As his surge in heavily evangelical Iowa puts a spotlight on his faith, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is opening up about his membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He embraces it as right for him while also framing his beliefs in broad terms that aim to transcend divisions among Christians.
In an interview with The Associated Press, days after GOP rival Donald Trump criticized Carson's church, the retired neurosurgeon said his relationship with God was "the most important aspect. It's not really denomination specific."
Carson discussed a brief period as a college student when he questioned whether to stay in the church. And in his own criticism, he said it was a "huge mistake" that the top Adventist policymaking body recently voted against ordaining women. "I don't see any reason why women can't be ordained," he said.
The remarks are Carson's most expansive about his church since he joined the 2016 contest. Voters have come to know him for his faith-infused policy stands, including his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, without hearing much from him about his Adventism.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was born from what is known as the "Great Disappointment," when Jesus failed to arrive in 1844 as expected by thousands of Christians. Many of these disheartened faithful, called Adventists for their belief in Christ's imminent return, continued studying the Bible together and set Saturday as their Sabbath day of worship.
The church, formed in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan, has a spiritual focus on healthy living and an extensive network of hospitals and medical clinics. Carson expressed pride in the denomination, while also trying to reach beyond it.
"There are a lot of people who have a close relationship with God, and you can generally tell who they are by the way they act, the way they treat other people," he said Wednesday, a few hours before the GOP debate. "The reason that there are like 4,000 denominations is that people have looked at this and said, 'Let's interpret it this way. Let's interpret it this way.'
"Sometimes they get caught up in that and forget about the real purpose of Christian faith," he said.
Trump has appeared to be trying to paint Carson as part of a faith outside the mainstream, not a religious conservative who shares the values of Iowa's evangelicals. During a rally last Saturday in Florida, Trump noted he was a Presbyterian, calling his own church "middle of the road." Then he added, "I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about."
A possible impetus for Trump's new approach was a series of preference polls showing Carson overtaking him in Iowa, the lead-off caucus state where evangelical voters are crucial to success for Republicans.
In 2012, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, won just 14 percent of Iowans who described themselves as born again or evangelical Christian, according to Iowa caucus exit polls, amid deep skepticism about his church and his politics.
"Donald Trump is Donald Trump. It doesn't surprise me that he's doing that. I would only be surprised if he didn't," Carson said. "There's a lot of things that are done in politics that are not fair, but when you get into the fray you have to expect those things."
A twice-daily Bible reader, Carson said he still belongs to his longtime church in Spencerville, Maryland, and to another in Florida. If he's on the road campaigning on a Saturday, he and his wife will try to find a local Adventist church or watch services online.
In the interview, Carson revealed he went through a brief period of questioning as a Yale University student about whether Adventism was right for him. He said he was upset by segregation in the church.
After trying out services at Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran churches, he ended up staying.
"I concluded it was the right church, just the wrong people. The church was very segregated. You know, if you have the love of God in your heart, it seems like you wouldn't do that. That has changed fairly significantly since that time," Carson said.
Adventists today place a heavy emphasis on protecting religious liberty. The denomination filed a brief in support of the Muslim woman who won a Supreme Court case this year against Abercrombie & Fitch, which refused to hire her because she wore a headscarf.
Some Adventists have been upset by Carson's recent comments that the U.S. should not elect a Muslim president. He stood by that position in the interview, and said those who object probably don't understand Islamic law, which he said "is not consistent with" the U.S. understanding of religious liberty.
Last May, Seventh-day Adventist officials issued a statement taking note of Carson's candidacy. It emphasized the church's longstanding support for the separation of church and state and said it was crucial for Adventists to continue keeping politics out of the pulpit during this election season.
Still, given the extra attention, the denomination is rolling out a new website, whoareadventists.org, to educate the public about the church.
"I think this is a great opportunity for us," said Daniel Weber, an Adventist spokesman. "Donald Trump did a great thing when he said, 'Who are Adventists?' Now we're answering that question."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Julie Pace and Jill Colvin contributed to this report from Washington.