In April of 1990, Reader’s Digest published an article “Dr. Ben Carson: Man of Miracles.” As a 9-year-old child, I remember reading that article and admiring Dr. Carson. I admired his struggle, his ability to overcome the challenges of his childhood. I marveled after his obvious intelligence and his miraculous accomplishments. When I found out he was Seventh-day Adventist like me that cemented my fandom. His story spoke to me as a shy smart kid, making my way through my first year at a public school. Dr. Carson showed me that with a little hard work and ingenuity, you could accomplish anything. I thought about Dr. Carson whenever I thought my dreams were unattainable. I believed in Dr. Carson. I read about him voraciously into my teenage years. Later that year (1990), I read his autobiography Gifted Hands. In 1996 I read his second book Think Big. At that age I considered him one of my role models. I don’t just consider him a great surgeon, but I consider him to be the greatest surgeon who has ever lived. I thought that in 1990, and I believe it now.
My admiration for Dr. Carson almost makes me reluctant to say what must be said. Dr. Carson’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday was amongst the worst speeches I’ve ever seen given in such a public forum. I wish I could walk back from that assessment but I can’t. While I do not agree with Dr. Carson’s politics, my assessment is not necessarily based on the fact that I don’t agree with many (if any) of his policy prescriptions. Instead it’s based on what I believe makes a good speech. I am incredibly disappointed in Dr. Carson. Partially because he has shown a serious conservative bent in the past few years that seems to deny his own history, but also because many things he said did not stand the test of logic. On some facts he was just ignorant. Other times he engaged in some poor biblical analysis. There are several examples in his speech, of which I have only picked a few. (You can find a transcript and video of his speech here. Please go listen to it. I couldn’t fit all the issues I had with this speech in one post.)
At a National Prayer Breakfast, it’d be nice if you talked about prayer
In the entirety of his 26 minute speech, Dr. Carson barely mentioned prayer. He quoted a verse at the beginning (2 Chron 7:14) and saying that his mother prayed for wisdom to help him and his brother become more scholastic. For some, the most glaring problem with this speech is that it was not appropriate for the occasion. Clearly I agree with that assessment. The National Prayer Breakfast has traditionally been a place where partisan rancor has been laid aside, and Dr. Carson ruined for many what should have been a break from that. Now I’ll admit that’s not the main reason I’m upset. If the speech had been better, I don’t know that I would be as concerned about it being out of place. I do know what’s out of place though. You probably shouldn’t shill your book during your speech. I know that much.
The PC police?
At the beginning of the speech, Dr. Carson went on a rant about the evils of political correctness, at one time saying we need to get over the sensitivity of being offended but also saying that we needed to be respectful of people with whom we disagree. He used as his example the tried and true war on Christmas, stating that people shouldn’t be offended when you say Merry Christmas because it is a greeting of good will. I wonder what Dr. Carson will do when someone says, “The way you can show me respect is not say Merry Christmas to me because I don’t believe in God.” Sometimes you can’t have it both ways. Of course the other thing that bothers me is that Christianity should not always be about saying whatever you want to say no matter how anyone feels about it. We should be compassionate and patient and loving. (Col 3:12) Moreover, political correctness doesn’t keep people from saying what they feel, as Dr. Carson asserted. What it does is help people be more respectful while expressing what they feel. In other words, it keeps people from looking like jerks.
A Church-State Problem and some bad exegesis
The most glaring problem to me was his use of tithing to support the idea of a flat tax. The first problem is that comparing tithing to taxing is just bad exegesis. Tithing is not something that we do simply because we’re trying to fund the church. Tithing is a sign of faith between the believer and God. It signifies that the Christian believes that God provides and therefore I can return some of what He has given to me. Of course the other problem with this is that Dr. Carson does not tell the whole story of economics in biblical Israel. As my friend Preston pointed out, economics in Israel also includes Jubilee Year, where all debts are forgiven. Something tells me Dr. Carson’s conservative friends would not be fans of that. Then there is the church-state problem. We should not be passing laws that are particularly religious. So Dr. Carson’s argument that we should have a flat tax because that’s the system God uses is patently foolish. What about the people who don’t believe in God? Should they be forced to follow the religious determination of what is a fair tax system? I think not.
If you can’t finish, don’t start
Dr. Carson went on to try and explain the best thing to do in terms of healthcare. He tried to describe a very complex system of healthcare accounts and then said that it was too complex to fully explain in this setting. He was absolutely right about that. He broke what is the cardinal rule of public speaking – if you can’t explain what you mean succinctly, then skip the point. All he did was leave us with a rambling and confusing section of his speech that came from nowhere and went nowhere.
Get your facts straight
These are some minor points, but I think they show how far Dr. Carson was out of his depth. First, the United States did not win the War of 1812. At best it was a draw, and the U.S. sustained more deaths and injuries, did not accomplish their stated objective (a takeover of Canada), and lost slaves as well. Furthermore, the men who held the flag aloft at Fort McHenry and inspired Key to write our national anthem would not have thought of it as protecting “one nation, under God,” considering that no one ever said that until 1948 and it wasn’t official until 1954. Finally, I wish Dr. Carson wasn’t so ignorant about what they teach in law school. I went to law school and know a lot of people that have been there. No one at law school taught me “to win, by hook or by crook,” as Dr. Carson claimed. I don’t know anyone who was taught that in law school. What were we taught? We were taught to think critically, to be more observant. They taught us how to mediate, negotiate, and solve problems. Those are the things Dr. Carson said were needed. Maybe we should have more lawyers in the room sir.
Spare me the false platitudes
Towards the end of the speech, Dr. Carson just started throwing out half-baked statements to make points that I guess he didn’t have time to fully develop. He said that the reason our national symbol, the bald eagle, flies so high is because it has a left wing and right wing (insert laugh here). Laying aside the fact that chickens also have left and right wings and barely get off the ground, this play for bipartisanship rings hollow in light of the speech that came before it. Dr. Carson mentioned no left wing principles or plans that he thought were good. This is further proven by the fact that in conservative circles his speech has been reported as a criticism of the President and his policies. In the aftermath of the speech, Dr. Carson has been making the conservative media rounds in support of this point. When you make such a partisan speech, you seem even more disingenuous when you attempt to throw the left wing a bone at the end.
With the exception of his analysis of tithing and taxing, my criticism has nothing to do with Dr. Carson’s political beliefs. I don’t think that his opinions are what make this a bad speech. I will admit that my admiration of Dr. Carson is part of the reason why I hold him to a higher standard. I expect that he would have a better sense of time and place. I expect that he would have the ability to stay on topic for the event. I expect him to be efficient in his language and be able to explain his thoughts clearly. I expect him to say things that stand the test of basic logic. I don’t think that’s too much to expect from the greatest surgeon ever. And what bothers me most is that a lot of people thought the speech was great.
—Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Church-State Studies at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Harvard Law School, he blogs about religious liberty, local Adventist church life, and other topics at Hine Sight where this was originally posted.