Will Ben Carson's Ideas About the Endtimes Scare Away Evangelical Voters? Don't Count On It

The religious right has long been willing to put politics ahead of doctrinal differences.


Here's a headline at Mother Jones today:

Congratulations, Mother Jones Web team: Your headline reeled me in! But the article beneath the title hasn't convinced me that social conservatives are about to fall out of love with Ben Carson's candidacy.

David Corn's piece begins by pointing out that Carson now leads the Republican race in Iowa and that much of his strength there comes from evangelical Protestants. "Yet it is odd that Carson has done so well with evangelicals," Corn says, "when he is a high-profile and devoted member of a church that teaches that almost all evangelical Christians will soon join with Satan to oppose Jesus Christ":

Seventh Day Adventist Publishing Association

Seventh-day Adventists hold that the Sabbath should be worshipped on Saturday and that religions that observe the Sabbath on Sunday have been corrupted by Satan. The church's early prophet Ellen White cast much of the blame for this supposed perversion of the Sabbath on the Roman Catholic Church.

White's prophecies—rendered in the 1800s—are regarded as sacrosanct by the church. She predicted that when Jesus Christ returns to earth, per the Book of Revelation, and triggers the final and cataclysmic clash between God and the Antichrist, a paramount battle will be over the Sabbath. She foresaw the government doing the devil's bidding by outlawing the Saturday Sabbath, locking up Seventh-day Adventists, and even threatening them with death. And she prophesized that other Christian denominations would hold fast to the Sunday Sabbath and become handmaidens of Satan. Ultimately, Jesus Christ would vanquish Beelzebub, and only Seventh-day Adventists, because they stuck with the Saturday Sabbath, would join him in the kingdom of God. The other Christians? Well, they would be forever condemned….

Fundamentalist religions tend to cast their way as the only way. That's the nature of such churches. It is not a huge surprise that Seventh-day Adventists say nonbelievers will be screwed in the End Times. Yet true-believing Seventh-day Adventists take a dim view of other Christian religions and hold what is essentially a dark conspiracy theory: that the government will target them for imprisonment and, possibly, execution.

I do not know how closely Carson's view of the endtimes matches White's. I agree that it would be interesting to find out. But I doubt that any of this will do much harm to Carson's popularity among evangelical voters. The members of the religious right are well aware that they do not all agree on theology, and they've had decades of experience negotiating the tricky terrain created by an alliance among people with doctrinal differences.

That's one of the themes of a brand-new book I've been reading, Neil J. Young's We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Before the 1970s, Young notes, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons disapproved of the ecumenical approach to religion that was gaining steam among liberal Christians and Jews. Yet their initial response was not to form a counter-alliance of their own. "They appreciated one another's efforts—they thought it necessary to attack the ecumenical monolith from all sides—but they passed on joining forces," Young writes. "Indeed, since their challenges to ecumenism sprang from their own particular theological claims and traditions, a coordinated religious response was impossible."

But as America's

But not just fundamentalism, see.

civic ethos shifted from pluralism to secularism in the 1970s, at least as far as conservative Christians saw it, anti-ecumenists reassessed their relationship with each other, recognizing their shared cultural positions and moral convictions. Separately, conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics decried the breakdown of the traditional heterosexual family; fretted about changing gender roles and the strength of the women's movement and feminism; denounced sexual permissiveness, abortion liberalization, and the normalizing of homosexuality; and inveighed against government encroachments on individual rights, free enterprise, and religious liberty. In doing so, they again perceived themselves as outsiders fighting the cultural and political consensus. But this political crisis, they reasoned, was different. Because it was not, at heart, a conflict over theology, it allowed for more cooperation among them.

And in that way, the modern religious right was born. It was always an alliance of people willing to put their political agreements ahead of their religious disagreements.

One possible objection to this argument is that Adventists have not traditionally been a part of the religious-right coalition. Indeed, until the 1990s their church supported the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that was about as popular as Playboy within the Falwell coalition. But 2015 is not 1980, and coalitions are always shifting their shapes and sizes.

If you'll take Romney, you'll take me.
Gage Skidmore / Foter

Another objection is that there are limits to how far afield a religious-right voter will go, theologically speaking. It will surely be a long time before a Muslim wins the Iowa caucus, no matter how socially conservative he might be. But while it's not hard to find Christians claiming that Carson's church is a cult, just as activists issued similar warnings about Mitt Romney's Mormonism four years ago, the fact remains that the most popular candidate with Republican evangelicals this time around is Carson and not, say, Mike Huckabee. It is of course possible that a substantial number of these voters do not know what denomination Carson follows, and there is even a chance that they do not know just how distant Adventist views are from their own. But I suspect that most of them are much more aware of such issues than most outsiders, including both me and David Corn.

We'll see how Carson's popularity among evangelicals fares as Corn's questions wend their way into the mainstream media. But if you want proof that the religious right is willing to overlook even enormous doctrinal differences, just think back to the first presidential election in which the movement really flexed its political muscles. In 1980, the Democrats nominated a born-again Southern Baptist who had attracted most of the evangelical vote four years earlier. The Republicans nominated a twice-married movie star who belonged to a theologically liberal church and had been influenced by Transcendentalist and even New Age doctrines. Who did the religious right back? Ronald Reagan, of course.