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Carson, with lift from evangelicals, surging in Iowa

Trump's questioning of Carson's Seventh-day Adventism not likely to fly, experts say.

At a low point in his life, a 14-year-old Ben Carson turned to a Bible passage that he says changed his path — and helps to explain his popularity, decades later, as a presidential candidate.

He who is slow to anger, he read in Proverbs, is better than the mighty.

The retired Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon has surged to the top of the Republican field in Iowa with help from evangelical Christians, many of whom are attracted to the soft-spoken, humble outsider who sounds very different from the bombastic billionaire Donald Trump.

Carson has moved from Baltimore County to Florida, but he still belongs to a Seventh-day Adventist church in the Montgomery County community of Spencerville. Since he discovered the Scripture, faith has played a central role in his life and his work as a physician.

Now it is increasingly working to his advantage on the campaign trail.

"Evangelicals have this perspective, this biblical perspective, on what Jesus would say about being gentle," said Randall A. Bach, president of a national association of Pentecostal congregations based in Des Moines, Iowa. "There's a feeling that he speaks to our demeanor, not just what we believe."

Bach has not decided whom he will support for president.

After a summer in which Trump dominated the GOP field, Carson has cruised to the top of recent polls in Iowa. A Monmouth University poll last week showed the longtime Marylander with a 14-point lead over Trump in the nation's first caucus state.

He held an 18-point advantage among evangelicals, a powerful constituency that makes up more than half of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa. The state will hold its caucuses in February.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released Tuesday put Carson in first place nationally among Republicans.

While Carson was overshadowed during Wednesday's GOP debate by the stronger personalities of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it might not matter. At least among evangelicals, several observers said, Carson's understated approach is a big part of his appeal.

The Rev. Jason Poling, pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, said Carson's style and story are naturally attractive to evangelicals. He is able to deliver a stump speech in the tradition of Christian testimony, the practice of connecting personal stories to one's religious beliefs.

"I think his personal qualities of gentleness and humility in style are also appealing," said Poling, who has not chosen a candidate. "He seems to be an authentic person. He doesn't seem to be putting on an act."

If Carson's faith seems authentic as a candidate, it is partly because he was espousing it long before he entered politics. In his 1992 book "Gifted Hands," Carson told of several moments in which he believed God intervened directly in his life.

At one point, he wrote, God gave him the answers to a pre-med chemistry test in a dream.

And then there was the time he tried to stab a friend. Carson has said he was often prone to violence as an angry teenager raised in poverty in Detroit. But the stabbing attempt, which Carson has said was thwarted only by the boy's belt buckle, shook him.

As he sobbed in a bathroom after the incident, Carson wrote, he opened the Bible to Proverbs 16:32 and found the words that set his life on a successful course.

Carson went on to graduate from Yale and the University of Michigan's medical school. At 33, he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins, the youngest person to lead a major division at the institution.

Now 64, he saw his political star rise after he delivered a fiery address at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. The event is traditionally nonpartisan, but he used it to criticize Barack Obama's policies a few feet from the president. Buzz about a possible White House run soon followed.

Trump has attempted to make an issue of Carson's faith.

"I'm Presbyterian," he said at a rally in Florida last weekend. "Boy, that's down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about. I just don't know about."

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, which numbers some 18 million members worldwide, is headquartered in Silver Spring. It traces its roots to the teachings of William Miller, a Baptist preacher from upstate New York who prophesied the return of Jesus on Oct. 22, 1844 — a day that came to be known by followers as the "Great Disappointment."

Members observe the Sabbath on Saturday and still believe in an imminent Second Coming.

While some other Protestants have been skeptical of the denomination, religious scholars said Trump's attempt to expose those rifts would likely fall short. That is partly because Adventist leaders have made efforts in recent decades to win acceptance from other Christian denominations and partly because mainstream evangelicalism is closer in doctrine to Adventism than it is to, say, Roman Catholicism.

Adventists share most of the central tenets of evangelical Christianity.

"'Evangelical' is a really nebulous category and has always included multiple denominations," said Elesha Coffman, a professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

Coffman pointed to research by Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who has written that the most prominent religious schisms today are not between different denominations but rather between conservatives and liberals within denominations.

"They see that Carson is on their side of that divide," Coffman said, "and that matters far more to them than Saturday worship versus Sunday worship."

That seems to bear out in public opinion surveys. Eighty-nine percent of likely GOP Iowa caucus-goers say they find it attractive that Carson has said his administration would be guided by his faith, according to a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll late last month.

Meanwhile, controversial statements that Carson has made about Islam seems to have helped him more than hurt in Iowa. The Bloomberg poll found that 73 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers supported Carson's concern about a Muslim serving as president.

"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation," Carson told NBC's "Meet the Press" in September. "I absolutely would not agree with that."

He later said he could support a Muslim who denounced sharia law.

But there are also cautionary notes for Carson, both in polling and among evangelicals. The Bloomberg poll found that 83 percent of Carson supporters could be persuaded to support another candidate. By comparison, only 67 percent of Trump supporters said they might choose someone else.

Carson appeals to the traditional conservative mores often associated with Iowa and other Midwestern states, said Jamie Johnson, a longtime evangelical pastor who lives near Ames and now works in politics. Carson's personality is neighborly, Johnson said, and his soft-spoken approach fits with a culture that emphasizes hard work over political-speak and brashness.

"Ben Carson's personality fits like a hand in a glove, almost perfectly, with Iowa voters," said Johnson, who was a senior director for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign until he dropped out of the GOP race in September.

But personality isn't everything, Johnson said, and other candidates — such as Cruz — might be a more obvious ideological fit with evangelicals in Iowa and elsewhere. Having never served in office, Carson does not have a political record for conservatives to explore.

"There's a certain percentage of Republican voters in Iowa who are looking for ideology first and likability second," Johnson said. "Others are looking for experience."

Carson, whose campaign declined an interview request, has said the country is hungry for a candidate who is not a career politician.

But Dr. Linda Johnston, a Los Angeles physician, Republican and evangelical Christian, said that is a harder sell to make for the Oval Office than, say, a seat in Congress.

"He gives a great speech. That's all well and good," Johnston said. "But the thing that I think bothers me the most is the very notion that somebody who has never been in politics before can step into the presidency."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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