Adventists and Politics: “That Is Not Their Thing”

Maybe it’s because he’s running second or third in recent polls of the GOP presidential nomination contest, or maybe it’s because of his comments about Muslims–at least those who don’t follow some prescribed ritual of repudiating Shariah Law–not being acceptable as presidents, but Dr. Ben Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventist background is finally getting some media attention. There’s a pretty meaty CNN piece up now from Nia-Malka Henderson, but it probably raises more questions than it answers among people unfamiliar with this denomination.

The most important thing to understand about Adventists is that they are very serious premillenialists who tend to think of this world as incorrigibly wicked and the Second Coming as a real deliverance from it. So they are definitely not interested in building The Kingdom of God On Earth, even though they share a significant number of beliefs about morality and cosmology with those who are of a Christian Nationalist or theocratic bent.

Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania is quoted in the CNN piece as comparing and contrasting Adventists to conservative evangelicals:

They are in many ways like conservative evangelicals, no same-sex marriage and no abortion,” said Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a 19th-century religion that comes out of a space where health and holiness was important. But they have this leader who is a woman, Ellen G. White, and they veer off of traditional mainline Christianity….”

She added: Adventists “are not politicians. That is not their thing.”

But in the current atmosphere of political polarization, some of the Adventist disdain for the principalities and powers of this world may be reflected in Ben Carson’s hostility to secular liberals. See if this sounds familiar:

At an October 2014 speech, Ted N.C. Wilson, the church’s president, told his congregation that the “devil is attempting to neutralize God’s church,” in what the church believes are the closing hours of Earth’s history.

“Stay away from anything that will undermine our message or cloud our distinctive beliefs. Don’t be tempted by the devil to blend in with the crowd or be ‘politically correct,'” he said. “Don’t proclaim a ‘generic’ Christianity or a ‘cheap-grace Christ’ which does not point to the distinctive biblical truths to be declared worldwide — the very reason for which the Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized.”

The desire to defend things that are not “politically correct” appears to be the wellspring of the Carson candidacy, though I suspect he is advancing that ambition in ways that make other Adventists nervous.

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.