Church keeps distance from Carson’s presidential bid

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

As the 2016 presidential race intensifies, Detroit native Ben Carson’s candidacy is likely to draw unprecedented attention to his membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

It also could unsettle some in the denomination, whose history includes a longstanding advocacy for strict separation of church and state.

North American church leaders emphasized that history in a statement this week following the formal launch of Carson’s campaign Monday in Detroit. They specifically instructed church employees not to express views about political candidates, including Carson.

“The Seventh-day Adventist Church values Dr. Carson as we do all members. However, it is important for the church to maintain its long-standing historical support for the separation of church and state by not endorsing or opposing any candidate,” according to the unsigned statement posted on the website of the church-owned journal Adventist Review.

Church officials stressed that “the pulpit and all church property remain a neutral space” when it comes to politics: “While individual church members are free to support or oppose any candidate for office as they see fit, it is crucial that the church as an institution remain neutral on all candidates for office.”

Some of his church’s teachings are reflected in Carson’s politics, including his endorsement of a six-day Creation over evolution and opposition to gay marriage.

But Carson also rails against a “godless” government and promotes American identity as “Judeo-Christian” or “Christian” — a departure from the agenda long endorsed by Adventists in the name of religious liberty, said Douglas Morgan, a professor of church history at Washington Adventist University in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“It’s not necessarily that he’s an unfaithful or bad Adventist, but I think they would be very wary of having him perceived as the Adventist candidate,” Morgan said of the church’s leadership.

In its statement this week, the church indicated it would continue to work to establish “robust religious liberty for all” and said members “should not use our influence with political and civil leaders to either advance our faith or inhibit the faith of others.”

They quoted church doctrine warning Adventists against becoming “preoccupied” with politics or using the pulpit or church publications to boost political theories.

“Dr. Carson supports the ‘robust religious liberty’ that is advocated by the church and detailed in their statement,” said campaign spokeswoman Deana Bass.

“Also, like the church, he believes that people of faith should participate in the voting process and should share the responsibility of building communities.”

A conservative evangelical denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded in the wake of the Great Disappointment — the failed prediction that Jesus would return in 1844. Adherents are perhaps best known for observing the Sabbath on Saturdays — the seventh day, according to the Hebrew calendar.

Early congregations formally organized the church body in Battle Creek in 1863. In recent decades, Seventh-day Adventists’ international membership has boomed with the church claiming 18 million followers worldwide, including a million in the United States. Adventists emphasize a healthy lifestyle and live 10 years longer than the average American, studies have shown.

Carson was baptized and joined the faith at age 8, attending Burns Seventh-day Adventist Church in Detroit and later Sharon Seventh-day Adventist Church in Inkster.

When he was with Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, 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.

But he has attended other churches.

“I spend just as much time in non-Seventh-day Adventist churches because I’m not convinced that the denomination is the most important thing,” he told the Religion News Service in 1999. “I think it’s the relationship with God that’s most important.”

Carson’s candidacy for the Republican nomination has already excited some Adventists and unsettled others. A group formed on Facebook last year seeks to distance the church from Carson’s positions.

“As he continues to run, this group simply wants it to be known that not all Adventists agree with him or want the public image of Adventists to be linked to Ben Carson,” the page says.

From Andrews University, the flagship Seventh-Day Adventist school in Berrien Springs, senior Eliel Cruz, 24, has written columns for Religion News Service and the Huffington Post denouncing a “campaign” against the gay community by Carson — Cruz’s one-time childhood hero.

“As an Adventist and someone of color, I really related a lot to his story growing up,” said Cruz, a bisexual who wants the Adventist church to affirm same-sex relationships. “I didn’t want his voice to be the only one out there. I don't share his beliefs, and I didn't want my church villainized by one man.”

Carson has 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.”

Until 2012, the church described homosexuality as a “disorder” and now says it’s a “disturbance.”

mburke@detroitnews.com