Understanding Ben Carson

Though I’ve never met the man, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Ben Carson is a pretty honorable guy.  Assuming you aren’t an immigrant. Or Muslim.  The key to understanding Dr. Carson — and one of the reasons I find his bid for Presidency so baffling — is his faith.  He is a Seven Day Adventist.  I grew up in the Adventist church.*  Newsweek did a feature on Dr. Carson’s faith, but I think it is a shallow exploration.

Your average American will be familiar, perhaps, with the Adventist Healthcare System, which is as good of an entry as any into Adventist history.  In the mid 1800’s, a tidal wave of religious fervor was taking over this country.  The remnants of that wave include Mormonism (polygamy), Christian Scientists (no blood transfusions), Jehovah’s Witness (no fun), and the Seventh Day Adventists (no church on Sunday, no fun.)

Adventism started with William Miller, who calculated numbers from the Bible and identified October 22, 1844 as the day of God’s return.  Millerites didn’t plant crops, they didn’t harvest.  They got up on the morning of October 22 and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And they starved over the winter because, well, obviously.

Out of the scattered remains of the movement, a young woman named Ellen G. White rose to leadership on the strength of her visions.  An early vision explained the problem with October 22 — it wasn’t that God was going to come back on the 22nd, but that Jesus entered the room of judgement on that day to start going through the books of people to decide one-by-one who was going to heaven and who was going to go to hell.

Later visions brought what is known as the health message — the seed of today’s Adventist health-care system and even more impactfully, the state of health care settings in the US.  The sanatorium at Battle Creek (for a satirical look at it, find the Road to Wellville) was the first “hospital” to treat the wealthy, and it was founded by John Harvey Kellogg, an Adventist.  Before Battle Creek, hospitals were death sentences: poor people entered and rarely escaped.

Core Adventist practices include humility (no jewelry, no makeup, no flashy material goods), health (a lot of Adventists are vegetarians, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t drink), purity (strict monogamy, no sex before marriage, no dancing because dancing might lead to sex), integrity (you will be hard-pressed to find a more “moral” group of people), and a strict reading and interpretation of the Bible (6,000 year old earth). (Also: the Bible never changed the day of worship, so Sabbath school, not Sunday school.)

True to their cultural roots (it was all about the second coming), Adventists are obsessed with the end times.  The rhetoric may have softened, but they still will tell you that the numbers on the Pope’s hat add up to 666. I grew up thinking that the local Catholic church had weapons stockpiled in the basement, just waiting for the right time to hunt us all down for our faith.  Most churches have a Revelation Seminar at least once a year where the horrors of the end times are described in lurid detail.  The Pathfinders, the Adventist equivalent of the Boy/Girl Scouts, is designed to give Adventist kids basic outdoor survival skills.  We went to outdoor school once a year to learn orienteering and edible wild plants.  This “end times” mentality is interwoven into the Adventist world view at a core level.

Consider the implications for the Presidency.

Adventists are a pretty diverse group of people, at least in certain ways.  Ellen White had a vision of the Battle of Gettysburg in which angels of the lord waited until enough blood had been shed in retribution for slavery before they turned the tide of the battle for a Northern victory.  My childhood was full of all kinds of ethnicities because all were genuinely welcome.  Adventists are also deeply committed to education.  There are elementary and high schools all over the country, and universities as well.

So yes.  Dr. Carson made a spectacular rise out of low-income Detroit.  He had an Adventist mother, so he came up in a sub-culture that valued sobriety, honor, education, and morality.  He is not the only story of a kid born in poverty who had the advantage of Adventist cultural norms behind them on a trajectory out of the circumstances of their birth.  My mom could say the same.

Adventists are nice people, by and large.  Self-sacrificing, welcoming, humble, and conservative.  Very. Very. Conservative.

Culturally, traditionally, Adventists are big on the separation of church and state.  Really big on separation of church and state.  Part of the end of times narrative is that the government will align with the Catholic Church to hunt down any dissenters, i.e. Adventists.  The church’s preference is to maintain a comfortable distance and be an entity unto itself.  Hence the Adventist schools.  Adventists don’t care much about prayer in schools because by and large, Adventists kids go to Adventist schools.

Culturally, traditionally, Adventists aren’t big fans of hubris.  The Great Disappointment of 1844 and subsequent hunger cast a long shadow.  They are against forecasting of any variety.  No fortune tellers, no predicting when the world will end, no trying to bring that end about in any way.  They tend to be involved in their own community and not that interested in secular society unless they are warning their children away from it.  Growing up Adventist doesn’t do a lot to prepare you for the real world.  But why should it?  You can live a whole life inside the church and never step outside.**

Culturally, they’re pacifists.  If they go to war, they go as medics.  Look up Desmond T. Doss.

Which brings us back to the Carson bid for the presidency.  Clearly, he has worked his way away from some of the cultural norms that typify a Seventh Day Adventist.  It is the mix of diversion and alignment from the culture that confuses me.  The fact that he is running at all is a little strange.  In a church and culture that values humility, a presidential bid isn’t exactly humble.

His stance on immigration is not exactly Christ-like.  In a church where foot-washing is a standard element of communion, feeding the poor is a big deal.  Adventists have their own food kitchens and goodwill equivalents.  Equality is built into the churches DNA…  Unkindness to others, even others who aren’t inside the Church, isn’t culturally standard.  Going back to the Catholics and the Adventist belief that the end of the world marries government and the Pope to persecute the true believers — Adventists. The belief doesn’t mean the Adventists I grew up with hated Catholics.  We felt bad for them, wanted to convert them, but didn’t hate them.  There isn’t a lot of hatred in standard Adventist culture.  Fear, yes.  But not hatred.

What is consistent with the church?  Discomfort with abortion, if not a full-on anti-abortion perspective.  But see, the whole separation of church and state means the church doesn’t need to protest laws because Adventists are unlikely to get an abortion.

The church I grew up in was remarkably apolitical. Give unto ceaser, mind your business… Well, gossip about other people in the church, but ignore the secular world.

Anyway, the 6,000 year old earth thing means there is also a disregard for earth scientists when it comes to things like evolution, and therefore a suspect reasoning process when it comes to the things like climate change.

Did I mention the conservative?  They believe that homosexuality is a sin, but at least they also avoid cheeseburgers, so at least they are mostly in line with Leviticus. Anyway, I don’t remember anyone being an asshole about homosexuals, more love the sinner, hate the sin.

Where does it go sideways?

As I said, fear of hubris is deeply woven into the fabric of the Adventist church. For an Adventist to seek such a large role in telling other people what to do is a little foreign.

Adventists are always convinced that they are living in the end times.  The presidency is an office that is implicated in the end time events.  Does he think he would be putting off those end times?  Hastening them?  

Either way, the Great Disappointment left a distaste for interference in the secular culture and turned the Adventists inward.  His role as a Doctor was much more in keeping with the Adventist ethos.  Help people, demonstrate the faith, mind your own business, don’t draw too much attention to yourself.

So what would a Carson presidency look like?

As a man, I would absolutely trust him with the combination to my safe.  Give hive keys to my house.  Confess my secrets.  All that.  As a President?  Set aside the part where I’m full-on liberal.  His cultural background has not equipped him with the ability to serve all Americans.  He can’t possibly govern effectively.  Who would be in his cabinet?  Where would the people with the right experience come from?  More people who agree with him?  One of the hazards of the Adventist church is the uniformity of belief.  It is a tight knit subculture where the bulk of your close relationships happen within the church.  That is the purview of the private citizen, but he isn’t seeking leadership of his sub-culture.  He wants to lead everyone.  And what can he possibly know of the secular world when his whole life he’s been insulated from it by the nature of the church and the sub-culture.  He attended secular schools, it isn’t like he hasn’t been exposed to a broader world, but the divide between the secular world and the Adventist world is real.  Adventists like to think of themselves as “of” the world, not “in” the world.  Secular schooling is unlikely to have made a crack in that wall. It is an important distinction.

And that is reason enough to not want a President Carson.  Because I’m in the world now, not just in it.  And the American President cannot lead a country as diverse as America with as many ties to the globe as America has if that President doesn’t recognize themselves as viscerally belonging to the world they want to lead.

Also, climate change.  If God is coming back to solve everything, why bother?

*I’m not Adventist anymore.

**Does that make it a cult?  I don’t think so.  It is a distinct sub-culture, but there is no willful effort to divide families over a member leaving the church.  Tithe is 10%, no more.  It is a racket only to the extent that any church is a racket.

Understanding Ben Carson

3 thoughts on “Understanding Ben Carson

  1. Thank you for the education regarding Seventh Day Adventists. In many ways it corresponds with my views about minding your own business, self-sufficiency, egalitarianism. Like you, I have evolved my own set of beliefs, taken from direct experience with living, as well as an insatiable curiosity about the meaning and purpose of life.


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