Typically Donald Trump does not seek to undermine his political or business rivals via innuendo or subtle digs, but by large, loud and unmistakable attacks. That’s why his strange little drive-by (as reported by WaPo’s Vanessa Williams) on Dr. Ben Carson’s religious affiliation over the weekend was surprising:
Trump had brought up Carson’s religion on Saturday, during a rally in Florida.
“I’m Presbyterian, he said. “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.”
While it’s the second part of the quote that got all the attention, the first part was pretty odd, too, insofar as the Presbyterian faith community in this country is currently undergoing what can only be described as a schism over same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT folk.
In terms of Trump’s remarks on Adventism, at Religion Dispatches Sarah Posner compares it to a similar remark Mike Huckabee made during the 2008 cycle about Mitt Romney’s religion:
Trump has taken a page from Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign. In a December 2007, New York Times profile, Huckabee was quoted responding to reporter Zev Chafets’ question about whether he thought Mormonism was a religion or a cult by saying he thought it was a religion. But, he added, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
The same day his remarks were published on the Times website, Huckabee apologized, saying the comment was taken out of context.
Trump, like Huckabee, denied that he was dog-whistling the GOP’s evangelical base. But just like Huckabee, Trump could deny that ill-intent all he wanted, and he could fudge the context all he wanted. But he was pressing a tiny seed into the ground, hoping it would grow into a narrative that Carson’s faith is fringe and outside the mainstream.
Sarah doesn’t think it will work since most conservative evangelicals feel like they know Carson and are comfortable with his religious views, which may not, in fact, conform to his denomination entirely when it comes to areas of potential conflict like church-state separation and eschatology. Beyond that, Trump is not necessarily on advantageous terrain when he drifts into religious issues. He’d do better drawing attention to Carson’s blithe support for shutting down Medicare and Medicaid in favor of giant health savings accounts, which is precisely where Trump went in fresh comments about his rival yesterday.