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Why white evangelicals back Ben Carson

Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson greets parishoners during

Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson greets parishoners during church services at Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church on Aug. 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa

Speaking to a large crowd at the Iowa State Fair Sunday afternoon, retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson shared a campaign that was intensely personal.

Carson's platform is simply the story of his life.

"I never tried cotton candy until I was an adult . . . and it wasn't that good," said Carson, 63. He was illustrating the desperate poverty of his childhood to make the argument that anyone can rise up if he or she works hard enough.

Referring to the other kids in his Detroit neighborhood who didn't have his drive, he said, "They knew what was important; they were just too lazy and trifling to do it themselves."

It was a story the crowd, broiling under a cloudless sky, lapped up. But the biggest applause came when Carson spoke of God, saying, "We need to stop listening to people who tell us we can't talk about God and we can't talk about our faith."

Carson's story is attractive, but his open religiosity seems to be pulling just as many people into his camp. And many of those people are white evangelicals who are more than happy to support a black candidate with whom they agree. Steve and Frances Sloan, who came from nearby Polk City to hear Carson at the fair, are perfect examples.

"People told me I was a racist because I wouldn't vote for [Barack] Obama, but I supported Herman Cain," Steve Sloan said of the former business executive who sought the GOP nomination in 2012.

The Sloans consider themselves independent, but have registered as Republicans so they can participate in Iowa's caucuses. And they are committed Christians for whom abortion is a make-or-break issue.

"He was a preemie," Frances said of her husband, by way of explanation.

"I was born 90 days early," Steve said. "I could have been aborted."

Carson is among the most outspoken of the GOP candidates in opposing abortion, and that explains much of his support here, where polls show he is among the non-Trump leaders.

It's rarely observed that seriously conservative black candidates get the lion's share of their political support from evangelical Christians. Many of them are among the most colorblind voters in the nation, and it's a voting bloc that plays big in Iowa's Republican caucuses. In the 2000 race, right-wing firebrand Alan Keyes finished a surprising third in Iowa, and he enjoyed some credibility in the political spotlight for years afterward because of it.

The affinity between black conservatives and white evangelicals stretches far beyond Iowa. South Carolina's Tim Scott, the only black U.S. senator elected from the South since Reconstruction, owes his success to an evangelical white base. And while it's true that both his Senate seat and the House seat he held before are safely Republican, he got to the general election in his first House race by beating the popular sons of both former Sen. Strom Thurmond and former Gov. Carroll Campbell in the primary.

Sunday, Carson stood by his controversial suggestion that President Barack Obama is anti-Semitic because of his support of the Iran nuclear deal. Carson's staunch defense of Israel is, for better or worse, a trait he shares with many Christian conservatives.

Carson isn't an electrifying speaker, though he is fun. He projects a sincere and friendly brilliance that, along with his remarkable story, attracts voters. He needs to do well in Iowa to go forward. If he does, it will be largely because of his faith. And because of the white evangelicals, so often and unfairly portrayed as racists, who share it.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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