Ben Carson’s church believes the United States government will bring about the End Times.
According to mainstream Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, the Second Coming of Christ will occur after the U.S. government teams up with the Catholic Church—which Adventists believe is the “Babylon” of the Book of Revelation, with the pope being the Antichrist—to compel Adventists and others to worship on Sunday, rather than Saturday.
That may seem like a small hook on which to hang the fate of the world, but for Adventists, it is a core belief, taught at “prophecy seminars” and elaborated in excruciating geopolitical detail by key Adventist leaders.
Is it awkward for Ben Carson to run for president, if his faith believes the U.S. government will team up with the Antichrist? Will it matter to his evangelical base if he, like his denomination, believes that the government will join forces with the Whore of Babylon, to persecute religious minorities and compel Sunday worship?
So far, no.
We don’t know, though, what Carson personally believes—only what his denomination teaches.
In fact, the one time Carson was asked about the End Times, the media blew it. In an interview with conservative journalist Sharyl Atkisson, Carson first focused on the universal aspects of Adventist theology.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I belong to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. I believe in godly principles, of loving your fellow man, caring about your neighbor, developing your God-give talents to the utmost so you become valuable to the people around you.”
Pressed on his view about the End Times, Carson said, “You could guess that we are getting closer to that. You do have people who have a belief system that sees this apocalyptic phenomenon occurring, and that they’re a part of it, and who would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if they gain them.”
But, he reassured the public, “I think we have a chance to certainly do everything that we can to ameliorate the situation, to prevent—I would always be shooting for peace. You know, I wouldn’t just take a fatalistic view of things.”
The mainstream media howled—Ben Carson believes the End is Nigh!—but missed the real story, as Sarah Posner, a columnist at the online journal Religion Dispatches, noted. Neither Atkisson nor anyone else pressed Carson on the Adventist-specific aspects (if any) of his worldview.
The Seventh-day Adventist sect (and, later, the Jehovah’s Witnesses) emerged out of messianic fervor in the mid-19th century, when the date of the Second Coming was established as October 22, 1844. Unlike the more recent predictions from the likes of Harold Camping, this one, by Baptist preacher William Miller, was not a fringe phenomenon. Tens of thousands of Americans believed the Second Coming was about to happen, and they acted on those beliefs, selling belongings and gathering on hilltops awaiting Christ’s return.
When it didn’t happen, in the words of one believer, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before.”
Quickly, though—precisely as described in Leon Festinger’s classic When Prophecy Fails—many of the faithful regrouped. One of Miller’s followers said that Christ had returned, in a way; He was now in Heaven, commencing the judgment of the world. Judgment Day is more like Judgment Period, and October 22, 1844, is when it began.
To most Christians, all this is heresy, and Adventists have been persecuted for a century and a half. Their peculiar ways—vegetarianism, church on Saturday—mark them as different, which is obviously part of the reason they exist in the first place. And other distinctive beliefs—for example, since death is simply a kind of sleep, there is no such thing as hell—have caused many fundamentalists to reject them. While Seventh-day Adventists may, today, seem like just another Christian denomination, in fact they have long seen themselves as a group apart from the rest of the world.
Despite that, “Ben Carson has been long-loved by the religious right,” Posner notes.
The doctor’s polling strength (especially in Iowa) is widely attributed to evangelical discontent with the “theologically illiterate” Donald Trump, and to Carson’s own evident religious piety, which dates back to his childhood, fills his memoir Gifted Hands, is on display at every debate, and was showcased in Carson’s “presidential moment” at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013.
Moreover, the Adventists’ long suspicion of government, although perhaps taken to an extreme in their apocalyptic beliefs, dovetails neatly with contemporary Tea Party Republicanism. Likewise, Carson’s expansive reading of “religious liberty,” which is both an Adventist value and a coded dog-whistle to the religious right. (Seventh-day Adventists were the lead plaintiffs in the landmark First Amendment case Sherbert v. Verner, which protected their right to refuse to work on Saturday.)
So far at least, Carson’s Adventism has far more in common with conservative evangelism than not. Trump’s insinuation that Carson’s faith is bizarre appears to have backfired. And evangelicals love Carson’s outrageous comparisons between Obamacare and slavery, the Obama administration and Nazi Germany—perhaps because they so enrage journalists like my colleague Michael Tomasky, who brilliantly skewered them in these pages last week.
For example, Carson’s comparison of Obamacare to slavery was considered “attractive” by 81 percent of Iowa Republicans.
And if the details of Adventist End-Times belief are a bit unusual, perhaps the commonalities are, again, more important. After all, 77 percent of evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times. So what if Carson believes they began in 1844?
Perhaps, even more than Mitt Romney in 2012, Carson in 2015 indicates that American conservative Christians are ready to embrace the “new faiths” of the 19th century: Mormonism, Christian Science, Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witness.
Or perhaps it just illustrates the power of a marriage of convenience. Religious sects which once warred with one another often find common cause when confronted by the secular enemy: the Jerusalem Pride parade, for example, briefly united right-wing Jews, Christians, and Muslims in opposition.
In that regard, mainline Protestants and Catholics supporting someone whose church believes the pope is the Antichrist may not be that big of a deal. After all, there’s gays, women, and Obamacare to worry about. And what matters more than that?