Four polls in Iowa give candidate Ben Carson a solid lead over his rival Donald Trump. “The Hill” observed October 26 that this now raises “the possibility of Ben Carson becoming the Republican presidential nominee,” although he “has not yet faced real scrutiny.”
Inevitably, scrutiny will include Carson’s well-known and devout affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a topic the New York Times just examined. There will be more, of course, if his numbers stay high.
Of course, Trump pulled that part of Carson's into the spotlight, telling a Florida rally, “I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
Challenged about questioning a candidate’s religion, Trump said he had nothing to apologize for because “all I said was I don’t know about it.” But of course his words contrasted his “middle of the road” mainline Protestantism with a faith people don’t know about, slyly suggesting there’s reason for wariness and relegating Carson’s creed to the cultural margins.
Note that SDAs number 1.1 million in the U.S. plus Canada, compared with 1.7 million in Trump’s Presbyterian Church (USA).
Actually it was Carson who started the religion warfare in September, saying his own devout faith is “probably is a big differentiator” with Trump, and that if Trump is sincere, “I haven’t heard it. I haven’t seen it.” Unlike Trump, Carson later apologized.
Sniping aside, will Adventism become an issue in 2016, as Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was to some extent in the 2008 and 2012 cycles? In all three campaigns, a key factor has been sentiment among evangelical Protestants, who are a key Republican primary constituency in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere.
For background, consider the classic 1963 tome “The Four Major Cults” by Anthony A. Hoekema of Calvin Theological Seminary. The four were Seventh-day Adventism alongside Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science. Hoekema used “cult” in a purely doctrinal sense, contending that the four groups departed from customary Christian orthodoxy.
In journalistic usage, “cult” is a highly problematic term, associated not with theology but mind control and mayhem, particularly since the murder-suicide of 918 followers of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in 1978. Sociologists use "cult" in a different way than church historians or theologians.
In fact the SDA is fairly close to broad Protestant evangelicalism in belief, unlike Hoekema’s other three “cults,” and that affinity doubtless explains grass-roots success for Carson, who testified to his faith in the autobiography “Gifted Hands” and many speeches. The differences Hoekema discussed have to do with esoteric matters like events in heaven in 1844, the particulars of Christ’s Second Coming, and the status of SDA founder Ellen White’s prophecies and visions.
Adventism stands out for believing that Saturday worship is a mark of authentic Christianity, and for advocating a healthy lifestyle that includes vegetarianism. A hostile New Yorker magazine piece by Lawrence M. Krauss of Arizona State University said Carson’s “wild delusions” and “scientific ignorance” include rejection of Darwinian evolution. That follows in line with the official SDA belief in “a recent six-day creation.”
None of that has anything to do with the U.S. presidency. Nor, since the Supreme Court has taken the issues out of the political realm, does it matter that the church believes in monogamous marriage “between one male and one female,” or that it advises women to limit abortion to “exceptional circumstances.”
Two issues, however, do raise presidential aspects that journalists should assess. The first is the strong SDA advocacy of religious liberty, the result of extensive battles for employees’ right to avoid Saturday labor. However, the church has also defended liberty claims of many non-Adventists. This would be important in the coming generation’s conflicts over religious dissent from the new “marriage equality,” and in judicial appointments.
Then there’s the president’s key role as commander in chief of the military. From Civil War days, Adventism has urged believers to be conscientious objectors who will not bear arms. However, the church differs from the strict pacifism of Quakers, Mennonites or Brethren groups. It believes in good citizenship and loyalty to civil government, such that Adventists will accept “non-combatant” duty in the military, particularly as medics.
So, how would wariness toward warfare affect Carsonian foreign and security policies? It’s important for reporters to carefully pursue this.