Beliefs Ethics Politics

Ben Carson’s Muslim comments ignore his own denomination’s history (COMMEN …

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson appears on Fox Business Network's 'Varney & Co.' in New York on August 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GRIFFIN-COLUMN, originally transmitted on September 23, 2015, or with RNS-CARSON-FAITH, originally transmitted on Oct. 27, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson appears on Fox Business Network's 'Varney & Co.' in New York on August 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GRIFFIN-COLUMN, originally transmitted on September 23, 2015.

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson appears on Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.” in New York on Aug. 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GRIFFITH-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Sept. 23, 2015.

(RNS) When Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson stated that he does not believe a Muslim belongs in the White House, he was following a long-standing, bipartisan American political tradition of assailing religious minorities for their perceived anti-Americanism.

Take anti-Catholicism, for example.

Former President John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1821 that “A free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or country,” a sentiment shared by 20th-century American Protestants worried that the Vatican might be mobilizing the likes of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy as papist Manchurian candidates.

More recently, there were attacks on Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith from both left and right.

Muslim advocacy groups and Democratic and Republican personalities alike were quick to denounce Carson for his comments’ insensitivity. And he walked back his comments in a Facebook post where he acknowledged “peaceful Muslims” but insisted that only Muslims who renounced Shariah could be considered for the presidency.

But the critics might have intensified their critiques with reference to the history of Carson’s own religious tradition.


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Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, a Christian denomination with roots in antebellum millennial prophecy and late 19th-century health reforms.

Adventists are also known for their Sabbath observance on Saturdays.

It is the history of public controversy around this hallmark doctrine that makes Carson’s statements about Muslims and the presidency so interesting, because Adventists once occupied a similar status as a distrusted religious minority in American life.

Saturday worship meant Adventists sometimes were on the wrong end of 19th-century reform measures. As part of a broader mainstream Protestant push to secure America’s “Christian nation” status, reformers known as Sabbatarians pushed for legal recognition of Sundays as days of rest, in keeping with the Ten Commandments.

Sabbatarianism was an attempt to resist increasing secularization in society and thwart the perceived un-American threat of immigrants’ religion (mainly Catholicism). But it also was a problem for the Adventists, who took their Sabbath rest a day earlier and had no qualms with business as usual on Sundays. As a result, some Adventists were fined and prosecuted for breaking “blue laws.” Historian Richard W. Schwarz has documented over 100 such arrests of Adventists from 1885-1896.

Adventist victimization under blue laws helped make separation of church and state a top lobbying priority of the denomination. As Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart have shown, Adventists helped organize successful campaigns against a congressionally mandated national day of rest in 1889 and 1926, and against similar state efforts in the 1950s and ’60s.

In the late 1940s, they joined other Protestants to found American United for Separation of Church and State, a group best known today as a thorn in the side of religious conservatives (though Adventists left Americans United in the mid-1990s).


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Carson is certainly capable of championing religious liberty. However, his statements to that effect have tended to echo Republican talking points about Christians being under attack for their beliefs on homosexuality. His remarks also suggest that he believes, as many Americans do, that Muslims themselves are a threat to religious freedom. According to Carson, because Muslims “feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life” and because Islam “encourages you to lie to achieve your goals,” American Muslim politicians could likely not be trusted.

There are always challenges in assessing the relationship of a candidate’s faith to his or her politics. Americans now have no problem with Catholics running for presidential office (indeed, more are currently running than at any time in history). But the public would still likely give pause, as midcentury evangelicals suggested, if a pacifist Mennonite were nominated for secretary of defense.

One wonders whether Carson’s rhetoric about Muslims would at all be tempered if he recalled the example of beleaguered Adventists staring down forced Sabbath-keeping.

Attention to his own tradition’s history, as well as the very real challenges that religious minorities such as Muslims in America face today, unfortunately might not play well with some of the voters that Carson, Donald Trump and other nonestablishment presidential campaigns appeal to.

However unorthodox it may be, Trump’s minimalist “little wine, little cracker” faith has the advantage of allowing him to check the Christian box without interfering with whatever his constituency wants to hear about minorities in America, whether Muslim or Mexican.

Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Aaron Griffith

Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Aaron Griffith

It is no secret that religious faith is much more important for Carson’s campaign than Trump’s. Remembering the Adventist experience in American life could point Carson’s campaign in a different direction. This may mean the loss of support from voters who would love to see him deepen his anti-Muslim rhetoric. But it might be worth it, if only eternally speaking.

As official Adventist documents state, protecting religious minorities may result in “personal and corporate loss.” But, “This is the price we must be willing to pay in order to follow our Savior who consistently spoke for the disfavored and dispossessed.”

(Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Reach him on Twitter @AaronLGriffith.)

YS/MG END GRIFFITH

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Aaron Griffith

19 Comments

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  • No, the author is calling Ben Carson a hypocrite or at least someone who is ignorant of his own sect’s history. Rather than learn from a history of sectarian discrimination against his own faith, Carson merely wishes to pass it on against another one.

    There have been Muslims living in the US since its inception. To claim they, as an entire faith, do not or have not supported this nation is an outright lie. Dr. Carson is merely engaging in the same politics of bigotry that the rest of the GOP candidates are doing.

    There is never, ever going to be a valid or rational argument that “X religion is evil”. They all have their fair share of sane people and nuts. Belonging to a given faith is no indication of the quality of one’s character.

    Dr. Carson is such a panderer that he is even willing to compromise his professional ethics as a physician, to support the anti-vaccination wingnuts in his party.

  • Actually I think carson potentially opened a pandora’s box he and no christian presidential candidate is prepared to deal with..

    “If someone has a Muslim background and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion … I would then be quite willing to support them,” he said.

    if thats the case then does ben carson denounce kim davis the woman who refuses to sign marriage licenses for gay couples based on her christian religious views and tenets?? The bible has very strong and clear thoughts on homosexuals and they should be treated. She is a civil servant but clearly places her religious beliefs above the constitutionally protected law of the land in a society that has largely accepted gay rights for marriage. On top of that there is speculation that she may have altered signed licenses in a effort to invalidate them in the states eyes. Which could cause legal injury to…

  • Actually I think carson potentially opened a pandora’s box he and no christian presidential candidate is prepared to deal with..
    “If someone has a Muslim background and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion … I would then be quite willing to support them,” he said.
    Which could cause legal injury to those couples..all in the name of her religion and beliefs.
    How is she any different than that hypothetical muslim candidate that carson is so concerned about??
    the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage it..its a law protected under the constitution and as such is ben carson willing to reject the tenets of his religion to accept the way of life we have and swear to place our constitution (and the laws protected under it) above his religion??
    Is he and conservatives who agree with his criteria willing to live by that criteria for a presidential candidate??

  • “How is she any different than that hypothetical muslim candidate that carson is so concerned about??”

    She’s Christian and according to theocrats like Carson, Christians are not subject to the same rules as everyone else. Its not called special pleading for nothing.

  • It looks to me like Griffith wants to show that “all religions are OK”. But when it comes to Catholicism, if you look at the history of Catholicism, back around 1821 the Catholic church definitely did not believe in democracy. It was not until around 1899, in an encyclical by Leo XIII, that the church finally said slavery was wrong (!!!!!) and accepted democracy.

    As well, historically, the Catholic church has been supportive of any number of tyrants, even into the 20th century, e.g. Spain’s Franco.

  • The complete critique in less than ten seconds. Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Mo-roni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

  • A well written and thoughtful article. However, it treads on eggshells, like most people do when politics and religion are stirred in the pot to make a witches brew. If you run for president you MUST hold the Constitution as your highest earthy authority. If you do not, you will either not be elected or you will break the law and go to jail. It’s very simple. Sharia Law is not above the Constitution; neither is the Pope’s interpretation of the Bible. Jesus’ teaching is not above the Constitution because the Constitution was based on Jesus’ teaching. And there lies the rub. The die is cast. If the Constitution was written by Atheists then it would be up for grabs. It is not. It is already claimed.

  • You made one material misstep. The Constitution is not based on the teachings if Jesus nor is there any conceivable reference to him or Christianity in it. It doesn’t belong to Christianity or any religion. Stop putting your sect’s tramp stamp on our laws.

    You ruined what started as an intelligent statement with something dunderheaded and sectarian to lay claim that your Protestant faith is given special status.

    The Constitution belongs to all of faiths and none of them. It protects all religions by not entangling our government with any of them. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, and any other faith you can name has every right to claim the Constitution for themselves and its protections.

  • His comments were anti-Islam more than anti-Muslim if you watched the whole interview and paid attention to what he said before his comment about Islam. It boils down to whether a Muslim reads his religious system in its most literal sense, which is indeed incompatible with the Constitution.

  • That is a distinction without importance.

    A person reads their religious system in a literal sense is incompatible with the Constitution. Ben Carson certainly reads his religious system in its most literal sense. Hence his willingness to deny scientific knowledge such as the efficacy of vaccinations, the existence of global warming and the theory of Evolution. Also his willingness to ignore the importance of the separation of church and state and free exercise of religion for all faiths put him on the same level. He is exactly what he rails against.

    The only material difference between Mr. Carson and what he is denouncing is the flavor of religion involved. A distinction also without importance. “But Christians are different” is not a real argument. The willingness to apply standards of behavior that one is not willing to apply to themselves is a textbook example of a hypocrite.

  • “Americans now have no problem with Catholics running for presidential office ….”

    I might have no problem as long as they renounce allegiance to all foreign powers. If they maintain an allegiance to any unelected foreign dictators, then they should be ineligible to hold public office. And when I say “unelected,” I’m talking about not being elected by the people one rules over.

    I used to be Roman Catholic, and I’ve never once heard of the membership having any vote in the selection of a new pope. In fact, before 1870, Catholic sovereigns were permitted to veto the selection of a particular person as the new pope. After 1870 that veto power was abolished, and now no one has any say except for the cardinals who themselves were appointed by a previous pope.

    Prior to 1870, the US Congress pulled the funding for the diplomatic mission to Rome because it had heard that Protestant services were not allowed in Rome. Are Protestant services allowed at Vatican City? If not,…

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