The REAL Reason It Doesn’t Matter that Ben Carson is a Creationist

Have you seen it yet? Commentators such as Rod Dreher and Jeff Jacoby have opined that Ben Carson’s creationist Seventh-day Adventist faith doesn’t matter. All sorts of leaders, they write, hold kooky religious ideas. But that’s not why Dr. Carson’s faith doesn’t disqualify him. There’s a more complicated reason.

It's always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man...

It’s always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man…

Jacoby argues that Carson would be a perfect surgeon general. He could follow other creationist surgeon generals such as C. Everett Koop. When liberals comment that Carson’s creationist beliefs mean he’s anti-science, Jacoby points out that all sorts of religious people have all sorts of anti-scientific beliefs. Such theology does not mean they can’t perform their scientific duties.

As Jacoby concludes,

Can you regard someone’s religious creed as preposterous, yet entrust the person who is faithful to that creed with public office? Of course; Americans do it all the time. I can’t see Carson as president, but what I really can’t see is why his religion or his doubts about evolution (neither of which I share) should even enter the conversation.

There’s a simpler reason why Dr. Carson’s creationism doesn’t really matter. Like other humans, Carson is not a simple religious robot. We cannot read his denomination’s creed and assume we know everything he believes on every issue.  More important, we cannot read his creed and assume we know much about his lived faith.

As critics have pointed out, Dr. Carson has ranged far afield from his SDA roots in his effort to win votes. Traditionally, for example, Adventists decry the use of violence. Traditionally, too, Adventists insist on a rigid separation of church and state. Recent campaigning seems to have pushed Dr. Carson to put his conservative American identity in front of his SDA denominational identity on these issues. He has argued for more weapons in the hands of everyday Americans and more religion in everyday government.

I disagree with Dr. Carson’s positions on all these issues (for that matter, I also disagree with SDA orthodoxy on all these issues), but I’m glad he is not simply a creature of his denominational beliefs. After all, if someone had only their religious beliefs to guide them, he or she would be a terrifying leader.

What if a surgeon general believed only in faith healing, so he or she canceled government health programs? What if a leader of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed only that non-Christians were evil, so he or she indulged in missionary warfare?

Luckily, that sort of religious extremism is atypical. Most of us have official beliefs that don’t really impact the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are Americans first, and then we are Catholic, or Muslim, or Hindu.

Indeed, it is not only religious people who do this but also anti-religious people. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan personifies in Brothers Karamazov, there are atheists who fail to follow their anti-religious beliefs to their logical conclusions.

And thank goodness they do.

In short, Dr. Carson’s creationist beliefs don’t disqualify him for high office because he seems willing to back-burner them when necessary.

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  1. This is precisely what frustrates the religious right on the grassroots level — the “failure” they perceive in candidates who seem to share their views to ever actually do anything socially transformative with those views. This leaves them ever more alienated and radicalized with their inability to translate their principles to the dominant power structures of their society beyond the local level at best. It’s not a good or stable situation.

  2. Agellius

     /  November 2, 2015

    “Most of us have official beliefs that don’t really impact the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are Americans first, and then we are Catholic, or Muslim, or Hindu.”

    I don’t think it’s a matter of being Americans first. I definitely consider myself Catholic first. Being Catholic first means putting God first. Could a devout Catholic ever put America before God?

    You are right that not everyone who identifies himself with a particular religion will place that religion above all other considerations. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that he would, unless he indicates otherwise. I might even consider it insulting to not assume so: Why not take him at face value and assume that he embraces his religion wholeheartedly, rather than in a two-faced manner?

    But even assuming that someone places his religion above all else, his religion may not require him to impose the tenets of that faith on society by force, or make war on people of conflicting faiths, etc. No major religion that I know of forbids a civil leader from tolerating conflicting religions or irreligion for the sake of avoiding worse evils.

    So, if a modern Catholic president didn’t call for the reinstitution of the Inquisition, it might not be that he places America above his religion but that his religion doesn’t require inquisitions.

    • Good points, but let me poke you both with this observation: American “secular” law and government is a product of the dominant racist ethos of the modern Catholic and Protestant state churches. The establishment powers of church and state have always been more allied than at odds with each other due to their investment in the old metaphysical constructions of natural hierarchies of order and degree where some people are more equal than others, and some are fit only to be subservient.

      The “doctrine of discovery” from a 14th century pope laid the basis for the legal conquest of the Americas by denying the humanity of its inhabitants. This set up legal precedents that are still in use to this day and are actually quite significant to the way the supreme court regards personhood as being tied to legal citizenship — something Agellius might want to take a look at for how it determined the outcome of Roe v. Wade. There really is not a religious vs. secular divide, but there is a left vs. right divide between people who believe humanity is universal and those who believe it isn’t or must be partitioned to sustain the social order conceived in ethno-nationalist and religious terms.

      • Agellius

         /  November 2, 2015

        I just read the papal bull Romanus Pontifex, which I assume is what you are referring to. While it is certainly shocking by modern liberal democratic standards (big surprise), I don’t see any statement that the inhabitants of the Americas are less than human. In fact it doesn’t deal with the Americas at all but mainly with places in Africa.

        Of course it claims to be approving of conquest and colonization on the ground of saving the souls of the heathen, which I’m sure is BS — undoubtedly they were in it primarily for the money. But nevertheless, the fact of claiming to be acting for the salvation of souls, affirms their belief that those souls were human.

      • It is extremely broad in how it applies to all “pagans,” and it was indeed used as a legal basis for the conquest of the Americas. There is a lot of literature on this; just do your due diligence in researching and reading it.

        In Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) Chief Justice John Marshall found a “universal recognition” of a so-called Discovery doctrine that held that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. ….

        This decision was upheld in the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, giving Georgia authority to extend state laws over Cherokees within the state, and famously describing Native American tribes as “domestic dependent nations.” This decision was modified in Worcester v. Georgia, which stated that the U.S. federal government, and not individual states, had authority in Indian affairs, but it maintained the loss of right to title upon discovery by Europeans.

        In recent years, Native American groups including the Taíno and Onondaga have called on the Vatican to revoke the bulls of 1452, 1455, and 1493. The Haudenosaunee countered the papal bulls with the Two Row Wampum conditionally accepting the bulls stating through the two row wampum “You say that you are our Father and I am your Son We will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers. This wampum belt confirms our words. ‘. Neither of us will make compulsory laws or interfere in the internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.”

        Here’s a Christian Navajo activist on the subject:

  3. Agellius

     /  November 2, 2015

    I’m not denying that it applies to all pagans, I’m denying that it states that they are not human. The bull you cited authorizes conquering them and taking their stuff on the ground that they are ‘enemies of Christ’, not on the ground that they are not human.

    • That they were not equally human/did not have rational souls was the prevailing European assumption. It was contested later and Sublimus Dei (1537) unequivocally declared the natives had rational souls and should not be enslaved. This was only necessary because of the prevailing view that they did not have souls. As you know slavery went on and Sublimus Dei was widely ignored, often on the grounds that they were “enemies of Christendom” and thus subject to the domination spelled out earlier in Romanus Pontifex.

      In American law native Americans are denounced as enemies in the Declaration of Independence and specifically excluded in the Constitution as citizens. There was a mix of justifications for this — the old subhuman, no soul view and the legal Pharisaism that they are naturalized to their tribes (even if the tribal nations were not legally recognized by the US) not the United States. They were denied legal personhood until the later 1800s when a sympathetic judged insisted on the old testament legal language of persons as “living souls.” Full citizenship and equal rights under the law were still withheld until 1924 and even much later in the 20th century. The idea that legal personhood could be tied to nothing more than being born in the US was and remains distressing to white Christian nativists.

  4. Agellius

     /  November 2, 2015

    Undoubtedly various Europeans at various times and places have claimed that various “natives” lacked rational souls, but I’m talking about the papal bull which you cited as “the basis for the legal conquest of the Americas”.

    If the authors of Romanus Pontifex (written some 80 years before Sublimus Dei) believed that the pagans under consideration lacked rational souls, then its statements about saving their souls (e.g. “by the laudable endeavor and industry of the said infante, very many inhabitants or dwellers in divers islands situated in the said sea, coming to the knowledge of the true God, have received holy baptism, to the praise and glory of God, the salvation of the souls of many, the propagation also of the orthodox faith, and the increase of divine worship”) would be nonsensical. Why propagate the faith among animals?

    • I originally said Romanus Pontifex “laid the basis for the legal conquest of the Americas by denying the humanity of its inhabitants.” I didn’t say it did this by claiming they had no souls. The Church dehumanized the native peoples by claiming they had no rights as pagan enemies to Christendom and therefore could be killed, subjugated politically, and enslaved.

      There actually was an abiding interest in the church hierarchy in saying the natives had souls so they could be “saved” and made subject to the Church; rival missionary orders from France, Spain, etc. competed in the saving of these native souls. But early in the conquest those who were in it mainly for the money wanted to enslave natives and found it convenient to deny their humanity by denying them a basic spiritual or ontological equality — the idea they had no souls. The Spanish monarchy came to agreement with the church on native souls because it enabled them to become political subjects as well. As political subjects they would generally be slaves, however, or in some type of subservient status by dint of Aristotelian natural law theory. (The person of lesser native intelligence is subservient by nature to those of greater intelligence.) The same justifications persisted in the American colonies and continued long after the Civil War by “romantic racists” who continue to insist it was not a slave system but one of natural order with the superior race on top. That is essentially what the CSA said in its own constitution.

      You can find an article online that details some of the debate among 16th Century missionaries and others in Latin America over the soul issue. Some of the missionaries themselves concluded and argued the natives had no souls and were fit only for slave labor:

      “Religious Orders, The Indian, And The Conquest: Fifty Years of Dispute and Contradiction” by Maria Paz Haro, Translated by James Dunlap. Encounters 9, (1992).

  5. Agellius

     /  November 2, 2015


    So you’re saying that RP “dehumanized” them in a figurative sense. That’s true, if by “dehumanized” you mean “treated them really bad”. I would just point out that RP doesn’t talk about “native peoples” specifically, but rather, speaks of “Saracens [Muslims], infidels, or pagans,” lumping them all together. Muslims, though considered quite savage, were undoubtedly considered human. Indeed some Muslim philosophers were greatly admired. And so again, RP’s sole justification for mistreating them was their status as “enemies of Christ”.

    No doubt other people felt a need to justify their cruelties to native peoples by literally denying their humanity. I’m just arguing that RP was not the “basis” for doing so.

    The article you cite does show that there was debate concerning the humanity of Native Americans, but it was just that: debate, which was ultimately decided in favor of their humanity. There was never a consensus that they were non-human. Indeed many argued forcefully against their mistreatment.

    Mistreatment took place nevertheless, I’m not denying that. It’s shocking in hindsight, but conquest and cruelty were the norm in those times, among people of all cultures. I would agree that such behavior is less excusable in professed Christians, even back then. However back then, probably more so than now, Christian identity was often more a matter of cultural conditioning than of genuine faith.

    • I understand you want to mitigate the intense racism, slavery and genocide that occurred as mere “mistreatment,” but don’t use my comments to do it. There aren’t any native people taking your cheery glass half full view of the half millenia it took for the people who killed them and stole their land to “ultimately decide in favor of their humanity.”

      RP reflects the Christian imperialism of the early conquest in its dehumanization of “the other” under all kinds of names that really just signified “people you can murder with sacred, sinless violence.” Not “let’s treat them really bad.” The same sort of thing went on to whip up the crusades too. Of course there are always more intelligent and moral figures who try to restrain the bigotry and violence of their era, but they were by no means dominant in the church or western nations in general.

      Saying things like “such behavior is *less* excusable in professed Christians” is inexcusable.

  6. Agellius

     /  November 3, 2015

    But is it more inexcusable or less in a professed Christian? ; )

    You write, ‘the half millenia it took for the people who killed them and stole their land to “ultimately decide in favor of their humanity.”’

    Half “millenia”? Did you not read your own cited article? It was “Fifty Years of Dispute and Contradiction” according to your source (which is what I was referring to), not 500 years.

    If “murdering people with sacred, sinless violence” is not “treating people really bad”, then I don’t know what is.

    You write, “Of course there are always more intelligent and moral figures who try to restrain the bigotry and violence of their era, but they were by no means dominant in the church or western nations in general.”

    Nor in the eastern nations in general, nor in the northern or southern nations. People everywhere have always been bigoted and violent. The only reason I can think of that you might want to portray Western bigotry and violence as worse than any other, is that you have higher expectations of Western civilization for some reason. Maybe because they were professed Christians? I don’t know, but that’s my reason. I think their professed Christianity did make their crimes more evil, not less evil than those committed by other people. That’s the biblical view in any event (Lk. 12:47-48).

    • I was objecting to your use of “less.” It’s inexcusable behavior for everyone. The nature and integrity of their faith or lack of faith has nothing to do with it. The problem with the nice sentiments in Luke is that they tend to be read by Christians as saying they can expect to be specially blessed and to perform at a superior level of morality. This is the default expectation for their view of rich or powerful people they identify as Christian. If there is no scandal, they are morally superior. If there is a scandal, maybe they are not really Christian. What this reasoning does is evade individual moral responsibility as the default and primary focus.

      The corruption of the best is not the worst, it only seems to be more impactful on society as a whole. But what is more impactful that the cowering masses who are not their brothers’ keeper who let a few elites lead their society into great evil? Those who are in a privileged position should not be held to a higher standard; they should be held to a standard common to all people.

      It’s interesting how quickly “traditionalist” abandon their foundations to become moral relativists when it suits them but otherwise preach incessantly about universal moral laws, a deity who judges people throughout history based on those laws, and a classical metaphysics that supports this sort of transcendental ethics.

      It took the social mainstream and Christian mainstream the better part of the past 500 years to acknowledge the equality of non-western, non-Christian people. It was not until the late twentieth century that the Catholic church had fully condemned all forms of slavery in unambiguous terms in key documents and the catechism as well. So yes it’s 400-500 years of a ripped and tattered garment for the magisterium and the church as a whole. Gregory I, Urban II, Nicholas V, and Paul III all explicitly allowed for the owning of slaves by Christians, and Pope Pius IX’s Holy Office was still defending it as late as 1866. Leo XIII was the turning point but long after the nations had preceded the church in doing the right thing. What possible motive can you have to argue so pedantically that this was not a moral disaster and costly in human life?

      Enough with the silly sideshow. My real point was that the Church and State are feuding rival brothers with the same Greco-Roman-Jewish parents, the same genetic material in a long legal synergy, and at the end of they day they always collude in their common cause of “maintaining order.” It is a fundamentally conservative cause that tends to mean neutering outlier figures and insurgents whether they come from the left or the right.

  7. Agellius

     /  November 3, 2015

    The “nice sentiments” in Luke are no such thing. They are a warning that when Jesus returns he had better find the believer acting right, or he’ll be no better off than the unbeliever, and maybe even worse.

    “What possible motive can you have to argue so pedantically that this was not a moral disaster and costly in human life?”

    Indeed. And what possible basis can you have for arguing that I have been arguing that?

    My only argument has been to dispute that RP denied the humanity of those whom it gave permission to conquer. You apparently take this as an attempt to minimize and defend the evils of murder and slavery, but that is an obvious non sequitur.

    • Far from it. If you can’t see dehumanization in the rapacious language of RP I don’t know how to explain that other than “as an attempt to minimize and defend the evils of murder and slavery” — along with your other comments.

      • Agellius

         /  November 3, 2015

        If you want to win the argument through equivocation, you’re welcome to it.

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