters


by Jay Parini

It must be galling for Donald Trump to watch his grip on the polls begin to slip, especially in Iowa, where it looks as if the evangelicals prefer Ben Carson, an avowed Seventh-day Adventist. It’s clear that the majority of Republicans likely to attend a caucus in Iowa fall into the evangelical camp. They know who is talking their language.

And it’s not Trump, who has long cast about in search of language that might work. “I believe in God. I am Christian,” he once told the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I think the Bible is certainly, it is THE book.” Trying to locate himself in the Christian stream, he has turned autobiographical: “First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, is where I went to church. I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.”

In case that wasn’t enough, he has offered: “I go to church as much as I can. Always on Christmas. Always on Easter. Always when there’s a major occasion. And during the Sundays. I’m a Sunday church person. I’ll go when I can.”

Anyone who grew up in evangelical circles, as I did (my father was a Baptist minister) will immediately recognize this remark as a less-than-forthright attempt to light a halo over his head. And it’s not likely to get the job done.

Other Republican candidates have been working up their religious credentials for Iowans in particular. Only last week Jeb Bush put in an appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network in an interview with Pat Robertson, where he spoke in terms meant to appeal to evangelicals, even though he is a Roman Catholic: “I realized that Jesus was my savior and I accepted him in the late 1980s,” he declared. Catholics don’t tend to use this terminology, which is straight from the Protestant evangelical script, though it doesn’t seem as weird as Trump’s statements about religion.

It’s Carson, however, who has struck the appropriate note in Iowa. He speaks often and convincingly about the role of religion in his life. His church, the Seventh-day Adventist sect, has roots in the mid-19th century when many Baptists (inspired by William Miller, a well-known preacher) thought that Jesus was coming soon. Miller actually gave an exact date in 1844. When this dramatic event didn’t occur, his followers began to make adjustments, and the Adventist movement was born.

This group of the faithful believes strongly in the second “advent” of Christ, as envisioned in the Book of Revelation, and its ideas are tied back to biblical sources. In this, the Adventists have a great deal in common with most evangelical believers, who look to the Bible as the final word.

Carson, like others in his faith, share many core beliefs with evangelicals, including an aversion to same-sex marriage. According to Adventists, “Homosexuality is a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world.” The movement has, to a slight degree, softened its stance on homosexuality in recent years, but its opposition to same-sex marriage remains firm, as it does among most evangelicals in America.

Carson doesn’t seem to disagree with most of the teachings of his sect. He certainly dislikes same-sex marriage, as he has said, though he agrees that it’s now “the law of the land.” And he adheres closely to Adventist teachings about the creation of the world in six days, denying evolution.

He has also decried the Big Bang theory as so much hokum. Perhaps a fair number of evangelicals, at least in theory — and certainly the ones I grew up with — still like to imagine that the Earth was made in a week, and that evolution is just another theory that one could live without. (In fact, younger evangelicals are more likely than their parents to believe in evolution.)

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