Trump Pulls a Huckabee on Religion

Donald Trump, Saturday, October 24, 2015:

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.

Trump, Sunday, October 25, 2015:

I would certainly give an apology if I said something bad about it. But I didn’t. All I said was I don’t know about it.

Trump has taken a page from Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign. In a December 2007, New York Times profile, Huckabee was quoted responding to reporter Zev Chafets’ question about whether he thought Mormonism was a religion or a cult by saying he thought it was a religion. But, he added, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

The same day his remarks were published on the Times website, Huckabee apologized, saying the comment was taken out of context.

Trump, like Huckabee, denied that he was dog-whistling the GOP’s evangelical base. But just like Huckabee, Trump could deny that ill-intent all he wanted, and he could fudge the context all he wanted. But he was pressing a tiny seed into the ground, hoping it would grow into a narrative that Carson’s faith is fringe and outside the mainstream.

As I wrote on Friday, evangelicals have not questioned Ben Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith in the same way that several prominent evangelicals (and not prominent evangelicals) questioned Romney’s LDS faith during the 2008 and, more pointedly, during the 2012 presidential primary campaigns. In fact, as I’ve noted in predicting that Trump’s love affair with evangelicals wouldn’t last, evangelicals have long admired Carson for his faith-infused life story and politics that align with theirs.

Indeed, in Iowa and elsewhere, reporters on the campaign trail are finding voters who are dedicated students of Carson’s autobiography. As NBC’s Alexandra Jaffe reports, for example:

Rebecca Sykes, a 36-year-old mother of five, brought her family to Berean Baptist Church in North Carolina to see the man she and her children learn about during their homeschooling sessions. They’ve read his books, she said, and “Dr. Ben Carson is a hero for us.”

Trip Gabriel at the New York Times similarly finds Carson supporters in Iowa unfazed by his comments linking gun control to Nazism or comparing abortion to slavery:

Mr. Carson’s provocative comments on topics like Nazism and slavery, which pundits and commentators regularly denounce, seem only to deepen the enthusiasm his evangelical base feels for him. He has connected with Republican women here, who prefer him to Mr. Trump. And he has built momentum far from the political establishment, which was unimpressed with his debate performances and his lack of governing experience. He conducts chats on Facebook and visits medical clinics and churches rather than the usual political stops.

As I wrote two weeks ago, in many ways Carson’s politics diverge from Seventh-day Adventist theology. His suggestions that Americans should arm themselves (or that Jews in Nazi Germany could have saved themselves from the Holocaust by being armed with guns) conflict with Adventism’s non-violence. And his opposition to a Muslim becoming president, while in agreement with almost two-thirds of Iowa Republicans, is at odds with the Adventist dedication to religious freedom (not to mention the Constitution).

It would seem that evangelicals might be surprised to learn of Adventist eschatology—that it is not centered in the Holy Land, but in the United States, and that in the end of days the United States government, along with the Catholic Church, will restrict the religious freedom of Adventists by attempting to force them to worship on Sundays rather than Saturdays. Trump is trying to provoke such an examination, with a hope that it will trigger an erosion of Carson’s evangelical support.

While finger-pointing, Trump appears oblivious to the many evangelicals who consider the prosperity gospel of the Trump-loving televangelists to be a heresy. Things get complicated when you accuse someone—even obliquely—of apostate beliefs.

If you look at the very brief history of Trump’s attempts to question Carson’s faith, he started, in September, with questioning Carson’s piety. That didn’t work out so well, especially considering Carson’s two-decades-long autobiographical faith outreach to evangelicals. Carson, when contrasted with Trump’s ham-fisted waving of a Bible at the Values Voters Summit, or his inability to cite Bible verses, looks like the far more religious one.

Trump, losing the grip on his lead in the polls, has moved on from questioning Carson’s religiosity to questioning Carson’s religion. Which is, of course, just as terrible as Carson’s denigration of Islam.

The question is whether this will make a difference, and whether evangelicals will take the bait—or stick with the candidate they have long believed is a fellow traveler.