Detroit native Ben Carson takes faith to president bid

Melissa Nann Burke, and Chad Livengood
DetroitNews

Before he considered a run for president, before his breakthrough speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, before his 36-year career in brain surgery, Ben Carson was a skinny kid in southwest Detroit with failing grades, a quick temper and one resourceful mother.

"My mother was so disappointed that I was a poor student, that she didn't know what to do. She prayed to God for wisdom," Carson said last week at a scholarship banquet in Battle Creek. "And he gave it to her: to turn off the TV and make us read books."

Sonia Robinson Carson, a single mother, regularly took her sons to Burns Seventh-Day Adventist Church. There, Ben Carson learned of missionary doctors, who inspired his career, and found the discipline of prayer that calmed his rage.

In Michigan on Monday, Carson will pray with a group of pastors at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History before officially launching his bid for the Republican presidential nomination before supporters at the Detroit Performing Arts Center. He chose to launch his campaign in his hometown, and his afternoon is booked with events across Iowa.

Faith has permeated Carson's personal, professional and now his public life. His political manifesto contains frequent references to the Ten Commandments and God's creation. He uses parables to explain policy goals. His 2014 book "One Nation" slams the "godless" government.

His swift rise in conservative circles began after he criticized President Barack Obama's health care policies at the February 2013 prayer breakfast — as Obama sat two seats away.

In the White House, Carson says his faith would ground him "in the sense that I'm an adherent to traditional, Judeo-Christian values," he said in an interview with The Detroit News. "Which means loving your fellow man, caring about your neighbor, developing your God-given talents to the utmost so that you become valuable, and having values and principles that govern your life."

His announcement Monday will make Carson the only African-American in the Republican presidential field.

While he's never held public office, Carson is polling ahead of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 2008 presidential hopeful and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in the potential 2016 presidential field, according to a Real Clear Politics averaging of recent polls. He remains behind more experienced and better-known politicians including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, according to Real Clear Politics.

Carson, 63, preaches personal responsibility, self-determination and standing up to bullies. He rails against liberal political correctness, opposes same-sex marriage and endorses voter laws requiring photo ID. He rejects the theory of evolution in favor of the Earth's six-day creation, as described in Genesis.

But his occasional provocations have raised questions about how broad his appeal could be, with statements comparing the Affordable Care Act to slavery, and America to Nazi Germany. He also conflated homosexuality with bestiality, and apologized in March after saying being gay was a choice.

"I know that we are all made in God's image, which means we are all deserving of respect and dignity," Carson later wrote on his Facebook page. "I am not a politician, and I answered a question without really thinking about it thoroughly."

Carson's message appeals to the evangelical Christian electorate and some tea party sympathizers — an advantage in the early battleground states of Iowa and South Carolina. Beyond the GOP primaries, it could become a handicap, said John C. Green, who studies religion and politics at Akron University in Ohio.

"He's stumbled a few times. That comes to the issue of experience," Green said.

"...Trying to learn campaign politics at the presidential level has a very steep learning curve. There's nothing quite like it."

Detroit roots

Carson's mother first encountered Seventh-day Adventists while in the hospital to deliver him in 1951. An Adventist named Mary Thomas read the Bible to Sonya because she, with only a third-grade education, could not.

At age 8, Carson joined the church and was baptized. He recalls worship services featuring stories of missionary doctors in Africa and India. He decided he also wanted to help others live healthier lives.

"If you ask the Lord for something and believe He will do it, then it'll happen," Sonya told her son, according to his book, "Gifted Hands."

Carson grew up in poverty in Detroit but earned a scholarship to Yale University, where he met his wife, Candy. He attended medical school at the University of Michigan and a few years later, at age 33, was appointed the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

He pioneered a rare procedure to help reduce seizures in young patients and was part of a team that in 1987 performed the first successful separation of twins conjoined at the head.

Outside of the hospital, Carson joined the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, a prominent congregation in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He served as an elder and taught an adult Sabbath school class, said Rob Vandeman, the church's senior pastor until 1996.

Church teachings are reflected in some of Carson's politics, including his endorsement of creationism over evolution and a flat, 10 percent tax inspired by the biblical model of tithing.

"The Adventist church does try to inculcate conservative biblical reading to our understanding of reality, so in that sense his Adventist faith is very, very influential," said Douglas Morgan, a professor of church history at Washington Adventist University in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church is a historically white, evangelical denomination whose adherents champion the Saturday Sabbath (the seventh day, when God rested) and the imminence of Christ's return.

No Seventh-day Adventist has lived in the White House, but Carson isn't the first Adventist politician. Those ranks include former Philadelphia Mayor John Street and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas — both Democrats.

Grassroots support

A fundraiser for the Kalamazoo Christian Schools Association sold out swiftly last fall with Carson as its headliner.

"He's a genuinely kind man. Soft-spoken. Grandfatherly," said Jeff Lectka, development director for the organization. "He's just a very reasonable thinker."

The crowd of 1,300 came away with a sense of empowerment, buoyed by Carson's life story, Lectka said. He said he would consider voting for Carson but doesn't know his politics.

The neurosurgeon's speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast inspired the formation of an independent fundraising committee called the Draft Ben Carson for President, said director Vernon Robinson. Through grassroots organizing, the effort last year raised nearly $13.3 million in donations. Robinson says the group has signed more than 31,000 volunteers and built a list of 110,000 donors that it will rent to Carson's principal campaign.

"Why Ben Carson? The guy is very bright, with a Christian character, who loves the country. Folks find that very attractive," said Robinson, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is flying to Detroit for Monday's campaign launch.

"In Detroit, you have the monument to what happens when you let Democrats run a town for 40 or 50 years. This is what happens when you let Marxists run wild."

John Philip Sousa IV, founder of the Draft Ben Carson committee, says theirs is the first successful drafting of a presidential candidate since Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.

The committee will continue targeting key voter groups including African Americans, medical professionals and evangelical voters, Robinson said.

"His appeal is the fact that he's not beholden to politics or lobbyists. He talks about it as he sees it," said Sousa, a descendant of the American composer.

Giving back

Since he launched his official exploratory committee in March, it has attracted more than 50,000 donors, Carson said.

Despite his busy calendar, he still attends the annual banquets honoring students selected for the eponymous Carson Scholars Program. He and Candy have awarded scholarships to more than 6,000 gifted children since 1994.

"To win this award, you not only have to be smart but you have to demonstrate that you care about other people. That is just as important as being smart — the humanitarian component," Carson told the scholars at Battle Creek. "Why did we put that in there? Because it is our hope that you will be the leaders of tomorrow. And we hope that you will be a different kind of leader."

Hannah Swank, a sophomore at Battle Creek Central High School, became a Carson scholar in the fifth grade. She found Carson's personal story "really inspiring," motivating her to write a novel about a young girl's struggle to overcome bullying and troubles at home. Her book, "Tears of Blood," was published in 2013.

"It helped me realize that anything is possible," said Swank, who returns to hear Carson speak at the annual awards.

Carl English, 67, worked on the sound system crew for the banquet. Carson's easy rapport with the students and their families didn't sway English's distaste for his politics.

"He's for the kids," said English, a Democratic voter. "I don't think he's the man for the presidency. His views are kind of, I'll say, off."

But Carson has built a career around proving his critics wrong.

"I didn't listen to the people who said, 'You can't do that. No one's ever done that before,'" he told students last week. "When people say that to me, it just gets me revved up."

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

Ben Carson timeline

How Ben Carson went from Detroit native to famous neurosurgeon to Republican political rising star.

1951: Born in Detroit

1959-61: Lives in Boston

1961: Returns to Detroit

1969: Graduates from Southwestern High School in Detroit

1973: Graduates from Yale University

1975: Marries Lacena "Candy" Rustin

1977: Graduates from University of Michigan School of Medicine

1978-82: Serves residency in neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore

1983-84: Senior registrar in neurosurgery, Queen Elizabeth II Medical Center in western Australia

1984: Appointed director of the pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins at age 33

1987: Successful separation of conjoined Binder twins

2008: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

2013: Gives speech in February at the National Prayer Breakfast criticizing President Barack Obama

2013: Retires from Johns Hopkins in June after 36 years

2015: Announcement about presidential campaign in Detroit

Other GOP candidates

Dr. Ben Carson isn't the only Republican with eyes on the White House who'll be in Michigan Monday.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an announced candidate, will make a campaign stop next week in Grand Rapids.

He is scheduled to attend a "Stand with Rand" event hosted by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash. The gathering will take place at the Kent County Republican Party headquarters at 10:30 a.m.

Also Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will speak to Oakland County Republicans at their annual Lincoln Day Dinner at 7 p.m. at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. Only $400 and $750 tickets remain. Earlier Monday, Walker will attend a $20 lunch with members of the Ingham County Republican Party at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing. He has not announced his candidacy.

Ben Carson

Full name: Benjamin Solomon Carson Sr.

Age: 63

Residence: West Palm Beach, Florida

Occupation: Retired neurosurgeon and author

Family: Married with three grown sons