I couldn’t help but think of this famous Biblical passage when I first heard about Donald Trump’s attack on Ben Carson’s faith: “All who take up a sword will perish by a sword.”
After all, Carson was the first to draw the sword of religious intolerance when he declared last month, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Well, that sword of religious bigotry has now been turned on Carson by Trump. Over the weekend, Trump began an attack on Carson for being a Seventh-day Adventist, a faith that has only about 1 million members in the United States and that certain conservative Christians view negatively. It’s all setting up for quite a showdown between the two on the topic at Wednesday night’s debate.
Some might think that since I’m Muslim and was outraged by Carson’s comments regarding Islam, I would be overjoyed by Trump’s attack. I’m not. Trump’s comments are just as despicable as Carson’s attack on Muslims, and neither have any place in America, let alone as a strategy in a presidential election.
Yet on Saturday, Trump launched a politically motivated assault on Carson’s faith while speaking at a campaign rally in Florida. There, he told the crowd, “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness.” Trump then fired his first volley on Carson’s religion: “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
Then, in a Sunday appearance on ABC’s This Week, Trump refused to apologize for raising Carson’s faith. Instead he stated, “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 also coyly shrugged off host George Stephanopoulos’s question about whether he was employing a “dog whistle” by raising Carson’s faith because “some conservatives claim the Seventh-day Adventists are not Christian.”
I have little doubt that Trump is aware that certain evangelicals have theological issues with Adventists. In fact, in April, Carson was rather publicly disinvited from a Southern Baptists Pastor’s Conference in part because some pastors voiced theological objections to the beliefs of Adventists.
Obviously, Trump has raised this issue now because recent polls show him trailing Carson in Iowa. And even more relevant, Trump is well behind Carson among Iowa’s evangelicals, 36 percent to 17 percent. This is a very important voting bloc given that 57 percent of Iowa’s Republicans identify as evangelicals.
Trump’s new line of attack on Carson is uncharacteristically subtle, probably because Carson is well liked by Republicans. But he has already succeeded at two things. We have now seen an avalanche of articles about Adventists’ beliefs from both the left, such as the Mother Jones piece, “Does Ben Carson Believe Most Evangelical Voters Are Going to Hell?” and the right, like Newsmax’s article,“12 Things You Don’t Know About Seventh-Day Adventists.”
And on social media there has been an outpouring of tweets and even a Reddit post about how Adventist theology is virulently anti-Catholic and that they view Pope Francis, and all popes, as the anti-Christ. Little of this press paints a positive impression of Carson’s faith because as is typical, the media—be it mainstream or social media—tend to focus on the negative.
Secondly, Trump has again set the agenda. Instead of talking about Trump’s weakness, policy, many in the media are fixated on his latest fight. Trump knows that like a dog being tossed a bone, the media will always take chase when he gets into a brawl with someone.
Trump questioning Carson’s faith clearly violates the spirit of Article VI of the Constitution, which provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
The fear-mongering by both Trump and Carson over the religious beliefs of Americans is wrong, be it directed at Adventists or Muslims. If you cherry-pick parts of a faith or portions of religious scripture, it can appear alarming if you don’t have a true understanding of the context or that religion. That’s true for Islam as it is for Adventists. (As well as if you cherry-picked certain passages from the Bible such as mandating that women who are not virgins on their wedding night be stoned to death.)
With a new poll released Tuesday showing Trump trailing Carson nationally for the first time, Trump will likely continue to raise this issue in the hopes of peeling off some GOP voters. Carson, therefore, may want to follow the advice he offered just last month to any Muslim seeking the White House: “Swear to place our Constitution above their religion.”
In fact I praised Carson for that statement, and argued that every candidate, regardless of faith, should be asked to make that very pledge. That would make it clear that the candidate’s faith is not a relevant campaign issue because each of them has sworn to place our Constitution above their religion. This pledge also sends a message the candidate will not try to change American laws to comport with their religious beliefs.
If Carson does follow his own prescription, the good doctor may be able to put this issue to rest quickly and move on to discuss the real issues confronting our nation. However, regardless of how this controversy plays out, Carson has become a modern-day cautionary tale for the Biblical admonition: You reap what you sow.