Ben Carson is about to crack: He thinks his biography is the Bible -- immune to fact-checking

Carson gets mad when called out on fibs -- losing the White House is one thing, but risking book sales is another

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 9, 2015 11:04PM (EST)

  (AP/Jim Cole)
(AP/Jim Cole)

Up until this weekend, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Ben Carson candidacy was his preternatural ability to stay calm in the face of harsh questioning. Despite his repeated claims not to be a politician, Carson had managed to do what most politicians fail at, even after years upon years of practice: Smiling calmly and moving on when journalists confront him, even in cases, such as during the CNBC debate when he was asked about his relationship with the sleazy "supplement" company Mannatech. Carson's denial of real involvement with the company---which is a lie---was a bit animated, but didn't even get close to anything resembling flustered or angry.

But now the facade of constant calm is starting to crack. Over the past week, journalists have started to ask some hard questions not about Carson's ridiculous policy ideas or some of his strange beliefs, but about his personal biography. Carson's stories of his supposedly violent youth are coming under serious scrutiny as CNN cannot find any childhood acquaintances to corroborate them. His claim to have been offered a full scholarship to West Point is false and, at best, just a really dramatic exaggeration of some encouragement he might have gotten to apply. Even a story he tells about a test at Yale, to illustrate his "honesty", appears to be total nonsense. The test he claims proved that he's a hard-working, honest man was actually a hoax---a strange prank pulled on students---but Carson rewrote the story into a morality play about how honesty is rewarded by the universe.

Now journalists have finally found Carson's weak spot: His tendency to embellish or even outright lie about details of his biography. Over the weekend, Carson dropped his calm demeanor and got aggressive during a press conference, his voice cracking with outrage while he accused the press of trying to "tarnish" him.

The whole situation is bizarre, on a couple of levels. The first question is why Carson felt the need to embroider his past to begin with. After all, the bare bones facts of his life are impressive enough without the need for some kind of fable about being the only honest student in his Yale class, much less a hair-curling story about stabbing a kid in his school days. The other question is why this is the issue that is getting Carson hot under the collar. Confront him about his weird policy ideas, his tendency to compare liberals to Nazis at the drop of a hat, or even his notion that Joseph of the Bible built the pyramids, and you'll get an indulgent chuckle. Bring up that West Point thing, and you'll see that Carson is capable of being roused to anger.

Luckily, there is one simple answer to these questions: Fundamentalist Christianity. Carson is not running a typical campaign for office---arguably, he's not really trying to win office at all---so much as he's trying to build his brand as a fundamentalist Christian icon. He wants his book to be wrapped and placed under every evangelical's tree this Christmas. After he bows out of the presidential race, he has a nice career ahead of him as an "inspirational" speaker---and seller of tapes and sermons and educational materials---for the Christian right circuit. His exaggerated tales of sin and redemption sound bizarre to most Americans, but they are par for the course in the evangelical circles that Carson is trying to win over.

Take the Yale story: A young man who needs $10 and doesn't have it and then is put in this situation where his convictions are tested and voila! He is given the $10 he needed. It's a weird story if taken literally. But the story is perfect for a Sunday sermon on how the good Lord will provide to the righteous man. The likeliest explanation is not that Carson was too stupid to understand what was going on, but that he used his real life experience to fabricate a story meant to be read aloud from pulpits or turned into coloring books to be used in Sunday school.

Hammering messy real world experiences into trite fables about sin and redemption is standard operating procedure in conservative Christian circles. So is the exaggeration. Tales of your behavior before you were saved are embellished for maximum drama. What's important is not the literal truth, but reinforcing fundamentalist notions that the world outside of the Jesus bubble is a depraved hellhole.

Take, for instance, Christine O'Donnell, the 2010 Republican candidate for Senate from Delaware. During her campaign, tape surfaced of her claiming she had been to a "Satanic altar" with "blood" on it during her days when she supposedly "dabbled into witchcraft". The story was obvious nonsense and she tried to downplay its significance without coming right out and admitting what was likely true, which is that she had taken some silly incident from her youth and reformed it into a tale of Satanism and depravity with which to impress her fellow Christians.

Carson's claim that he was a violent youth who renounced his sinful ways after praying has to be understood in this light. In Christian circles, the literal truth of such stories doesn't matter nearly as much as their usefulness in spreading the word that Jesus is the cure for all your problems. A story about Jesus's ability to save you from murder is just more memorable than, say, a tale of renouncing your habit of shoplifting.

This is all why Carson is starting to get angry with the press, as well. Most people who write "inspiring" tales of sin and redemption to be used in Christian instruction don't expect journalists to go sniffing around to find out if any of that is true. So he probably does feel unfairly singled out.

More to the point, this singling out is a real threat to his brand. Carson has positioned himself to be a role model whose life story is chock full of little tidbits and fables than can be repackaged and sold over and over again to adoring Christian audiences. But if his stories become, like Christine O'Donnell's witchcraft nonsense, an embarrassing symbol of the Christian right's loose attitude towards truth, then much of his audience will decamp and move on to other authors and speakers who have tales of sin and redemption that haven't been exposed as exaggerations by CNN.

Previous questions about Carson's policies and beliefs regarding the Nazis or the pyramids might hurt his presidential aspirations, but this latest round of questions about his biography? That might undermine book sales. (And speaking opportunities and other marketing opportunities.) That cannot be borne, which is why, for the first time, Carson is getting defensive about his separation from reality.

Watch to find out what we know about Carson's alleged violent incidents:
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By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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