Why Donald Trump is talking about Ben Carson's religion

Here are three reasons that Donald Trump has opted for this monkey wrench as he's discussed opponent Ben Carson.

Gretchen Ertl/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign event in Atkinson, N.H., Monday, October 26, 2015.

Is Donald Trump implicitly questioning whether Ben Carson is a Christian?

He says he isn’t. But if not, why raise the issue of Dr. Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith at all?

Let’s back up to the beginning of this contretemps. On Saturday, at a campaign rally in Florida, Mr. Trump was talking about polls, including surveys that show him falling behind Carson in the early caucus state of Iowa. Then he suddenly zigged into a religious discussion.

“I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. 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,” said Trump.

That sounds like an attempt to define Carson’s religion as occupying one of the road’s edges. Trump hasn’t apologized for this, however. On CBS's “Face the Nation” on Sunday, he agreed with interviewer John Dickerson’s formulation that his words were an expression of ignorance, not a raising of questions.

“Well, it’s a harsh way of putting it, but perhaps I could say it that way, yes,” said Trump.

If Trump would like to educate himself on the history and practices of Adventists, The Washington Post has a pretty good summary. It’s a Christian religion founded in America that holds services on Saturday and generally interprets the Bible literally.

It was dismissed as a cult in its early years in the 19th century but has since come to be largely regarded as an evangelical Protestant denomination.

But lack of education is probably not Trump’s problem here. That could be solved with 30 seconds, a smartphone, and a Chrome search in the car on the way to a private jet.

Trump used the same “raising questions” approach to his past discussions of the discredited notion that President Obama was born in Kenya. It’s a tool in his political kit bag.

Here are three reasons he’s opted for this monkey wrench now:

Carson started it. That might be Trump’s point of view, in any case. In September, the retired neurosurgeon was asked the difference between him and the billionaire reality show star, and religion was his answer.

“I don’t in any way deny my faith in God,” said Carson, implying that Trump did.

Carson later said he was sorry about this comment.

Carson's winning in Iowa. The most immediate reason for Trump bringing up Carson’s faith is probably this: Carson has pulled ahead in the key early caucus state of Iowa, and much of his support comes from the state’s politically important evangelical Christians. They approve of Carson’s very conservative views on many social issues.

A recent Quinnipiac University survey had Carson as the choice of 36 percent of Iowa Evangelicals, more than double Trump’s 17 percent in that group.

The Iowa caucuses are only 100 days away, and a defeat on Day 1 of real voting might ding Trump’s self-image as a hhhuuugggeee winner. But The Des Moines Register notes that some Iowa Evangelicals continue to argue that Adventists are not Christian, and some don’t like the fact that Carson used fetal tissue in medical research as a physician.

Carson's calm. Demeanor appears to be a big part of the appeal of both Trump and Carson. Trump’s supporters like his belligerence. Carson’s like his calmness.

And Carson’s calm, plus his general practice of ignoring insults, might be getting under Trump’s skin. When Jeb Bush tries to hit back at Trump’s gibes, he’s playing by Trump rules, in Trump’s game. When Carson shrugs and turns to talk about abortion, he’s not paying attention to Trump. It’s a manner of non-engagement that the real estate magnate does not seem to understand.

“He’ll hit back, everybody hits back. In life, everybody hits back,” Trump said Monday in New Hampshire.

So by questioning Carson’s religion, Trump may be trying to goad Carson into a response. That might work. Or Trump might discover that Carson takes seriously the Bible’s words about turning the other cheek.

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