Some Thoughts on Dr. Ben Carson’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

Political conservatives are singing the praises of Dr. Ben Carson’s speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast.  Carson, a Johns Hopkins University pediatric surgeon and an evangelical Christian, used the speech to attack political correctness and Obamacare.  Oh, and did I mention that the President of the United States was seated a few feet to his right during the entire speech?

Watch the speech here.

Over at his blog “Clear, Expert, and Entertaining Connections,” Regent College (Vancouver, BC–not Virginia Beach) theology professor John Stackhouse is not happy with Carson or his speech:

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.

 I have to agree with Stackhouse.  We can have a meaningful debate over whether or not Carson’s policy ideas will work.  The content of his proposals having nothing to do with why I was bothered by the speech.  I was troubled by the speech for three main reasons:

1.  As Stackhouse notes, Carson used his speech at the NATIONAL PRAYER BREAKFAST to talk about health-care and other controversial topics that tend to divide rather than unite.  Such a speech was inappropriate on such an occasion. I might add that conservative columnist Cal Thomas is with us on this point.

2.  Carson disrespected the office of the President of the United States with his speech.  There is a time and a place to criticize the president’s policies and a prayer breakfast is not one of them.  Again, I agree with Thomas:  Carson owes Obama an apology.

3.  At the end of his speech Carson told a patriotic story about the War of 1812 and the bombing of Fort McHenry.  In the process he came very close to duplicating the historical error made a couple of years ago by evangelical pastor Dudley Rutherford.

Carson defends the speech here, claiming that “someone has to be courageous enough to actually stand up to, you know, the bullies.”  I don’t disagree, but not at a prayer breakfast.  He also claims that his position on health care “comes from the Bible.”  I was unaware that the Bible offered a specific health care plan.

  • Andrew Boydston (Boise, ID USA)

    My note to Dr. Carson as The Kool-Aid Drinking press align with Cal Thomas Cut and paste artical

    Dear Dr. Carson, Here is my Hutchison Newspaper response for your information. I’m talking about Cal Thomas a noted Editor and his commentary I title: “Inappropriate”. The new mantra of the ill informed.

    Cal,

    Obviously you Don’t Know Dr. Ben Carson, or you wouldn’t have stayed under the shade tree of smugness by comparing a non-issue from the past (Imus), and making a comparison with Dr. Carson, who freely speaking his heart regardless of the audience. Let’s remember it’s not always about Obama. This is a lamentation of biblical proportion, coming to light at a national prayer meeting. How appropriate, in a prayer breakfast at the nation’s capital. Even if one attempts to equate this as political theater, or an upstaging to the president, it becomes a ridiculous assumption, and suggests atrophy has invaded another editor’s brain and caused a major PC reaction of that said editor, stumbling out of his editorial box onto his face. However, suggesting this is the only time for Dr Carson 5 minutes fame and he is using that moment to embarrass the status-quo at the national prayer breakfast since he isn’t being non-political. That supposition is a farce statement coming from anyone!

    You weren’t listening were you?

    Dr. Ben Carson paraphrased: or my Cliff Notes
    He said the PC Cops are coming for me at the start.
    I have a temper.
    I spent my life following my mother’s instruction.
    I can read, think and DO
    People are afraid to read Think and do because of PC Cops.
    Our Freedoms are at risk and are ill.
    I come to ask for God’s help.
    Give Proportionally as God wants us too.
    Help everyone, by establishing a means to help them-selves through an (HSA), not a Government Control system.

    I close with the ultimate sacrifice at Fort McHenry under the the NEW US flag in 1812.
    He closes with God as our creator.
    Best National Pray breakfast I’ve ever heard!
    People stopped talking like that a long time ago. Clear back to Thomas Jefferson Days. It lifted my heart. I’m sorry if it jaded yours.

    So you, the editor, fall back to the neutrality of the shade tree, and then call it disrespectful for a non- Political Breakfast to be made into a political breakfast (PC needle) into the good Doctor.

    When did speaking the truth about God, Country, and self, become disrespectful at Prayer when the country is so sick?

    When did Dr Carson’s modern lamentations about our country’s crises become inappropriate at prayer breakfast?

    We used to talk all the time at church of how we can help the world. That wasn’t inappropriate at church.

    Have you been to church lately?

    A new Idea spoken by the brightest, which enlightens the masses toward free speech is a lost but important event. His message had hidden nuggets that are easily being over-looked by your editorial hubris, of the PC. His many faceted speech in so few words, galvanized those who listened with open hearts and minds. The PC are deaf beyond repair, and are sickly to report Dr. Carson as inappropriate.

    Only if your PC ears did you not hear or understand his plea to God for national help during this one 27 minute prayer speech. Then you should not mail it in with your column as important. Dr. Carson spent a lifetime preparing this speech. He spent hours in prayer. You know how to hit copy/paste and expect the nation to bow down.

    Our heads should have been bowed in shame, not prayer, when Dr. Carson talked. It was about us as a country, have fallen so short, of where God wants us to be.
    Dr. Carson wasn’t forming law or policy, he was informing us of what we have lost in our law and policy, and what we are about to lose. He is offering non-political solutions everyone can agree to. That’s the story.

    The second story is that PC has grown so ignorant, during its responses to his propositions. You are a nothing more than a second story opinion and you don’t know Dr. Carson as I did. I carefully listened to him 16 years ago and met him and talked with him. He is the real deal not an opportunist. Your assessment of him is so small and ill informed, you missed a new seminal moment is US History. Hint, John Paul Jones couldn’t have said it any better than Dr. Carson did at the prayer breakfast, Even though America was on the Verge of Revolution at that time. Jones did that, when it was not PC to talk that way, The British made its points with bayonets back then. Dr. Carson has the same Bayonet pointed at him from the presidents team.

    • Perry Wolf

      So the great theologian Mr Stackhouse believes that Christians should not use their God given individual gifts and liberty bestowed by on them by Him to voice concern and dissent at those programs and laws that are not consistent with biblical principals? Like the clergyman who remained silent during the struggle for equal rights in America, and the church leaders who were complicit with the German government during the Nazi reign of terror? Beside paying Ceasar what is due Ceasar, what should Christians then do Mr. Stackhouse?

  • mitchel kumstein

    Let us be honest, the healthcare law is nothing more than a tax scheme. It does nothing to increase the provision of medical services.
    The current occupant has been disrespecting the office of the presidency by his blatant mendacity.
    Dr. Carson by his example has accomplished more than the poseur currently occupying the white house.

  • http://noreligiousislands.wordpress.com Trevor Burrows

    “I was unaware that the Bible offered a specific health care plan” – love it!

    Your posts on the national prayer breakfast have me wondering whether anyone has done a more historically-minded project on the origins and politics of the event. I know that I’ve seen it mentioned here and there in scholarly work – and its Cold War origins get some space in Jeff Sharlet’s “The Family,” which is worth reading if a bit sensationalistic – but I’m not sure that it’s received a great deal of attention beyond that.

  • David

    On the other hand, today’s political climate, as glorified by the President of United States, is that anything goes, to get your job done. For this Dr. Carson is not that far off.

  • C. Moses

    John:
    I respectfully disagree with each of your points, allow me to take them one at a time
    1. The national prayer breakfast is precisely the time to put forward matters of faith, and morality which have a place in policy. Because something is controversial it should not be avoided in the name of “Uniting us rather than dividing us”. Limiting speech to only things we all agree on would be a pointless endeavor at best, but more likely a dangerous one.
    2. I am unclear how the office of president was “disrespected”. Unless one takes the tact that mentioning anything that there is disagreement on is disrespect. That would be an unreasonable tact to take in any event, and is completely incompatible with a open and relatively free society.
    3. He came close, but did not make the error, so what. I did not find this the most compelling part of his speech anyway, but it had a place in the message.
    What I don’t see from either side of the press is a deep discussion of the very simple key concepts he introduced;
    (a) The deficit spending and the national debt as a moral issue, is it or is it not?
    (b) Are there some programs or spending that are either morally acceptable, or financially viable to run a deficit to accomplish. Most of us go into debt to buy a house, but wouldn’t consider paying the electric bill on credit, for anything other than an emergency situation.
    (c) What are the best ways to deal with the incurred burdens of expanding healthcare to encompass people of all means. Notice here I have pre-supposed that universal healthcare is in fact a moral or ethical imperative, at least at some level.
    (d) Is expanded access to educati0n key to long term viability of a society?
    (e) Are certain changes in individual behavior a root cause to society wide problems, and what is the moral and legal basis for solving them? How best to solve them?
    Regards
    C Moses

  • Rick

    Wow, it’s weird when Ben Carson, of all people, plays the victim card, referrring to a world of bullies, but hey, he is the darling of conservatives and conservatives see bullying everywhere but in their own actions. Of course by “bullies” he means the slim majority of Congress that passed Obamacare, and the Supreme Court of the United States that concluded the law was perfectly Constitutional. Somehow he doesn’t see health insurance companies and their lobbyists as bullies, but I certainly do. I think it was great when another African-American, Barack Obama, actually stood up to these bullies in 2010.

  • Bo Grimes

    “He also claims that his position on health care “comes from the Bible.” I was unaware that the Bible offered a specific health care plan.”

    A snip from President Obama’s speech in the same venue last year:

    “And so when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

    “And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’” Obama said, noting Jewish and Islamic teachings say much the same thing.

  • Joshua

    I believe Dr. Carson also spoke about his oposition to political correctness, which happens to be a large portion of your beef with his speech. Political correctness. The man speaks against political correctness and people want an apology concerning the “inappropriate” subjects of his speech. Do you see the problem there??? Whether or not I agree with Dr. Carsons opinions on health reform or flat taxes, I admired that he was willing to speak out about controversial issues at a prayer breakfast. 100% of these issues could use some prayer.

  • Philip

    Dr. Fea,
    I agree with your critique of Dr. Carson’s hermeneutics, but I am surprised by criticism #2. An an historian and a Christian, what is your opinion of Mark Hatfield’s infamous confrontation of Richard Nixon at the NPB in 1973?

  • makethrich

    Dr. Carson is a notable African American physician. I have been to many prayer breakfasts and have never heard one quite like this. In my experience, the topic centers toward scriptural encouragement to live a life holy and acceptable to God rather than an exposition on political issues/view of the day. Did we say prayer breakfast when we really intended something different? Dr. Carson is revered highly for his medical prowess. I do not believe an intended worship gathering is the place for political rebuttals unless the speaker connects scripture directly to core issue as Dr. King does in his sermons. There is a difference. I don’t see how this speech upstaged or disrespected President Obama. If anything, his thoughts were inspired by Dr. Carson’s shared ideology, particularly the efforts and passion for education and personal achievement. I believe the President supports empowerment for ALL..Some of the adverse comments sound like an old tactic of divide thru instigation, then conquer. Diversion from the real issue. Dr. Carson and the President could become aligned together rather then polarized. Imagine that…That’s characteristic of something GOD would do….

  • Anita

    One of the best speeches I have heard in a long time. It was filled with truthful statements. Those who oppose it are so used to hearing politically correct statements, which are far from truth. Good for you Dr. Carson. You are intelligent and a man of God and not afraid to speak the truth, which we need to hear more often.

  • http://constitutionambassadors.us Anna Yeisley

    A good honest speaking man speaking to politicians – and speaking to of the most successful politicians of all time, American elected president and his wife. Awesome ideas and solutions. His message renders more than solutions; but permission to believe. Not a focus on problems but how education is the number one first step in restoring the greatness of our nation. True unity upon principles; not legalities or because the Supreme Court deemed it so.


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