The seating configuration for Sunday’s church service was a little bit different, Pastor Rick Joynter noted for those visiting Morningstar Fellowship Church for the first time.
As Secret Service agents manned strategic points around the hall and checked worshipers coming through the doors, a rope separated the congregation from the area around the pulpit and from a VIP section nearby containing a special guest speaker.
“I want to give as much time as possible to Dr. Ben Carson,” Joynter told the church.
The presidential candidate made his second appearance in York County in four days at the church on Star Light Drive. He spoke at the religiously themed Carolina Values Summit at Winthrop University on Thursday, and he appeared in the nationally televised Republican debate in Greenville on Saturday, one week before the South Carolina Republican primary.
But as he took the stage at Morningstar, Carson seemed glad to be back in his element. “There’s no place I’d rather be on Sunday,” he said.
Carson has slipped from his high point in the polls this fall and will need a strong performance Saturday to rise above the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But his message on Sunday was more sermon than stump speech, focused less on his presidential expectations than his own story about how he came to the church.
The eventual pediatric neurosurgeon was raised in poverty in Detroit, and some members of his audience audibly gasped as he recounted his family history. His mother, a domestic worker, married at 13 but later divorced Carson’s father after she discovered he was a bigamist with a second family.
She raised both her sons to be studious, requiring them to read a library book each week and write out a book report, which he later discovered she herself couldn’t read.
“People told her, ‘You can’t keep boys inside reading books. They’ll hate you,’” Carson said. “Today I probably could have called social services, and they’d have taken her away.”
The younger Carson may have been in danger of getting taken away himself. He says a hot temper often led him to physically lash out at people.
“One time, my mother was trying to get me to wear something, and I picked up a hammer and tried to hit her in the head with it,” he said. “Fortunately, my brother caught it from behind.”
Carson realized his behavior threatened his dream of finishing school and becoming a doctor. “I fell to my knees,” he said, “and said, ‘Lord, you have to help me. Take this away from me.’”
He picked up the family Bible and spent three hours reading through it in the home’s bathroom.
“I opened it up to the Book of Proverbs, and there were all these verses about fools, and it seemed like they were written about me,” he said. “I realized that to lash out, to kick down a door, to punch somebody, was not a sign of strength but a sign of weakness.”
Interspersed with his personal story, Carson talked up some of his proposals for the presidency. He disparaged government-led efforts to boost the economy or improve people’s personal finances. He said college students were following a “pied piper” in Democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, with his promises of tuition-free college.
Instead, he promised a tax holiday that would allow American companies to return $21 trillion currently kept overseas, “the biggest economic stimulus since FDR’s New Deal,” he said.
Carson also used his own story to talk about the need for criminal sentencing reform and to offer more help to young people who grew up like he did. Someone kept out of jail and off drugs “is one more productive person who could find clean energy or cure cancer,” he said. “We can’t afford to waste any of our people.”
But many of his remarks focused on the piety that has attracted much of Carson’s support from conservative Christians – such as what Carson perceives as an effort to force God out of the public square, even as the Pledge of Allegiance declares the U.S. one nation “under God” and money is printed with the motto “in God we trust.”
“In medicine we have a word for that,” Carson said. “Schizophrenia.”
Churchgoers said afterward they were glad to have a chance to see the candidate in a more intimate setting, outside of the televised debates.
“We hear his heart when you can hear him in this atmosphere. You get a picture of the full man,” said Morningstar member Nan Branum. “It creates a sense of trust.”
“I thought what he shared today was extremely insightful,” said Saanyah T. Rahm, who said she planned to read Carson’s book after hearing him speak. “I appreciate him combining his spiritual insight with his worldview.”
Now it remains to be seen if voters will show the same appreciation for Carson’s worldview on Saturday.