According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll of Republican likely caucus-goers, Donald Trump is still earning the admiration of 20 percent of evangelicals, bested only by Ben Carson at 27 percent. Candidates once thought to be easy evangelical favorites are still, still lagging: Ted Cruz (12 percent), Mike Huckabee (7 percent), and Scott Walker (6 percent). Oh, yeah, and that guy Bush (4 percent).
There was a moment last week, though, that really stood out to me in the litany of Things Donald Trump Does Not Understand About Evangelicals. After Carson said on Wednesday that the chief difference between him and Trump was that “I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God,” Trump hit back in a quintessentially Trump manner, as Mediaite reports:
“He is a man of faith, everybody knows that,” host Chris Cuomo began. “It’s a cornerstone of his existence and certainly his motivation to run.”
“Well I don’t know that,” Trump responded. “I had not heard that. I have known of Ben Carson for a long time and never heard faith was a big thing until just recently when he started running. So I don’t know about Ben Carson’s faith.”
“He’s a Seventh-Day Adventist!” Cuomo protested.
“All of a sudden he becomes the great religious figure. I don’t think he’s a great religious figure. I saw him yesterday quoting on humility, and it looked like he memorized it two minutes before he made the quote. So don’t tell me about Ben Carson,” Trump responded.
One might argue about what constitutes a “big man of faith.” One might argue about what level of religious talk is appropriate (if at all) in a presidential campaign. But there’s no denying that to evangelicals Ben Carson has long been someone whose faith was not in doubt. His 1996 book, Gifted Hands, details his difficult childhood and rise from inner city Detroit to become a prominent neurosurgeon. It is packaged as a morality tale of the role of faith in overcoming life’s obstacles. It was published by Zondervan, a leading evangelical publishing house which has gone on to publish other Carson books. Evangelicals have long seen the book in Christian bookstores, and have read it and become familiar with Carson’s life story.
Carson may have been catapulted to the national political stage when he attacked President Obama and “the PC police” at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. But the reason he was the keynote speaker at the breakfast in the first place was because of his standing among evangelicals.
In the contest of wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve, Carson has Trump beat by a mile. As Religion News Services’ Adelle Banks writes, Carson, a twice-baptized Seventh-Day Adventist, prayed before each surgery he performed, and believes we live in a “Judeo-Christian nation.” That’s not to say he’s a respected theologian by any stretch (Carson, after all, has been criticized for misapprehending the Biblical tithing he claims undergirds his flat tax proposal). But Trump’s broadsides do demonstrate just how far Trump will go in saying what he wants, regardless of whether it has any basis in fact, and, even more surprisingly, regardless of whether it will hurt him with the voting bloc he claims to love.
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