As the token brain surgeon of the GOP presidential nominating field, Ben Carson has risen to frontrunner status largely on his outsider appeal and personal biography, having developed a very strong following among the culture war set long before he ran for president. But another detail in his narrative was undermined today when Carson admitted to POLITICO that he was never offered any sort of scholarship or incentive to attend West Point. It was merely the latest troubling example of items in Carson’s CV not checking out under scrutiny, such as his tale of stabbing someone as a youth.

Mixed into the inevitable social media ridicule, however, is the question of Ben Carson’s mental state when he makes psuedoscientific announcements and airs his ahistorical gobbledygook. Is he crazy like the Unabomber, they wonder? Despite the buffoonery of his views on the Egyptian pyramids, evolution, and other topics, I don’t think Carson is insane. Snake oil salesmen are wily, not wild.  When he blames the ‘liberal media’ for the firestorm, Carson is being entirely rational about how his primary wellsprings of political support will react. When Jonathan Chait questions whether Carson is faking his presidential bid to profit on the attention, he fails to appreciate the enduring relationship between patent medicine salesmanship and populist right wing organizing — an all-American tradition that has expressed itself in our time as the freewheeling campaign finance machine of Citizens United. From Carson’s perspective, cashing in on a catechism is completely natural.

But does he have a messiah complex? While a monumental ego is required to run for president, this is an instructive question. Carson’s base of popular support lies within the evangelical wing of the conservative movement, where his pseudoscientific statements and fact-free denials of reality make him extremely popular. The roots of Carson’s specific sectarian views go back to 1844, an outgrowth of the all-American paranoid strain of Seventh-day Adventist theology through which the former neurosurgeon has nourished his personal conviction throughout his adult life. As blogging SDA pastor Loren Siebold explains in a recent post, Carson’s “accusatory eschatology” goes back to the very origins of the church.

Just in case some reporter looking for information on Ben Carson’s denomination stumbles upon this Spectrum column, let me attempt to tell you the truth about who we are. Seventh-day Adventists are conservative Protestant Christians. Read through our fundamental beliefs, and you’ll see that we are solidly orthodox in the central doctrines we share with other Christians. We can truthfully repeat the Apostles Creed. But it is also true that stories about the Papacy’s plan to persecute those of us who worship on Saturday are a solid part of the writings of our 19th century prophet. And yes, a substantial number of our people accept every word of that account as though it were history written in advance. They insist that it is a selling point for our faith, which is why our evangelistic meetings will feature topics about the Papacy’s intentions as explained by prophecies in Daniel and Revelation.

But you also need to know that there are many in the Seventh-day Adventist church who see these stories as remnants of a frightened, nativist past. We believe that the Lord has graciously led us from a religion of fear and exclusivism to one of peace in Christ, and harmony with other believers. We have no interest in blaming Roman Catholics. We extract from the prophecies larger principles, such as that religion mustn’t get entangled with government, and no religious leader should exercise too much power in the civil realm. No one can deny that our denomination has an impressive track record of supporting religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Still, some of us believe that this accusatory eschatology has distracted from the work of the gospel, and from bringing blessings to the world. And as for bringing blessings, we have a bragworthy record of merciful work through our hospitals, disaster relief agencies, and schools.

Known today as ‘the Great Disappointment,’ a failed End Times prophecy begat the SDA church in reaction. As we saw two years ago when the world once again failed to expire on time as predicted by radio preacher Harold Camping, such failures do not uniformly result in a revolt of ‘true believers.’ One of the most successful psychology texts of all time, When Prophecy Fails is a classic study of the phenomenon whereby followers of charismatic cult figures react to disappointment by redoubling their efforts, deepening their convictions, and mentally editing the past. The Advent movement of the 1840s was a textbook case of prophetic failure and a diversity of such rationalizations by disappointed believers. Consider this somewhat anodyne description of that process from an SDA blog, beginning with the day Jesus didn’t arrive as expected.

Bitter anguish set in at midnight when they realized that their hopes would not be fulfilled. Many wept bitterly until daybreak.

“I can’t even fathom how profound and life-changing an event it must have been, not just for Ellen White but for all Advent believers who were heavily invested in the anticipation of Jesus’ return,” White’s great-grandson Charles White said in a telephone interview.

“It wasn’t just because they were anticipating Him, but they loved Him dearly,” he said. “They had such a love for Jesus and a desire to be with Him personally that it was a huge emotional letdown.”

But the Adventist descendants of those who waited for Jesus 170 years ago this month do not remember the day with sorrow. Instead they say that the Great Disappointment was a key moment in Earth’s history that saw the fulfillment of the three angels’ messages in Revelation 14:6-11.

Early Advent believers didn’t know it at the time. Many abandoned the Advent movement when the world didn’t end as predicted by William Miller, a Baptist farmer whose study of Daniel 8 led him to believe that Jesus’ return was imminent.

But those who clung to their faith and searched the Bible came to the understanding that Daniel’s “cleansing of the sanctuary” was not a prophecy of Jesus’ return, as Miller had believed, but the start of Jesus’ final work of atonement. In 1844, Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in the Heavenly Sanctuary to begin judging who would be saved, His final action before His Second Coming and a development announced in the first angel’s message, early believers said.

Some of the Millerites became Quakers, or Shakers, or went back to mainline Protestant churches. Similarly, a ‘great disappointment’ in Ben Carson may benefit some of his competing Christian identity politicians, including Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, whose places at the ‘kids table debate’ are strong evidence of what kind of voter loves Carson the most, and if any such movement happens we will probably begin to see it next week. I will remain a skeptic.

For it remains to be seen how, or whether, the West Point story will impact his polling numbers — or the enthusiasm of his most ardent supporters, who happen to be a plurality of Republican voters at the moment. On social media and in Breitbart-land, there are still fierce rearguard actions underway to defend Carson’s credibility, and while we may ridicule ‘Carson Republicans,’ they do not really care what mainstream opinion says about pyramids or aborted fetal tissue or the US Military Academy’s application process or anything else. They never have cared about anything but ‘saving’ America, and we had best not forget that fact while we are laughing at Ben Carson, whom they believe God has sent to save America. It is a powerful, almost molecular bond that is truth-resistant and defies easy breaking, but thanks to political science and a historical dataset, we can understand it with some measure of accuracy.

  • muselet

    Kevin Drum (motherjones [dot] com [slash] kevin-drum [slash] 2015 [slash] 11 [slash] ben-carson-and-tale-redemption) took a stab—you should pardon the expression—at explaining Ben Carson’s serial embellishments, and concludes Carson, at least sometimes, is selling a tale of sin and redemption to evangelicals.

    Once you get past the snark, Drum’s commenters expand on Drum’s explanation: either Carson is telling these stories as a sort of allegory or parable, or Carson’s life story is, quoting commenter “Mitch Guthman,” a “semi-autobiographical novel” of the type evangelicals are drawn to.

    Only Ben Carson can know what Ben Carson is up to and why. Me, I’m not entirely convinced even Ben Carson really knows.

    –alopecia

    • “Damn you Drum! You have stolen my thunder for the last time!!!” (Shakes fists)