Dr Ben Carson Starts…and, One Hopes, Ends…His Political Career at the National Prayer Breakfast

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.



13 Responses to “Dr Ben Carson Starts…and, One Hopes, Ends…His Political Career at the National Prayer Breakfast”

  1. Dixie Cain

    Thanks for stating so well the same reaction I had to Dr. Carson’s speech. He wants to be the celebrity physcian who can prove that he can even be President of the US. Would John Hopkins hire his as Chief Financial Officer or Administrator just because he was a superior surgeon? I once thought of him as a caring surgeon; now, I am thinking that all he cared about was himself.

  2. Mark Wilson

    I love Dr. Carson. I want to hear more from him, in any forum. Let’s face it, Obama did not write his speech. It does not come from his heart or mirror his true beliefs. Yeah Obama, wake me up when you figure out that whole bring people together thing. Carson does believe what he says, which is refreshing. Sorry Carson did not hit enough Bible references for you, but sincerity is so rare it is precious in any forum. Especially when spoken by the smartest guy in the room.

  3. Frances Donahue

    No one cared when Obama used his State of the Union speech to excoriate the Supreme Court Justices. Where was your indignation then about inappropriate???

  4. Abigail Woolley

    I’m so accustomed to hearing fluff-filled speeches in American politics that the only thing that stood out to me about this was the unpopular common sense Carson was willing to get out in the open. I would have been shocked if the talk had been about prayer or political theology or based on real expertise, so I was unfortunately unfazed that it did not.

    On the other hand, this post is a good reminder that we should still try to expect genuine insight from speakers, saying things they are qualified to talk about.

    Whether that’s a realistic expectation in American politics, though, I doubt. Carson’s own exhortation to talk about issues honestly instead of getting bogged down by political correctness sounded simplistic… but the very fact that he was the speaker chosen shows that the critique is necessary. We as a society are not actually looking for insightful, appropriate dialog.

  5. Abigail Woolley

    That said, by not being a politician, he WAS able to get some common sense out there. Why DO we feel like tax isn’t high enough if it doesn’t make rich people hurt? And empowering people to believe that their own attitudes and choices are key to how their life will go is not the same as a heartless “bootstraps” individualism. And health savings accounts are just so sensible that they will never make it to legislative debate. Maybe it takes a non-expert to be able to speak common sense sometimes.

    • John

      “By not being a politician, he WAS able to get some common sense out there.” That’s quite a categorical view of politicians, which I wonder if you’d really like to defend. As for “common sense,” that’s very much in dispute, so it perhaps isn’t as “common” as you think. And getting these views “out there” when surely everyone in the room had heard them before seems an odd agenda. Most importantly, however, it was a PRAYER breakfast, not a policy discussion. That’s the point of my post: It was a blown opportunity to actually say something religious as a Christian in an environment and to an audience in which normally one cannot rightly do that.

      • Abigail Woolley

        Politicians have lots of common sense. But their job deals with ironing out practical policies. Someone from the outside is (either for good or for ill) not constrained by the legislative realities when he speaks. I agree that in this setting it would be better to have heard a different talk, by a different speaker.

        • John

          Yes, being unconstrained by legislative realities is a splendid position from which to speak to such a group. I hope the controversy over this speech will encourage a different approach to invitations in future. Thanks, Abigail.

  6. John

    I’ve had to purge a few virulent comments that had nothing to do with the post except to praise Dr. Carson and attack Mr. Obama. I like having a blog to which people can post comments directly, but please, folks, keep your heads. There are plenty of other places to assess Brothers Carson and Obama as political figures, intellectuals, etc. Here, I want to converse with you about the issues specifically raised in the post. Let’s converse. Spew elsewhere–or, as the Proverbs would warn us, not at all (10:18; 24:28-29).

  7. Jeff Patrick

    I was surprised at the tone of this post. It was….caustic. Surprisingly so. You’re known and loved for your wit, sharp retorts, pointed comments, and at times biting humor but this post just seemed a little over the top. Your comments just seemed more passionate than would justify disappointment in an opportunity squandered. Just my opinion, fwiw. 🙂

    On to the substance though. Perhaps I’m overly cynical but I just don’t expect much out of the prayer breakfast – just like I don’t expect much out of the SOTU speech. These ecumenical gatherings are next to worthless confabs for the politically connected to get together to feel like they’re winning friends and influencing people. They are not the Lange lectures.

    But I find it curious that you, like so many others, still feel the need to trot out George W. Bush as the whipping boy. I just don’t get it. He hasn’t been president now for over four years. Why not go back just ONE year to Obama at the same National Prayer Breakfast where he cited scripture in order to support his attacks on Wall Street, support for barring insurance companies (private companies!) from rejecting people with pre-existing conditions, among other items? Politicians cite god all the time to support their policy positions. Nothing new……

    Specifically, I don’t think he stated that a flat tax alone would solve the problem but merely that the existing tax code is ridiculously and notoriously complex and easily misused. Regardless of whether a flat tax actually reduces the deficit he is correct in stating that there is something inherently fair about proportionality. If you make 20k a year you will be taxed 10% (or whatever the percentage is). If you make 20 million a year you will be taxed 10% a year – you will not have the opportunity to shelter your money in various life-insurance schemes or shelter them in offshore accounts. And HSA accounts are, according to some economists I’ve read, very much too be desired. Heck, I have one and I love it.

    Regarding his dig at lawyers, I specifically heard him say that we need broad representation in Congress – not only lawyers. That was the thrust of his dig. As of the 112th Congress, 37% of Senators had a law background while only 7% had an education background. I’d personally agree that we need less lawyers and more engineers, small business owners – business owners period – but they can’t afford to serve because of the pressures for most Congressmen\women to make a career of it – not something they devote 2-6 years to and then go back home.

    As far as surgeons potentially making poor choices at the consensus game required in politics, I would point to Bill Frist. He was Senate Majority leader from 2003 until his retirement in 2007. By most accounts he was a consensus builder and a pretty good leader. Tom Coburn is another good one. Jim McDermott (here in Seattle), Rand Paul, etc.

    Regardless, what I would agree with is not that the substance (such as it was) of his speech was misplaced, over-simplistic or whatever but rather that the venue was possibly wrong. But then again that is a matter of expectations. This was clearly – let’s invite a respected Christian surgeon who has a compelling life story and invite him to speak on matters that are passionate for him. Nothing more nothing less. That’s basically all the “prayer” breakfast is. Not every year can be blessed with the quality of address that Francis Collins did in 2007.

    • John

      Let’s save “caustic” for when I publish the first, intemperate draft of a blog post like this. The one you’ve read is the toned-down version, Jeff. I found Brother Ben’s speech deeply offensive at a lot of levels.

      I also don’t “feel” any “need” to refer to GWB. I assume Carson clearly intended us to make that connection when he referred, as only GWB has ever done in these settings, to Jesus as his “role model.”

      As for the rest of your points, they’re not the point. Sure, I’m glad that an intelligent, educated, middle-class white man like you is happy with the HSA alternative. But I don’t think that proves much when it comes to solving a health care problem for everyone in the United States. And your point about Carson’s point about lawyers I freely grant: there is a problem with the structure facing any possible Cincinnatus.

      But the main point is the main point, which you get to in the last paragraph of your comment. You see the National Prayer Breakfast speaker slot as a kind of open mic for this year’s celebrity guest. I don’t. I’m sorry you’re asking so little of your country’s leaders, religious and political. I’m still asking for better: a talk that has something substantially to do with prayer.

  8. Jeff Patrick

    Heh – wish I could read the original! Would probably be entertaining! 🙂

    Sure, I’m (thankfully) solidly middle-class. But that also shouldn’t marginalize my position (not that I think you are). I’m also deeply ingrained in the healthcare industry here as I work for one of the largest healthcare providers. I know first-hand the effects of well-intentioned government regulations, greed, unrealistic expectations, spiraling costs, et al. I also know the Canadian system intimately as my entire family lives there and suffers under that pathetic quality of care. When I listened to Carson I heard someone trying to speak truth to power (empowering individuals to control their destiny rather than another massive government bureaucracy) – to an insular president. Yeah, I understand this whole thing is not the point you were driving at. I totally get that – but they were a substantial focus of your post. But you are probably also aware of the fury within faith communities down here are a result of the ever-encroaching government control on our health care system. There’s a lot of anger down here and sometimes it spills over.

    But yeah, you’re right – I don’t expect much anymore. I’ve lived down here for over 20 years and I’m increasingly convinced we’re doomed. We’re living off the fumes of the brilliance of a handful of enlightened white Europeans.
    I don’t see our “Christian” political leaders being able to articulate any type of real Christian faith or worldview without someone howling about separation of church and state or how politicians should keep their faith separate from their politics (unless you’re of the progressive persuasion of course). I mean, just read the responses from 2007 from the NY Times to Collins speech! It was ridiculous.

    And so what we’re left with are made-for-tv sound bites and policy speeches wrapped in nothing but the very thin veneer of faith. Sad, but not surprising.

  9. Richard

    This is the response I had in mine after listening to the speech but didnt have a platform to post it to. Thanks for such a thoughtful response to a speech that left me as an admirer of Dr. Carson to wonder if he was ill advised or if he has just been compromised by politics. I was even more shocked by his appearances on Hannity and different programs on FOX news where he was praised for lecturing Obama. As a Christian, and someone who follows American politics, my faith has been shaken in the last dacade but I thank God for people like you who can guide us against misuse of scrpture scripts for political purposes.


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