SPRING ARBOR, Mich. — Chanting “Go Ben, Go!” and “USA! USA! USA!” the crowd of Ben Carson supporters who filled Spring Arbor University’s gymnasium exploded with applause as the former neurosurgeon and University alum walked on stage.

Recent polls place Carson, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, in second or third place in the GOP field, behind Donald Trump and in close competition with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Known for his Christian principles and rags-to-riches story, it’s not surprising Carson chose to speak at the small Christian university in Spring Arbor. Brent Ellis, Spring Arbor University president, led the crowd in prayer during his opening remarks.

Prior to Caron’s arrival, Sen. Mike Shirkey (R–Clarklake) and Rep. Earl Poleski (R–Jackson) eased the anxious crowd awaiting Carson — who was stuck in traffic — with a rendition of “God Bless America.”

Carson opened his speech by describing his life story, reflecting on how his mother’s faith in God helped him excel in school. In elementary school, Carson said he struggled academically and envied others in class who were naturally gifted in school.

Growing up in poverty in Detroit, his mother forced him and his brother to get serious about their education by making each of the boys write a book report every week — it was only later they discovered she was illiterate.

“I was not very enthusiastic about this program — and that’s putting it very lightly — I didn’t want to do that, her friends were always criticizing her. They would say: ‘You can’t make your boys sit around reading books, they’ll grow up and they’ll hate you.’ … I didn’t like it much at first, but as I started reading these books, I started knowing stuff; stuff that nobody else knew. And within the space of a year and a half I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class.”

Carson graduated from the University’s Medical School in 1977 and spent his career at Johns Hopkins University.

He said growing up he always aspired to be a doctor, but did not think his career would take a turn into politics.

“I never thought when I left Michigan that I would end up in the political arena,” Carson said.

Though he deemed the higher education proposals of other candidates fiscally irresponsible, including a plan proposed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, to provide free, universal higher education, Carson’s speech focused on the key role education plays in economic advancement.

He recalled the nation’s history of emphasizing education, dating back to the early colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

“That’s one of the reasons we were able to rise from nothing to the pinnacle of the world on such short order,” Carson said. “Think about this: before America came on the scene — 100 years, 500 years, 1,000, 3,000, 5,000 — people did things the same way. Within 200 years of the advent of America, men were walking on the moon. This is the most exceptional nation in the world.”

He said for all the bad things people say about the United States, there are still always people trying to come here and not very many trying to leave.

In a span of five minutes, Carson was able to touch on all of the major social points of contention in the election: women’s rights, religious freedom and same-sex marriage.

“The war on women — what a phony thing to say. That is all hype,” Carson said. “I say that as someone whose life was shaped and made successful by women. I have the most wonderful mother, the most wonderful wife, PAs, administrative assistants, colleagues who are women, and who I could never have been successful without them, and I recognize that. I think most Americans recognize that.”

Carson also cited examples of places where women are worse off than in the United States.

“There are some nations in the world where they don’t recognize that — where women are not even allowed to drive, where their testimony in court is worth half as much as a man’s, where they’re treated more like children than like equals,” he said.

On the issue of religious rights in the U.S., Carson referenced the founding fathers — many of whom came to the New World to escape religious oppression in Europe. He called particular attention to Benjamin Franklin, who, Carson recounted, asked the founding fathers to pray together during the stressful process of writing the Constitution.

“(The founding fathers) felt very strongly that we must do everything we can to allow people to practice their faith,” Carson said. “Many people in our nation today who think that our constitution’s law says we should be free from religion, but no, it’s freedom of religion.”

Despite this outspoken support of the First Amendment, Carson made national news Tuesday when, during an appearance on “Meet the Press,” he said he was against the election of a Muslim president.

Carson said while he disagrees with the Supreme Court decision in June to permit same-sex marriage in the United States, he has nothing against people who are gay.

“I personally believe that the Supreme Court made a mistake when they basically voted to change the definition of marriage from what it has been traditionally for thousands of years,” he said. “I have nothing against gay people — zero — but, I’m a pragmatic person and I realize if you change the definition of marriage for one group, what right do you have not to change it for the next group, and the next group, and the next group.”

Carson is one of several GOP candidates to visit Michigan in recent months. Over the weekend, five Republican contenders spoke to state party leaders at conference on Mackinac Island. 

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