Should Religion Matter in Politics?

Ben Carson has recently surged in the polls. Should we be concerned about his apocalyptic visions? 

Donald Trump is not the only person surprised by Ben Carson’s recent surge in national polls, which has propelled the former neurosurgeon into first place in the GOP race. In an election year poised to champion an "outsider," Carson’s seemingly calm collectedness sounds like a breath of fresh air to Trump’s erratic tirade of complaints and boasts.

Underneath Carson’s cool façade resides an apocalyptic fervor, however. While it comes out sedated and matter-of-factly, his philosophy is informed by his faith: Seventh-Day Adventism was founded on the notion of a pending End Times. Such musings have trickled out during Carson’s speeches, raising more than one inquisitive ear.

Separating religion from politics is as fanciful a notion as removing church from state. As a nation, we have accomplished a great deal relative to certain nations, yet to others it’s laughable how deeply woven religious sentiments are in our politics. Given the outright religiosity of crusades against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, we have to question if we can ever truly separate our religious philosophy with our moral and political ones.

You can understand religion without necessarily believing in it, which is important if you want to wrap your head around what’s going on in our country (and world) today. But education has been stripped from our religions...

As religion professor Stephen Prothero argues in Religious Literacy, America is an exceedingly religious nation in terms of belief, yet sadly lacking in terms of religious education. Forget about knowing much about other religions; it seems that Americans know very little about our own traditions. As he writes:

  • Only half of American adults can name even one of the four Gospels.
  • Only one-third know that Jesus ... delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Most Americans don’t know that Jonah is a book in the Bible.
  • A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
  • He also reiterates the fact that many Americans believe sharia law is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which it is not. This is not surprising, considering most Americans cannot name even one pillar.

    That’s his point: You can understand religion without necessarily believing in it, which is important if you want to wrap your head around what’s going on in our country (and world) today. But education has been stripped from our religions; as Prothero points out, market research has shown that Christians are turned off by actual religious teachings. Churches have become mini-malls with daycare and shopping, along with stand-up comedians and musical acts taking the place of scriptural quotes on billboards. Megachurches become mega when preaching prosperity theology, not doctrinal lessons.

    Prothero explores three main types of Christians: confessionalists, who focus on doctrine; experientialists, who emphasize connecting with God via emotions; and moralists, who focus on ethics. While most religious are a mix of these three, the social emphasis in recent years has been on the latter (hence, opposition to same-sex marriage and female reproductive rights).

    For most of its history, Seventh-Day Adventism was considered by the larger Protestant community to be a cult, a fate it shared alongside Christian Science, Mormonism, Pentecostalism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    This goes all the way to the top: Every American president has sworn an affiliation to Jesus in some capacity; less than half of Americans claim they would vote an atheist into office; a majority of Congress is influenced in some manner by their religion. While some may be less forthcoming, Carson proudly wears his religiosity. So the question remains: What is Seventh-Day Adventism? 

    An offshoot of Protestantism, it was founded by a Baptist preacher from Massachusetts named William Miller, who, on the basis of a reading from Daniel, guessed that Christ’s Second Coming was going down on October 22, 1844. His followers, the Millerites, were profoundly disappointed in their sage’s mathematical miscalculation, but they were certain that his general belief in Christ’s return being imminent was correct. A ministry run by Ellen G. White and her husband James White picked up the pieces and founded the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 

    For most of its history, Seventh-Day Adventism was considered by the larger Protestant community to be a cult, a fate it shared alongside Christian Science, Mormonism, Pentecostalism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dominant religious groups are slow to allow "deviant" groups into the mainstream. By the middle of last century, Adventists craved a larger base, striking up conversations with Protestant leaders — a move that promoted them from cult status to acceptance under the larger umbrella of Protestantism.

    Adventists rely on their churches "28 Fundamental Beliefs," which include:

    God’s law is embodied in the 10 commandments.

    The Sabbath should be observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset (hence, the "seventh day" moniker).

    The wicked will not suffer in hell, but be permanently destroyed.

    In 1844, Jesus began to cleanse the "heavenly sanctuary" in preparation for his return — a head nod (or apology?) to Miller.

    A literal belief that God created the Earth 6,000 years ago — the modern "Creation Science" movement was kicked off by Adventist George McCready Price.

    Prothero makes a controversial request in his excellent book: Religious education should be more widespread in American schools. I agree. Having earned a degree in religion nearly two decades ago, it has proven useful in understanding how our society is operating on a fundamental level. Simple misunderstandings can be avoided, such as: How did 9/11 happen? (Because it’s been happening for 14 centuries, with varying guilty parties.) Or: Christ and Buddha taught the same thing. (No, they didn’t; not even close.)

    Prothero goes to lengths to remind readers that he does not mean religious indoctrination, yet people get the two confused. The reality is we all use our beliefs in our decision-making, some more rationally than others. Carson believes the world was created 6,000 years ago and Christ’s return is imminent. In his hushed tone resides an End Times foundation that is over 170 years old. Knowing where he’s coming from is crucial in understanding how he’d lead if chosen. 


    Image: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.