OSKALOOSA, Iowa – Before church on Sunday morning, Dr. Ben Carson read Proverbs 16 from his King James Bible: “A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.”
It’s fitting Scripture for the reluctant candidate who has said he believes his presidential bid is God’s will and whose fate as a politician will be decided here in Iowa in the state’s all-important caucuses.
Later that morning, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon privately attended services at Oskaloosa’s First Assembly of God. It was perhaps one of the last quiet moments the candidate will have in these final hours. Tomorrow, after eight months of relentless travel, stump speeches, fundraising, television interviews, a book tour, polling highs and more recent lows, gaffes, peaks, headlines, media hordes, and debates, the first votes of the 2016 election cycle will be cast. Carson's political future will be – in large part – decided.
“All the pundits are gonna be shocked,” Carson told MSNBC in an exclusive interview. “I don’t have to read the Scripture to know that.”
Despite the political gravity of the moment, Carson’s church visit was without fanfare.
After slipping in through a side door to a reserved front row seat, Carson sat alone, without his advisers. He prayed throughout the family service led by the church's youth minister, pastor Troy Renter, and his wife, Brenda, singing along when children led the congregation in song. The visit lacked the cameras recording Donald Trump’s visit to First Christian Church in Council Bluffs across the state, and those following Sen. Ted Cruz at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. MSNBC's was the only reporter present, the campaign later confirmed. Perhaps the only nod to the months-long presidential horse race that’s taken place across the state was the presence of Secret Service, who searched the several hundred parishioners and this reporter at the door.
The two-hour service included two testimonies – a tearful address by a woman who described how she’d struggled and then deepened her relationship with God, and one from Carson. He told the congregation that God had guided him out of a troubled childhood to become a legendary pediatric neurosurgeon. Revisiting a story he often mentions on the campaign trail, Carson described his failed attempt to stab a friend as a child, and how the experience brought him closer to God. This story has been mocked and questioned by rival Donald Trump, but it fit well with a service about rejecting anger, bitterness, and fear in favor of God’s love. As requested by the church, he did not mention Monday's caucus, only alluding to it only briefly when he said the country needed saving. The congregation prayed for him as Carson stood near the podium, surrounded by children.
“People who don’t understand -- that the power of God can change a person -- think that that’s fantasy, that that can’t happen," Carson told parishioners, speaking of how he said his faith had cured his youthful rage. "They just don’t know how God works.”
Speaking with MSNBC after the service, Carson said his deep faith has kept him grounded in the race.
“My faith is my center," he said. "God’s will and being in harmony with his will is the thing that’s most important to me. Worldly titles, fame, wealth take a secondary position.”
Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist by denomination, but has spent ample time courting voters from other Protestant sects in Iowa, where the evangelical vote made up more than two thirds of all Republican voters in the 2012 caucuses. He was initially bolstered by their support in November, but after the race turned to focus on national security his support wavered and his polling plummeted. According to the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, 10 percent of Iowans support Carson, putting him more than 20 points behind front-runners Donald Trump and double digits behind Sen. Ted Cruz.
Though the service centered on keeping the world’s toxicities – the “yuck,” as the pastor’s wife Brenda had described it to the kids – out of parishioners' souls, Carson said he hadn’t struggled to preserve his own soul amid his presidential bid.
“It’s not as difficult as you might imagine," said Carson. "You’ll notice that I don’t get drawn into the slime and mud. I have a different focus than that. My focus is on doing things that are right, not things that are politically expedient.”
On the campaign trail, Carson says he often told God that if he opened the door to a presidential bid, he’d walk through it.
Will the Lord open a kind of door with Monday night’s caucus?
“I always say, never guess when soon you’ll know,” Carson said.