Making Iowans Squeal

I’ve been wondering when some attention was going to be paid to Dr. Ben Carson’s religious beliefs. The Seventh-Day Adventists are a surprisingly large but still impressively obscure part of American (and global) life, with around a million American adherents and a claim of 18 million worldwide. Still, while Adventists in many respects are a lot like conservative Protestants from other traditions (albeit with some exotic beliefs like psychopannychism, or the “sleep of souls” after death, which flows from their opposition to the idea of the natural immortality of souls), their close association with minority views on health and diet, and particularly their strong inclination towards vegetarianism, occasionally draws both positive and negative attention.

It’s inevitable that some negative attention is headed Carson’s way in Iowa, where raising and slaughtering hogs and other livestock is a very big deal. As HuffPost’s Delaney and Alman report, word of Carson’s vegetarianism is spreading:

Carson told the Vegetarian Times in 1990 that a meatless diet would eventually catch on. “It might take 20 years,” Carson said. “But eventually there will no longer be a reason for most people to eat meat. And animals will breathe a sigh of relief….”

[U]nfortunately for Carson, almost a third of Republican voters have an unfavorable view of vegetarians. A 2013 survey conducted by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 30 percent of Republican voters view vegetarianism unfavorably, while 38 percent view it favorably and 32 percent are unsure how they feel about it.

The numbers are probably worse in Iowa, whose current heartthrob, after all, is junior U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, who made her background on a hog farm the theme of her successful 2014 race, along with the slogan “Make ‘Em Squeal” (alluding both to castrated hogs and endangered D.C. purveyors of pork, of course).

Suspicions of hostility to meat have been a political problem for politicians in meat-producing states in the past. Way back in the day, South Dakota’s Tom Daschle spent much of one of his campaign munching burgers after coming under attack for a campaign contribution from Jane Fonda, who had said something negative about meat consumption.

I have a weird memory of my own from 1980, when I had to field an angry phone call from a powerful Georgia state representative upset about the “hippies at USDA” issuing dietary guidelines that the cattleman’s association deemed insufficiently supportive of beef-eating.

Now I don’t know if Carson will get a mulligan on his dietary practices because his vegetarianism flows from the practice of a conservative religion rather than from suspicious sympathy for animals or Mother Earth. Aside from a general orientation against consumption of meat, the Adventists follow the more specific Levitical prohibition on “unclean” foods like pork and shellfish, just like Orthodox Jews (a practice deemed as “superceded” by the New Covenant according to nearly every other conservative Christian tradition). Are the conservative Iowans so concerned about “religious liberty” going to respect Carson’s beliefs on this subject, as on birth control or abortion or same-sex marriage? I guess we’ll find out the first time he turns down a corn dog at the State Fair.

UPDATE: Missed this at the time, but the National Memo‘s Sam Reisman did a piece on May 11 noting this issue, and the particular challenge posed by Joni Ernst’s big June 6 event, the Roast and Ride. For Carson’s sake, I hope he can ride a hog since he cannot eat one.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.