BROOMFIELD, Colo. — As his surge in heavily evangelical Iowa puts a spotlight on his faith, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is opening up about his membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He embraces it as right for him while also framing his beliefs in broad terms that aim to transcend divisions among Christians.
In an interview with The Associated Press, days after GOP rival Donald Trump criticized Carson’s church, the retired neurosurgeon said his relationship with God was “the most important aspect. It’s not really denomination specific.”
Carson discussed a brief period as a college student when he questioned whether to stay in the church. And in his own criticism, he said it was a “huge mistake” that the top Adventist policymaking body recently voted against ordaining women. “I don’t see any reason why women can’t be ordained,” he said.
The remarks from the Republican presidential candidate were his most expansive about his church since he joined the 2016 contest. Voters have come to know him for his faith-infused policy stands, including his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, without hearing much from him about his Adventism.
The church, formed in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan, has a spiritual focus on healthy living and an extensive network of hospitals and medical clinics. Carson expressed pride in the denomination, while also trying to reach beyond it.
“There are a lot of people who have a close relationship with God, and you can generally tell who they are by the way they act, the way they treat other people,” he said Wednesday a few hours before the GOP debate. “The reason that there are like 4,000 denominations is that people have looked at this and said, ‘Let’s interpret it this way. Let’s interpret it this way.’
“Sometimes they get caught up in that and forget about the real purpose of Christian faith,” he said.
Trump has appeared to be trying to paint Carson as part of a faith outside the mainstream, not a religious conservative who shares the values of Iowa’s evangelicals. During a rally last Saturday in Florida, Trump noted he was a Presbyterian, calling his own church “middle of the road.” Then he added, “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about.”
A possible impetus for Trump’s new approach was a series of preference polls showing Carson overtaking him in Iowa, the lead-off caucus state where evangelical voters are crucial to success for Republicans.
In 2012, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, won just 14 percent of Iowans who described themselves as born again or evangelical Christian, according to Iowa caucus exit polls, amid deep skepticism about his church and his politics.
Carson told the AP he had “totally anticipated” that Trump and his supporters would try to stir doubts about his church in the primary contests.
“Donald Trump is Donald Trump. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing that. I would only be surprised if he didn’t,” Carson said. “There’s a lot of things that are done in politics that are not fair, but when you get into the fray you have to expect those things.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was born from what is known as the “Great Disappointment,” when Jesus failed to arrive in 1844 as expected by thousands of Christians in a moment of widespread religious fervor known as the Second Great Awakening. Many of these disheartened faithful, called Adventists for their belief in Christ’s imminent return, continued studying the Bible together and set Saturday as their Sabbath day of worship.
Ellen White and her husband James were leaders in that movement and founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The denomination says it now has 18.7 million members worldwide, with 1.2 million in North America.
For the small number of evangelicals who pay close attention to the church, their unease is focused in part on Ellen White, a prolific writer considered a prophet by Adventists, whose views continue to shape the denomination.
Some pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention protested this year when Carson was invited to address their annual meeting. While the reasons for the objections were mixed, some cited the religious weight given to White’s opinions, even though Adventists, like other conservative Christians, consider only the Bible authoritative.
“We caught wind of the controversy and just gracefully bowed out,” Carson said, shrugging off the episode.
Carson is accustomed to misunderstandings about his church.
“A lot of people would ascribe any weird thing they heard about anybody – they’d say, ‘That’s the Adventists,'” he said.
His mother was an Adventist, and he was baptized into the church twice at his own request, because he felt he was too young the first time to grasp the significance. He has served as an elder, a religious teacher and as a star representative of the denomination around the world. Videos are plentiful online of Carson debating atheists, upholding Adventist teaching that God created the Earth in six days, and giving personal testimonies at churches.
A twice-daily Bible reader, Carson said he still belongs to his longtime church in Spencerville, Maryland, and to another in Florida. If he’s on the road campaigning on a Saturday, he and his wife will try to find a local Adventist church or watch services online.
In the interview, Carson revealed he went through a brief period of questioning as a Yale University student about whether Adventism was right for him. He said he was upset by segregation in the church.
After trying out services at Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran churches, he ended up staying.
“I concluded it was the right church, just the wrong people. The church was very segregated. You know, if you have the love of God in your heart, it seems like you wouldn’t do that. That has changed fairly significantly since that time,” Carson said.
Traces of the anti-Catholic prejudice White expressed in her writings can still be found in Adventism. Carson rejects that bias.
“I love Catholics. My best friend is Catholic. I have several honorary degrees from Catholic universities,” he said.
Carson also addressed White’s end-of-the world prophecy about Jesus’ return. She predicted that the government, with the help of Christians who celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, will persecute Seventh-day Adventists for their Saturday worship.
“I think there’s a wide variety of interpretations of that. There’s a lot of persecution of Christians going on already in other parts of world. And some people assume that’s going to happen every place. I’m not sure that’s an appropriate assumption,” he said. “If you look at what’s going on today with persecution of Christians, particularly in the Middle East, I believe that’s really more what’s being talked about.”
Adventists today place a heavy emphasis on protecting religious liberty, a position with roots in White’s prophecy, although their efforts extend beyond their own to church to help protect all faiths. The denomination filed a brief in support of the Muslim woman who won a Supreme Court case this year against Abercrombie & Fitch, which refused to hire her because she wore a headscarf.
Given the denomination’s traditional concern for religious freedom, some Adventists have been upset by Carson’s recent comments that the U.S. should not elect a Muslim president. He stood by that position in the interview, and said those who object probably don’t understand Islamic law, which he said “is not consistent with” the U.S. understanding of religious liberty.
Last May, Seventh-day Adventist officials issued a statement taking note of Carson’s candidacy. It emphasized the church’s longstanding support for the separation of church and state and said it was crucial for Adventists to continue keeping politics out of the pulpit during this election season.
Still, given the extra attention, the denomination is rolling out a new website, whoareadventists.org, to educate the public about the church.
“I think this is a great opportunity for us,” said Daniel Weber, an Adventist spokesman. “Donald Trump did a great thing when he said, ‘Who are Adventists?’ Now we’re answering that question.”
Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who has been helping to introduce Trump to Christian leaders from across the country, is among those pushing Trump or his surrogates to spend more time talking about Carson’s church.
“If they’re crediting the rise in the polls to the evangelical community and are saying the evangelical community is embracing Carson then they need to re-examine their position,” he said, “because he’s not a Christian in the evangelical sense of the word.”
Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Iowa-based social conservative organization The Family Leader, said Trump has likely spurred evangelicals to ask more questions about Carson’s faith, but he doesn’t expect Carson’s denomination to hurt him.
“I do believe there is probably more people today in Iowa and across the country trying to learn about Seventh-day Adventists,” Vander Plaats said. “But I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of people getting into the theological weeds.”
Carson said he could easily handle whatever criticisms of his faith arise during the campaign.
“The things that I hear every day – are you kidding?” he said. “I fully expect people to come after me from every possible perspective because you know what I represent is a threat to the established regimes in this country on both sides of the aisle.”