Some of our American cousins are a-twitter (so to speak) over the speech given by surgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson at the National Prayer Breakfast before the President and 3000 other dignitaries. It will get whatever critique it deserves on its political merits from others, no doubt, and that’s the point of this brief theological musing: It was a political speech, not anything remotely resembling a theologically informed talk, let alone an actual sermon.
Yes, Carson began with four Scripture verses—to which he did not then refer throughout the rest of his 27-minute address. Yes, he mentioned God or Jesus a few times—much as President George W. Bush did, namely, as the source of his public policy ideas (notably the flat tax as directly deriving from the principle of the Old Testament tithe, a hermeneutical move no one who has passed an elementary course in Biblical interpretation would ever make), the rationale for his rhetorical choice to tell what he called “parables” (most speakers don’t feel obliged to invoke divine sanction for employing illustrations), and, indeed, his “role model.” Of course, we heard about “one nation under God.” And with that we got mostly the “gospel” of self-help.
Once his impoverished mother had forced him to read regularly, Carson testifed, “I had control of my own destiny.” Once we decide to “remember our responsibilities” and work together on any problem facing America, instead of engage in petty partisan politics, he claimed, “We can fix it…because we’re smart.” Well, then. What are we waiting for, etc.?
We didn’t even get much civil religion. God hardly made an appearance. Prayer made absolutely no appearance at all, once the obligatory and out-of-context citing of 2 Chronicles 7:14 was over and done by minute number two.
What we got instead was a speech by someone who sounds suspiciously like he’s about ready to run for office. A speech that offered almost no Scripturally- or theologically-grounded advice but instead the most elementary of political policies. It was almost as if he didn’t even try to address the President or the Congress but was merely speaking over their heads, in the great, calculating tradition of American populism, to the country at large.
Carson and his wife have generously helped to endow scholarships that reward intellectual achievement and humanitarian concern. That’s scarcely a new or brilliant idea (I won such an award in my junior high school in 1972, in that hotbed of educational innovation, northern Ontario), but it’s a good one. Let’s keep encouraging the nerds alongside the jocks. He and his wife have also established “reading rooms” for kids to enjoy reading. Providing attractive public spaces for enjoying books is an even older idea, but also a worthy one. You’ll notice, however, that these are easy solutions to straightforward problems.
There are apparently, however, no difficult problems requiring complicated solutions facing America today. The astronomical deficit and debt problems can be solved by that flat tax—despite the testimony of virtually every economist who has studied the issue. Health care funding can be solved by a “health savings account” that everyone pays into and by which everyone will self-fund his or her medical needs—apparently just the way we’ve all brilliantly handled the challenges of retirement through thrifty voluntary contributions to our pensions.
But what do I know about how to solve the trillion-dollar-plus US deficit problem? What do I know about how to manage health care down there? I’m just a theologian.
And he’s just a surgeon.
Ironically, the one point Brother Carson made that actually came close to advice appropriate to the audience and the occasion was his remark about lawyers being badly trained for politics. In the adversarial culture of British and North American law, attorneys are trained to be full-out advocates for one side or the other. Only when they become judges are they expected to weigh carefully the pros and cons of the position in question. To be sure, lawyers weigh the pros and cons all the time in pre-trial bargaining, but always at least ostensibly in the best interests of their clients or constituencies. Thus, Carson says, they are trained to try to win, rather than to solve problems. And we need more leaders whose fundamental outlook instead is to solve problems.
The point is ironic because a surgeon is exactly not the sort of personality to improve the situation. Good surgeons are admirable people who do a difficult and important job well. My late, beloved father was one. But part of being a good surgeon is a kind of confidence that easily shades over into arrogance, a confidence that you see the problem clearly and entirely and, with the right support, can and will solve it. Pronto. In political terms, that’s the personality of a dictator, not a democratic leader. In the operating room, you do indeed want a benign dictator, not a gradual consensus-builder who dithers for hours making sure everyone can at least be reasonably happy with every decision that needs making. But in politics, and especially in the tediously long game that is American checks-and-balances, division-of-powers politics, problem-solvers have got to think very differently than either lawyers or surgeons.
Still, that kind of point was the right kind to make. It might have been made with a little self-deprecation, along the lines I suggest: “Now, don’t look to surgeons to help here. We don’t know much about compromise. We settle for nothing less than cutting out all the cancer, repairing the entire wound: we’re all-or-nothing people. But other people enjoy taking meeting after meeting, trying out possibility after possibility, to arrive at the most workable solution for everyone concerned. Those people—with backgrounds in mediation, labour negotiation, team-building, board membership, design, architecture, engineering, business—those people who are used to leading within groups rather than simply above them: we need more of those problem-solvers in our politics.” What we got, however, was just a fleeting nod in the direction of this interesting idea, and then we got back to the incipient stump speech.
Sadly, this was Brother Carson’s second opportunity to do what precious few people ever get to do even once: bend the ear of the powerful in Washington at an event in which everyone makes nice, sits still, and at least affects to listen for twenty minutes. What we got was a dash of Scripture, a whole lot of bootstrapping, some jejune policy proposals, and a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been a paradigm-shifting idea. We certainly never came close to a Biblical insight or a theological principle.
And that’s what you might expect from asking a celebrity surgeon to speak utterly out of his depth. What were the sponsors thinking? Well, the gushing introduction to Dr. Carson makes it clear, more or less along these lines: “See, all you atheists out there who keep mocking us believers as hicks? We Christians have some undeniably smart people—even scientist types!—in our ranks. We’re going to wheel one out right now. Please listen respectfully . . . as he will say precisely nothing either scientific or religious.”
What a wasted opportunity to offer one good, challenging, encouraging insight to such an important group of people.
Or maybe I’m just a naïve, ivory-tower academician oblivious to what’s really going on. I’ve been enjoying the American version of “House of Cards” on Netflix as I enjoyed the superb British original years ago. Maybe it’s just comically stupid of me to expect a national prayer breakfast to have anything seriously to do with prayer.
If so, then take a good look, America. If this was Ben Carson’s groundwork-laying speech for an impending declaration of political candidacy, just think about whether you do want someone who uses such an occasion for such a speech to be your representative and leader. You might prefer him to go back to where his evident talents and personality have been proven abundantly useful: in the O.R. and in private charity.
Not boring a roomful of serious and powerful leaders with political pabulum garnished with a sprig of piety.