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The Trouble with Famous Adventists


I suspect you’ve participated in this game, especially if you grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, for it’s a favorite of Adventist adolescents. It’s the “what famous person used to be a Seventh-day Adventist?” game. For the purposes of the game we’ll accept Magic Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, and Prince.[1] If you look through lists of famous Seventh-day Adventist adherents, you’ll notice a couple of things immediately: most are African-American, and nearly all are “used to be” Seventh-day Adventists. It’s “used to be,” because we’ve known for a long time that it’s pretty hard to live in the celebrity world and be a faithful member of a strict sect like ours. As my grandmother told me when I asked her why there weren’t any Seventh-day Adventist screen stars, “You can’t keep the Sabbath and eat a clean diet when you work in that environment.” (I’ve written elsewhere about how food and time contribute to our isolation.)

Perhaps that’s why we’ve produced few Adventist celebrities. Mormons, our history-mates, have had their famous entertainers and politicians, even a POTUS candidate. But not many Seventh-day Adventists. Yet we have palpitations, at least at first, when the occasional celebrity looks our way. In my lifetime I’ve seen Little Richard, Clifton Davis, Angus T. Jones, and Paul Harvey (among others) each have his moment in the Seventh-day Adventist sun. Each lent a bit of his publicity to us. Still, it all depends on the kind of publicity they bring. It’s been a long time since any Adventist entity bragged about openly-gay Little Richard’s connection to the church. Clifton Davis got seminary-trained and ordained, then seemed to fade out of the Seventh-day Adventist world, perhaps bored with the limited vista our system imposes. Angus T. Jones got exploited by The Always Right before he could get his feet under him, and we’re still waiting to see how the Lord will use him.

The latest to get national recognition of dubious value is our beloved Dr. Ben Carson. He’s deservedly famous for being an outstanding surgeon, and for the grit and determination that brought him to that point. Yet he slipped up when he used the occasion of a National Prayer Breakfast to express his conservative political views (as good as some of them were) in the one national venue that should be free of political views.

Dr. Carson has the right to his own opinions, God bless him, though that wasn’t the place to air them. To those of you who would defend him, I’d just ask how you’d like it if a speaker made politically-polarized remarks in your worship service (for that’s what it was), especially if they were the opposite of what you believe—and political opinions, no matter how well-meant, will always be opposite of what someone in the audience believes. In the wake of it Dr. Carson appears to have succumbed to the flirtations of Fox News, the most dishonest, opportunistic organization in American media, who interview him with uxorious questions and smarmy praise. He seems unaware that these people are the ultimate “users”, and I couldn’t help thinking when I saw him there that in allowing them to set him up as the anti-Obama he’s had his distinguished reputation tarnished.

Something that Americans have never quite understood is that being excellent at one thing doesn’t make you an expert at everything. We Adventists keep promoting excellent preachers into businessmen, in spite of their so often failing spectacularly at it. Critics correctly note that entertainers are always popping off with foolish opinions about politics and policy just because they’re good singers or actors or producers. Comedienne Jenny McCarthy is embarrassing on the subject of childhood vaccinations, and actor Craig T. Nelson was embarrassing when he told Glenn Beck that he wants to never pay taxes again because “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare, did anybody help me out? No.”  (It’s the rare entertainer—Bono comes to mind—who appears well-informed, and it’s to Bono’s credit that his charitable projects eclipse his politics.)

Likewise, being a great surgeon doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on public policy. Like a lot of successful people, Dr. Carson has left poverty so far behind that he appears to believe the playing field is level for hard-working, highly motivated people. It isn’t. If it were, all of India would be over-achievers. Assistive government can make a big difference to some people. Dr. Carson had an unusual life experience that’s inspiring, but not necessarily replicable by everyone. Many have worked just as hard as he has without winning the prize. Whether he admits it or not, he’s been a beneficiary of the Political Correctness he makes fun of. It’s especially curious that a man who should understand public health doesn’t support the President’s efforts, inadequate as they are, in the direction of universal health care.

In this honeymoon of the conservatives’ adoration of him, it might not be clear to Dr. Carson that good ideas are no longer the currency of American politics. Politics is a cynical, dishonest, bare-knuckle game, where money and reputation destruction beat out common sense every time. Perhaps he doesn’t yet realize how his opponents will flay his best intentions, inflate his weaknesses, attack his family and faith, and do their best to pollute the reputation he’s earned up until now.

Having famous adherents is a two-edged sword. When we identify one, we have a hard time containing our enthusiasm (for we’re quite capable of being users, too.) They bring some attention to our not-prime-time denomination. With us, as with Mormons and other marginal sects, it’s probably impossible to be an Adventist celebrity without being an Adventist celebrity, particularly in politics. No one cares that much that Senator Rob Portman is a Methodist or Senator Mitch McConnell a Baptist. But it’s Seventh-day Adventist Mayor John F. Street whose administration earned the reputation for being among the most corrupt in Philadelphia history, and Seventh-day Adventist congressman Roscoe Bartlett who said that federal student loan programs could start another Holocaust. (Adventist Congressman Jerry Pettis, whose name is memorialized on a Loma Linda hospital, took it in the chops from our side: he was criticized during his lifetime for not being Adventist enough.)

I’d love to see Adventists who, whatever else they believe, stand up in the public eye on the side of compassion. No one could criticize us for that. It’s what we used to be known for before we were beguiled by the party of capitalism and success, before we pithed ADRA, before we let the NAD church dwindle away in favor of more and wealthier institutions. This—not a dearth of celebrity Adventists, or an impure message—is how we’re sliding into irrelevance.


[1] You were allowed to include anyone who has an Adventist connection, and may have attended church a time or two. These men might not have been on the official church roster.

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