The Heart of Ben Carson's Faith
Long before Ben Carson was a presidential candidate, and many years before his speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast launched him as an unlikely political figure, a younger and less polished version of the man headlined the 1997 prayer breakfast.
In preparing for his remarks, Carson faced a dilemma “that caused me to contemplate the question — are we a Judeo-Christian nation or not?” he later recalled in his book, “America the Beautiful.”
“I was pretty excited about the speech until someone said to me that I should not mention the name of Jesus Christ,” Carson wrote. “That seemed like a very strange request for a prayer breakfast.”
Carson did not acquiesce. Instead, he recounted the story of his religious awakening as an adolescent, after he had tried to stab a peer in a fit of rage. As Carson told it, he retreated to a bathroom following the incident and for hours pored over the Bible. When he finally emerged, he said, his temper was gone.
“I knew it was our Lord and savior Jesus Christ who did that for me,” Carson said, leaning on the lectern, with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton looking on, “and I began to understand that we have not only a heavenly Father, but I adopted God as my earthly father, somebody that I could go to, somebody who was a nice guy.”
Nearly two decades later, Carson has brought that story, nearly verbatim, to a different venue: the presidential campaign trail. Now, as then, Carson’s faith is central to his narrative, and his refusal to curb his rhetoric, another familiar quality, has at turns propelled his campaign and stalled it.
These dynamics came to a head this month when Carson, now one of the leading Republican candidates, was asked on "Meet the Press": “Should a president’s faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?”
“I guess it depends on what that faith is,” Carson said. “If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. If it fits within the realm of America and the principles of the Constitution, I have no problem.”
The show’s host, Chuck Todd, pressed Carson to elaborate. “So, do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?”
“No, I do not,” Carson said without hesitation. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
In the face of the intense backlash that has followed, Carson has continued to explain his remarks, but he has not retreated from them. In a post on Facebook, Carson later wrote: “I could never support a candidate for President of the United States that was Muslim and had not renounced the central tenet of Islam: Sharia Law.”
Speaking to reporters one day later, Carson insisted he would hold a candidate of any religion to the same standard: “If the question had been asked about a Christian and they said, ‘Would you support a Christian who supports establishing a theocracy?’ I would have said no."
Meanwhile, his campaign has made the most of the controversy, baldly soliciting donations “to show America that we will not be silenced by the PC (Politically Correct) Police.”
The fundraising message Carson posted to his Facebook was “I WILL NOT BACK DOWN!” Nor did his leagues of passionate supporters: In the 24 hours following his remarks on "Meet the Press," Carson said his campaign had brought in $1 million.
In his remarks Friday to the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., not one week after his appearance on "Meet the Press," Carson hardly mentioned religion at all — but he couldn’t help giving a nod to that recent controversy that has enveloped his campaign. Neither could the reporters who swarmed Carson in a hallway following his remarks.
The subtext of many of their questions was the same: What does Ben Carson believe?
"Throwing Away" Our Values
At the same Washington, D.C., hotel a few months earlier, for another meeting of social conservatives, this one hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Carson arrived unburdened by controversy and without the intense scrutiny and hordes of reporters that follow frontrunners like shadows.
There, sitting on the quiet patio of the hotel restaurant before he was to give his speech, Carson reflected on his growing support among evangelical voters.
“I can tell you that my faith is very important to me, and I believe that one of the reasons this country excelled beyond anything anybody else has done, and so quickly, is because of our value system,” Carson said. “Our values were based upon our Judeo-Christian faith, and as we throw that away, we see that we are no longer excelling, and we’re actually moving in the opposite direction.”
“I wonder if people are actually able to look at that objectively and not interpret everything through ideological eyes,” Carson added, with a wry smile. “I don’t care about them being religious, but I do care about them having faith, I do care about them having a values system.”
“The Bible says, without a vision, people perish,” he went on. “People need to know who they are and what they believe. It’s not something that’s unique to the United States. Any nation that loses sight of who they are, they deteriorate. That’s what happened to the Roman Empire.”
One day earlier, Sen. Ted Cruz had declared that this election would be pivotal for religious liberty in the United States. I posed that idea to Carson, who responded with a slightly different interpretation. Where Cruz sees Americans of strong faith being marginalized by a heavy-handed government, the core concern for Carson is of a country that divorces itself from religion and compromises its values.
“Our nation has to make a decision, and that is: Are we people of faith, or are we not people of faith? Are we people with significant values and principles, or are we every man for himself?” Carson said. “And there’s no question that we’re right on the precipice of deciding which one of those directions we want to go in.”
Carson long ago answered those questions for himself. His remarks over many years have reflected his strong belief that religion is woven into the fabric of the United States, and he has often derided the “secular progressives” who would pull at the yarn and unravel it.
There is no doubt that Carson’s views, those that would shape his policies as president, are colored by his faith. But Carson has also drawn a firm distinction between a religious society and one governed by religion. In his 2012 “America the Beautiful,” he wrote: “... there was never any intention by our founders of excluding religion from our public or private lives. They did not want us to embrace a theocracy, but neither did they want us to eschew religious principles.”
Separation of church and state is a key tenet of Carson’s faith, Seventh-day Adventist. (For this reason, Carson’s church would not comment for this piece.) Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business associate who has known him since the 1990s, paraphrased the synoptic gospels to explain: “Give to God what is God’s and give to man what is man’s.”
“His faith would never supercede a ruling by the Supreme Court or the law of the land,” Williams said of Carson. “You must respect the rule of law. This is a nation of laws.”
Yet Carson, the man and the candidate, seems indivisible from his religious views.
Carson dates his spiritual awakening to that day he holed up in the bathroom and sought guidance from the Bible, a story he has told many times. But religion was never foreign to Carson: He was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and baptized at age 8, according to a story earlier this year in the Detroit News.
Denomination is not paramount to Carson, his confidants say; rather, the teachings of the Scriptures are “the foundation of who he is,” Williams said. Still, Carson has for roughly 20 years been an active member of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Md., as an elder and a teacher of Sabbath school classes. Even as Carson earned fame for his surgical work and through his books, he sought to maintain a normal profile in the congregation; when he attended services with his family, usually once or twice a month, they sat in the back.
According to Carson’s longtime friend DeWayne Boyer, who met Carson through their church, the physician continued to teach classes through the end of 2014, even as he neared his bid for president. And Carson spoke this summer at the commencement ceremony for the Spencerville Adventist Academy, an event that was not opened to the press.
In discussions with Carson about religion over the years, Boyer said, “The emphasis I’ve heard from Ben is on grace — our salvation is free from God’s hand, there’s nothing we do to earn it; and, secondly, the value of living a quality life, the value of being a decent person.”
Boyer recalled in particular one Sabbath school class in which he posed the question: If you could divide the world into two groups, what would those be? Carson’s response was not to divide people into Christians and non-Christians, Boyer noted, but “indecent and decent” people.
Carson has often publicly described his belief in a higher power that is extremely active and engaged, including multiple instances in his life when he felt that God directly intervened in his trajectory or acted through him.
In his speech earlier this year to the Faith and Freedom Coalition audience, Carson described his thoughts before performing a major surgery: “I just said, Lord, you be the neurosurgeon, and I’ll be the hands. And that’s where the title ‘Gifted Hands’ came from,” referring to his best-selling memoir, “because God is in charge.”
In “America the Beautiful,” Carson recalled facing a make-or-break final exam in chemistry at Yale, which would determine whether he passed the class. The night before the exam, Carson wrote, he prayed that he would pass — and, in his sleep, he dreamed the correct answers, written out on a chalkboard by “a nebulous figure.”
“I knew the moment I finished the exam that God had granted me my miracle,” Carson wrote.
Today, his confidants recall a few key moments when Carson leaned on his faith as a source of strength. According to Williams, Carson’s “faith was never more evident” than during his fight with prostate cancer in 2002.
Boyer says another turning point for Carson came in 1998, when Boyer’s 17-year-old daughter Erin died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. As she was taken to a local hospital, Carson received a call from one of the emergency room doctors with the news of her condition. Hours later, weighed upon by Erin’s condition and a late night of surgeries, Carson fell asleep at the wheel and veered off the road. When the sound of the cars' wheels on the shoulder woke him, he began to pray.
The episode also awakened Carson to a work-life dynamic that he decided was gravely out of balance, Boyer recalled; the next day, Carson asked that his workload at Johns Hopkins be reduced. At Sabbath school class, when Boyer read off a list of organ recipients whose lives his daughter had saved, Carson spoke up.
“Please add my name to list of lives Erin has saved,” Carson told the group. For some time afterward, Carson kept a photograph of Erin on his nightstand.
Those who have visited Carson’s home say it reflects his religiosity, as does his home life. His family plays Biblical trivia, assembles puzzles that reveal Scripture or scenes from the Bible, and sing religious songs.
“You see it every day, every moment you talk to him,” Williams said. “It’s not as if he takes the suit off and puts it back on. He wears it all time.”
Medicine and Faith
When Carson was asked for the second time to headline a National Prayer Breakfast, in 2013, the invitation surprised him. Few people had keynoted the event twice.
“I realized that the Lord had something he wanted me to say,” Carson recounted in a speech last year at a Baptist church in Orlando, Fla. “I didn’t know what it was until the day of the prayer breakfast, and then it was so clear in my mind what I needed to say. And it just resonated with millions and millions of Americans.”
That speech, in which Carson railed against the Obama administration with the president sitting feet away, established Carson as an icon among conservative Republicans and religious voters in particular, and made possible his presidential campaign.
It seemed natural, then, that religion would come to play a prominent role in Carson’s bid for president. And, indeed, the two major themes of his life story, his achievement in medicine and his faith, are represented in bold-face letters in Carson’s campaign slogan: “Heal. Inspire. Revive.”
When he announced his candidacy in Detroit earlier this year, a church choir concluded the program by singing a few lines from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as Carson and his family stood onstage. Carson sang along: “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”
But, in general, Carson’s religious rhetoric is of a quieter nature. He often quotes from the Book of Proverbs and invokes God in his speeches, but he has not neared the pitch of other candidates courting the religious right — such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who recently called the Obama administration “the most anti-Christian in American history,” or Cruz, who is all fire and brimstone. When both men rushed to the jail cell of Kim Davis in Kentucky, proclaiming their support of her religious stand, Carson was not with them.
Many of Carson’s supporters do see him as a religious candidate, whose appeal stems from his faith. Carson acknowledges the appeal, but he also does not view his campaign only through a religious lens. His faith is so deeply ingrained, what other type of campaign could he run?
“I don’t think that my campaign is a religious campaign, but I do believe that our country has a faith-based foundation,” Carson told reporters recently, prior to a campaign rally in Anaheim, Calif. “We don’t need to deny what our heritage is. It’s not necessary. It’s OK to live by godly principles of caring about your fellow man, developing your God-given talents to the utmost. ... That’s what my campaign is.”
If by Carson’s estimation his campaign is not religious, however, the end goal seems to be.
Earlier this month, Carson’s campaign posted a video to his Facebook page of the candidate celebrating his birthday. Standing next to a tall chocolate cake, Carson leaned in to a microphone and described what his birthday wish would be.
“I wish that our nation,” Carson said, “would once again recognize that God is our leader.”