It was a favorite tale this election season, of a young Ben Carson allegedly attempting to stab a friend with a knife. The attempt, foiled by a belt buckle, caused him great remorse and led him to read Proverbs 16:32 while locked in a bathroom.
“When I came out of the bathroom after three hours I was a different person, and I never had a problem with temper since,” Carson said in a 2008 PBS interview.
This pivotal moment led to a shift in character for the Republican presidential contender. The young man with a bad temper found God, and eventually a spiritual home in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The SDA Church, the faith tradition of Carson’s mother and estranged father, grew out of Methodism and the Millerite movement dating back to the 1800s. In addition to anticipating the second advent of Jesus Christ, a distinguishing belief is keeping Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Adventists keep Sabbath more like Jews than like other Christians, and the rhythm, belief, and community around Sabbath is a core component of this faith.
And then there are a host of other cultural traditions — like (mostly) being vegetarian, and abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, dancing … sometimes even caffeine and movies.
Carson purports his faith guides his policies and his presidential campaign. In fact, his proposed tax plans are allegedly based on the taxing system found in the Old Testament (Seventh-day Adventists hold to a 10 percent tithing as noted in Scripture, yet the presidential candidate is proposing something closer to 15 percent).
It’s this same faith tradition that shapes Carson’s beliefs about LGBT people.
Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, has compared same-sex marriage to bestiality and pedophilia. He even suggested segregating bathrooms for the transgender population since it was unfair to make non-trans individuals uncomfortable. And this week, Carson referred to trans individuals as “abnormal” and said they should not be given “extra rights.”
In 2015, Carson backtracked from other comments in which he said being gay is “absolutely a choice,” using prison same-sex relationships as proof: During a town hall meeting this month, a bisexual woman asked Carson if he believed being gay is a choice. Carson declined to answer, saying it was a “long conversation that leads to no answer.”
His comments on the LGBT community may seem outrageous to many — even to those in evangelical and mainline faith traditions who have left the “being gay is a choice” rhetoric in the past. Yet Carson, perhaps the most visibly religious presidential candidate, holds onto many of his anti-LGBT views.
If Carson’s faith affects his politics, it’s important to contextualize his conservative LGBT views with his church affiliation. Indeed, the Seventh-day Adventist Church espouses many similar views, which stem from a long, complicated history with the LGBT community.
Looking for a 'Cure' for Homosexuality
The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s tenuous relationship with its LGBT members dates back four decades. In the late 1970s, Colin Cook, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor fired for having an extramarital affair with a men, co-founded Homosexuals Anonymous. The organization, now primarily an online presence, was established as a telephone hotline for individuals who no longer wanted to be gay, with Cook as the director and success story. Cook claimed he was no longer a homosexual, and believed homosexuality could be cured.
“I was one of the first three people who was at Cook’s Quest Learning Center,” Dave Ferguson, a gay Seventh-day Adventist told Sojourners. Cook’s Quest Learning Center — an extension of Homosexuals Anonymous — was an ex-gay treatment center for struggling homosexuals in Reading, Va.
A Seventh-day Adventist pastor himself, Ferguson joined the center in hopes to save his marriage and his ministerial calling.
“I found [Cook] hadn’t cured me of my homosexuality, but had taught me behavior modification,” he said. “I thought I was no longer gay, when in reality I was just not indulging in same-sex sexuality.”
Homosexual Anonymous and Cook’s Quest Learning Center were welcomed by the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist with open arms — and money.
"[m]any recoveries are taking place. The healing of the homosexual is by the same means as the healing of all humanity in its broken relationship with God. Over 400 have contacted the Center for help since the interview published in the Ministry concerning help for homosexuals. Responses have come from around the world making evident the need for more such centers in other locations."
Over the years, the church would provide well over six figures.
“While Quest's bylaws carefully omitted any reference to Adventists, the Adventist church had become the first denomination to commit itself financially to an 'ex-gay' ministry,” a Spectrum magazine expose in 1988 noted.
The church promoted Cook’s story and organization despite the fact Cook had no formal education in counseling practices.
In 1981, Ministry Magazine did an extensive interview with Cook on “homosexual healing” in which Cook explained that homosexuality, even as a sexual orientation, was not God’s plan. The church did a mass mailing the interview to 300,000 clergymen of various in the United States.
Cook’s work soon reached mainstream platforms. In the early 1980s, Cook appeared twice on the popular talk show The Phil Donahue Show as a “former homosexual.” His appearance generated close to 1,500 calls to the Adventist Information Ministries’ 1-800 line, prominently displayed during his appearances.
But Cook’s story and the reputation of the Center and Homosexuals Anonymous, would come toppling down.
Claims of Sexual Assault
Thirteen out of fourteen patients, interviewed by sociologist Ron Lawson, came forward accusing Cook of assaulting them during their time at the Center. The victims, one as young as sixteen, alleged advances first in the form of inappropriate touching during long hugs, then during nude massages masked as therapeutic attempts to “cure” them of their homosexuality.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church quickly withdrew their financial support, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 1987, Cook’s Quest Counseling Center shuttered its doors.
Yet despite withdrawing their monies, the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church kept quiet about the allegations — neither publicly condemning the Center nor Cook.
The General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not reply to repeated requests for comment for this article.
Cook reportedly went to Colorado to continue doing ex-gay work, making a reappearance with the help of Colorado for Family Values and Focus on the Family in 1992. By 1995, a new crop of victims came forward alleging Cook participated in inappropriate behavior with them.
But the LGBT community in Reading wanted reparations, and insurance that Cook wouldn’t harm again.
“That was a real betrayal to people,” Ferguson told Sojourners. “Here were many parents who trusted Cook, and nothing was ever sent to them to indicate that the church was even distancing themselves from him. So he was able to continue to do this behind people's back with people who were still sending kids to him for change counseling.”
Yet these tragic events also made the Seventh-day Adventist Church aware of LGBT Adventists in their midst.
A New Kinship Emerges
Even as the church was promoting Cook’s 14-step cure to homosexuality, LGBT Adventists had begun to congregate around supporting one another. In 1976, Seventh-day Adventist Kinship was formed — what is now a worldwide organization for LGBT former and current Seventh-day Adventists. The same year that Cook’s center was established, SDA Kinship held its first annual membership meeting. But the response to SDA Kinship was vastly different than to Cook.
Cook believed homosexuality at its core was against God. And the framework that Cook proposed laid the foundation for how the church would continue to respond to the LGBT community.
SDA Kinship, on the other hand, welcomed LGBT persons where they were — be it dedicated to a celibate life, or happily committed in same-sex relationships.
In 1988, the Seventh-day Adventist Church filed a suit against SDA Kinship, asking the court to forbid Kinship from using the terms “SDA,” “Seventh-day Adventist,” or “Seventh-day Adventists.” The court ruled in favor of SDA Kinship, saying the organization included enough individuals who were also members of the Seventh-day Adventist church for them to use the name.
During the 1987 National March on Washington, SDA Kinship members carried banners reading "Kinship: Gay and Lesbian Seventh-day Adventists," “Support Adventists With HIV/AIDS,” "Change 'Ministries' Are a Crime Against Nature," "Stop Supporting Sexual Abuse of Children," and most directly, "Stop Supporting Colin Cook."
At the same time, Seventh-day Adventist Church was vilifying the LGBT community for HIV/AIDS. The denomination, which boasts the largest Protestant network of hospitals and clinics worldwide, had an influx of patients infected with the virus.
“The church connected the [entire] AIDS crisis with the LGBT community,” Ferguson told Sojourners. “We had doctors working at our hospitals, and missionaries abroad, telling the church this wasn’t just an LGBT crisis but a human crisis. Yet, the denomination continued to look at it as an LGBT thing.”
The AIDS crisis and the legal battles left the communication between the LGBT community and the church tenuous. This was also caused by the church’s lack of engagement with LGBT people. The church, at that point, had only engaged individuals claiming to be former homosexuals as well as those who wanted to be changed.
In 2012, the documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith On The Margins re-ignited a conversation in the church. The story followed three gay couples in committed same-sex relationships, wrestling with their faith and sexuality. The documentary wasn’t the first time Seventh-day Adventist gay couples shared their story, but Seventh-Gay Adventists was viewed by both Adventists and non-Adventists around the world.
Until Seventh-Gay Adventists was released, the LGBT conversation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church largely engaged only ex-gays — the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church didn’t formally acknowledge homosexuality, despite its impact in the pews, and chose instead to stick to what it knew from Cook’s years: reparative therapy.
And to this day, while the term “reparative therapy” is no longer used, the pseudo-science practice, and its end results, are still encouraged.
Coming Out Ministries is a predominantly white male group of Seventh-day Adventists espousing the same fundamental principles of reparative therapy. The group has been invited to speak across the globe at church-sponsored events. The group of individuals don’t call themselves gay or straight, choosing rather to say they’re “redeemed.”
A request for comment to Coming Out Ministries went unanswered by the publication of this piece.
In February 2014, Mike Carducci, a member of Coming Out Ministries, spoke at conservative Seventh-day Adventist youth conference GYC. Speaking to thousands of youth, Carducci said LGBT people are demon possessed:
“For anyone who believes that homosexuality is an alternative lifestyle, I am truly a testimony to let you know right now that you are under demonic control. If we allow homosexuals to bring their lovers into church, and we start letting them teach Sabbath school, you're allowing demons to come in with them and to engage with your children."
One year later, Carson announced his presidential bid.
While his apparent surge late last year has appeared to fade, Carson’s largest group of supporters remains white evangelical Protestants — a group he is seeking to court away from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Indeed, Carson this week sought to clarify his religious beliefs, saying, "There isn't anything that's non-mainstream Christian about Seventh-day Adventists.”
While that may or may not be the case, there doesn’t seem to be anything that’s not Seventh-day Adventist about Carson’s political views on LGBT individuals.