Carson’s Lead Shows Evangelicals Care More About Politics Than Religion

Two polls out this week show retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson surging ahead of Donald Trump among likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers. A Quinnipiac University poll out yesterday has Carson leading Trump, 28-20 percent; that lead is 36-17 percent among white evangelicals. And a new Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register poll released today also has Carson pulling ahead of Trump, by 28-19 percent. Again, Carson is the favorite of about a third of  white evangelicals in that poll, who make up 42 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers in the state.

The fascinating religion story here is evangelicals–some of whom looked with suspicion at Mitt Romney’s LDS faith in 2012–seem oblivious to the theological differences between Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith and their own. Let me be very, very clear here: this is not my religious test. I emphatically reject that, as does the Constitution. But, as I wrote about Romney in 2012, it’s the religious right that has imposed a religious test on Republican candidates, demanding that they profess fealty to the “Christian nation,” that they espouse “biblical values” and a “biblical worldview,” and that they testify to their own salvation. (Notably, in a sign of possible reasons for Trump’s decline, Bloomberg reports that likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers “remain uncertain about Trump’s Christian credentials. Only about a third consider him a committed Christian, while 28 percent say he isn’t and 40 percent say they’re not sure.”)

Ben Carson has spent years burnishing his credentials as a religious right ideologue, and has invited little examination of his Adventist faith. He speaks liberally of preserving the “Judeo-Christian nation.” He speaks of his own faith, his salvation, his baptism, his trust in God. He says Obamacare is worse than slavery; that the IRS is like Nazis; he denies evolution and climate change. In contrast, Romney was a business consultant and a technocrat who flip-flopped on abortion and gave us the precursor to Obamacare. His religion got scrutinized; Carson’s, thus far, has not been.

It would be disheartening, just as it was disheartening to see Romney’s faith mocked and insulted in 2012, to have a redux of that spectacle with Seventh-day Adventism. But the religious right’s lack of scrutiny of Carson’s faith demonstrates that if you play your politics right, it really doesn’t matter what you believe.

As I’ve written previously, Carson has both embraced his Adventist faith and exhibited deviations from it. He proudly declares his Adventist faith when asked, but his statements relating to gun control and Muslims, for example, conflict with Adventist teaching on non-violence and religious freedom. Adventists, as a religious minority whose fear of persecution is embedded in their end-times theology, have long been protective of religious freedom and church-state separation. But Carson has doubted a Muslim’s suitability for the White House; in that, he is aligned with the 69 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers who told the Bloomberg/DMR pollsters that it would be unacceptable to have a Muslim president.

In the end, we may see the decline of the Carson candidacy without any of this being discussed. (That, indeed, would be a relief.) Trump had his moment; Carly Fiorina had a far shorter moment; now it’s Carson’s moment. But even if he, rather than, say, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, were to win Iowa, there’s little precedent for caucus winners moving on to anything bigger and better. Remember Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum? They won the Iowa caucus in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Not only did they fail to win the Republican nomination, in their comeback effort in 2016, they’ve been relegated to the bottom of the pack.