Ben Carson has ranked as one of the top Republican presidential candidates in a field of over a dozen—a position that even the retired brain surgeon himself didn’t expect. At least, not without God leading the way, he said.

Even after a drop in a recent poll, Carson remains tied for third, behind Donald Trump and Marco Rubio.

A 64-year-old retiree with no political experience, Carson told Christianity Today that he never set out to run for president until supporters pushed him to consider politics. He said he heard from everyone from young parents concerned about their children to “elderly people who had given up on America and were just waiting to die” that they wanted him, an outsider, to lead.

“I finally just said, ‘Lord, all the pundits say that it’s impossible, that an outsider can’t do this, can’t raise money, can’t develop a national organization. If you want me to do this, you have to prove them wrong,’” said Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist who was featured in a 1991 issue of CT for his missional approach to medicine. “If you open the doors, I’ll walk through them. And if you don’t open the doors, I’ll sit out.”

Since then, the slow-spoken, squinting doctor has gone back and forth with another unlikely politician, billionaire mogul Donald Trump.

Days after his trip to visit refugee camps in Jordan, Ben Carson spoke to CT from the campaign trail in South Carolina.

What has your faith practice been like during these busy months of the campaign?

It hasn’t changed our routine. No matter where we are, we still start each day with prayer and Bible reading, and we end it the same way. I find myself praying a lot more these days. If you have strong Christian values in a secular progressive society, you’re going to be the subject of much attack. But the Lord gives you what you need to get through that.

How active are you in church? Would you attend an Adventist church as president?

I go to church whenever I can. I don’t get to go to my own church very often since I’m on the road a lot, but I do end up many Sundays being able to speak at a church. I love being in church. If the Lord puts me in the White House, I will definitely continue attending on a weekly basis.

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What happened with the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference this summer? Has that dust-up affected your relationship with the evangelical constituency?

I’ve talked with a lot of pastors in our country, including many Southern Baptist pastors, who were embarrassed by that. We have a tendency to focus on denominations, rather than talking more about Christianity and (whether) we accept Christ as our Savior—how the acceptance of him affects the kind of person we are and how we interact with other people. I think that that’s by far the most important issue.

One area where we’ve seen some evangelical leaders depart from many of the Republican candidates is resettling refugees from Syria. After having just visited Jordan, how does your faith inform your position on the refugee crisis?

We need to be people of compassion. When I look at the Syrian refugees, I see human beings who are distressed, and we should be doing something to help them. I wanted to see what was going on over there and what would be the humanitarian thing to do for them.

I asked a lot of the Syrians, “What would be your ultimate goal?” I got the same answer; obviously, they wanted to be resettled in their country. I asked what other countries like the United States could do. They were saying if countries like the United States would support the efforts of the Jordanians, it would vastly improve the quality of life for them. Some people say it’s our job to bring them here, but we’re talking about millions of people. Bringing 10,000 or 25,000 or 50,000 here doesn’t solve that problem in the slightest. It makes some people feel good and lets them pat themselves on the head.

California recently legalized physician-assisted suicide. We now have interventions to end life as well as advancements that prolong life in ways we wouldn’t have imagined decades ago. As a doctor, where do you see the role of medical technology in intervening for life and death?

Our job obviously is to preserve life, from in the womb until old age. At the same time, we must be practical. There are people who are terminal and people who are in a chronic, debilitative state. They’re two different things completely. Terminal people, they’re going to die no matter what you do, and we have an obligation to keep them comfortable, but we don’t necessarily want to prolong a miserable situation. But that’s very different from somebody like Terri Schiavo, who was not terminal. Depriving her of food and hydration, that’s torture. It’s really uncomfortable to starve to death, whether you can manifest it or not. You have to distinguish between those two situations, and I think a lot of times, people do not.

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You told Americans to “tone down the rhetoric” following the shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. What changes would you want to see in abortion discourse?

I want to see the pro-life movement take the high road and be the ones who actually encourage the discussion. The pro-life movement has much better arguments than the pro-choice movement does, but they don’t have a chance to compare them side-by-side because they’re both so busy throwing barbs at each other. I don’t think we’re going to make the progress we need to make that way.

Over the last 20 years, the pro-life movement has made significant gains over the general population. I want to see that continue, but it’ll never happen if people are always involved in a fistfight. That was my point, not that the pro-life movement is being mean—although you have some on both sides who do that—but unless we get into a conversation, we are not going to be able to demonstrate our superior position.

What are you doing to appeal to other religious communities? How will you govern in a way that also serves Muslims, Mormons, atheists, and people who don’t have a Christian background like you do?

That’s an easy one. We would govern based on our Constitution. Our Constitution treats everybody the same way, regardless of their faith. It gives you the right to exercise your faith—and if that happens to be atheism, you have every right to believe that and our Constitution protects you.

It just so happens that the men who put it together believed in Judeo-Christian tradition, but they were also very careful not to create a theocracy. I think we settle in a very good place.

I know you’re rallying the support of Christian leaders to form a “Christian coalition,” but are you reaching out to other faith groups as well?

We reach out to everybody. Living in a pluralistic society, you have to advocate things that provide liberty and justice for all, and all means all. That’s the way that Jesus did things too. He got criticism for it. They’d say, “Why’d you associate with those people?” But that’s what love is.

Is there anything you’ve said or done during the campaign that you regret?

Whatever you say, there are going to be detractors that twist it or emphasize the wrong part. The way I look at it, I simply continue to do what is right. I do believe that there is right and wrong. But I aIso believe that there is politics involved. I would much rather lose an election than tell a lie.

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There have been experts that have countered your statements on vaccines, the Founding Fathers, the prison system—do you feel like you have to actively work to build back people’s trust?

[News media] make these claims, but when they are proven wrong, they never come back to it. A few weeks ago, people said, “Ben Carson said Thomas Jefferson created the Constitution,” which I never said. I said he was involved. A couple of days later, USA Today came out and said he was involved, but that’s not what makes the headlines. You just have to expect that.

How will you celebrate Christmas this year?

We will be at home in West Palm Beach on Christmas Day—the day before and the day after we have to leave. We will be celebrating with family and friends. If the Lord puts me in the White House, we’re going to have a wonderful Christmas there. It will not be a politically correct Christmas. It’ll be a real Christmas.

What is God teaching you through the campaign?

It’s that this country rose very quickly to its pinnacle because of the values and principles we embraced. We didn’t necessarily care what other people said about it. We even put his name on our money: “In God we trust.” Now we seem to be in the process of giving away our values and principles so we can be politically correct. That is not elevating us as a society. I believe it’s time to stand up for those same values and principles that made us great in the first place.

Ahead of the 2016 election, CT is interviewing presidential candidates about issues of faith. Earlier this year, we featured conversations with Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. Ed Stetzer is separately interviewing candidates for his blog, The Exchange. Stay tuned for more coverage.

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