While there have long been prominent Adventist politicians in the US and around the world, the year 2015 saw an unprecedented spotlight on the Adventist Church as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson announced his candidacy for president of the United States.
Carson’s unexpected (and temporary) rise to the top of the GOP field invited national media attention on Carson’s appealing personal story of triumph over adversity, and to his Adventist faith. Real estate magnate Donald Trump brought up Carson's religious heritage at an October ralley, contrasting Carson's faith with his own: "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."
Reporters across the country did their homework, looking into the Adventist Church, and asking questions about how Carson’s faith might impact his governing. Media outlets from the New York Times to Mother Jones to CNN to The Washington Post dug into the basics of Seventh-day Adventist history and practice, and scrutinized Carson’s personal beliefs. As the spotlight on Adventists intensified late in 2015, the North American Division launched a new website, WhoAreAdventists.org, to answer questions from the media and the public about the church.
Adventists themselves were divided about the desirability of Ben Carson's vying for the country’s top job. Officially, the church continued its politically neutral stance, honed over long decades and informed by a cornerstone Adventist belief in the separation of church and state.
While still a poorly understood religion overall, more and more average Americans can profess at least passing familiarity with some tenets of Adventism, thanks to 2015's attention on Ben Carson. Now, at the start of 2016, the year of the U.S. presidential election, Carson looks increasingly like a longshot for the White House as his poll numbers have fallen steadily since peaking in late-November.
While a Southern Baptist himself, Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), whose poll numbers have climbed as Carson's have nosedived, has strong Adventist connections have also been explored by the media. Cruz’s wife, Heidi Nelson Cruz, an executive with Goldman Sachs (she took a leave of absence during the 2016 campaign) is from a long line of Adventist doctors and missionaries, and her orthopedic surgeon brother is on the faculty at Loma Linda. Religion has featured prominently in Cruz’s campaign.
Adventists can also claim Raul Ruiz, congressman from California, and Sheila Jackson Lee, long-time congresswoman from Texas. Adventist Barry Black, Senate chaplain, has also had his share of media attention in recent years. Longtime Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland retired from the U.S. House in 2013, and now lives in a remote woodland cabin off the grid.
Adventist politicians are nothing new in many other parts of the world, especially in places where Adventists are prevalent.
In Jamaica, Adventism is one of the country’s largest denominations, and the country’s Governor-General Sir Patrick Allen, is a prominent Adventist who, until his appointment in 2009, was president of the West Indies Union.
In 2015, Adventist Jioji Konousi Konrote was elected president of Fiji, and took office in November. He will serve a three-year term.
At the General Conference session in Texas this summer, the world church made an effort to organize and support its members who hold high political office around the world. A group of 21 leaders from 10 countries — a mix of ambassadors, ministers of state, members of parliament, a senator, a deputy chief justice, and high-level officials within international organizations — formed a new association called the new World Adventist Public Officials Association. Floyd Morris, Senate president of Jamaica, was elected president of the new association and The Philippines’ ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Bienvenido V. Tejano, was elected secretary.
As the Adventist church continues to attract more members around the world, more Adventist politicians will likely take office and media attention will continue. 2015 was a banner year for Adventists in politics, but in 2016, if trends in America's race for White House continue, when the dust settles, there will likely not be an Adventist living on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Alita Byrd is Interviews Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
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