When Ben Carson took the stage Wednesday morning at Liberty University’s Vine Center, he claimed a role familiar to many of the conservative Christians in his audience — that of a believer persecuted for his faith. And on this Veterans Day, the GOP presidential frontrunner placed what he sees as a battle for the nation’s soul and values in the context of past military conflicts fought to protect the United States’ freedoms.
Praising the Allied soldiers who took part in the Normandy invasion, Carson asked rhetorically why they would do such a thing. “Not for themselves,” he answered, “but for you and me, so that we could be free.” He then shifted from 1944 France to 2015 America: “What are we willing to do for those who come behind us?”
“When you look at our founding document,” Carson told the students, faculty and staff gathered for Liberty’s required weekly convocation, “it talks about certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator – also known as God.” As the crowd applauded, he continued. “And we have so many people now who are trying to push God out of our lives.”
There’s no reason to be afraid, he said, quoting from the Book of Proverbs. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him and he will direct your path.”
After the applause quieted, Carson said he held tight to that scripture in times of adversity. “I cling to it now when so many in the media want to bring me down because I represent something that they can’t stand.”
Carson has indeed come under questioning over discrepancies in his life story, as well as some unusual theories about the Holocaust and ancient Egypt. His response to criticism is a neat little rhetorical move often favored by politicians under scrutiny: “They hate me because I’m ‘x’” – where ‘x’ equals the figure’s audience and other supporters. The implication is that by defending Carson, conservative Christians defend themselves and their faith itself.
The promise of Carson’s favorite verse is similarly straightforward: Trust God, and He will direct every step of your life. Including, Carson believes, a presidential bid.
“When I got a call to be the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast for 2013, I said, ‘Lord, what are you up to?’” Carson said on Wednesday. He had already spoken at the event in 1997 and wasn’t aware that anyone had been given the honor twice. When Carson found out that the only other exception was Billy Graham, he “knew God was up to something.”
“What does the Lord want me to say?” he recalled asking himself, and right up until the eve of the breakfast, he had no idea. But when he awoke that morning, Carson said, it was immediately clear. His resulting speech was extremely critical of Barack Obama’s policies, including health-care reform, and it led conservatives to “clamber” for him to run for president.
So he prayed again. “And I said, ‘Lord, this was not on my bucket list, but if you truly want me to do this, all the pundits say it’s impossible, but nothing is impossible for you. If you open the doors, I will walk through them.”
“And he began opening doors.”
Carson isn’t the first politician to frame his aspirations in terms of a divine mandate. George Bush once reportedly referred to his belief that God speaks through him — the White House disputed the report, but it would not be unusual for an evangelical to pray that God would speak through him – and he was also quoted as saying he was “driven with a mission from God.”
White evangelicals remain an important bloc for presidential hopefuls — Bush won nearly four out of five of their votes in 2004 — which might explain why Carson is appealing to them with a divine mandate: God told him to run. And he’s framing it in culture-war terms that they understand. There is a war going on, and it’s time for responsible, concerned American citizens to intervene, motivated by their desire to leave a legacy of freedom to future generations. They can do this, Carson suggests, by voting for him. After all, he trusted God, and God directed his steps — steps that might lead to the White House.
Last week, the Guardian offered readers an inside look at Carson’s home with a spread of photos that included one of a telling portrait: Ben Carson, contentedly smiling in his white doctor’s coat, sitting literally at the right hand of Jesus, a biblical place of distinction.
“I think the one thing all of us love and appreciate about you, sir,” David Nasser, Liberty University’s vice president of spiritual development, told Carson at the end of his speech, “is really your humility. And the way that you carry yourself as a believer.”
(Cover tile photo: Steve Helber/AP)