That ghost in Dr. Ben Carson’s, well, moral theology

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The folks who edit and operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard are having a Devil of a time trying to figure out what to do with Dr. Ben Carson. Frankly, their struggles are beginning to remind me of their struggles to understand the role that the church plays in the lives of many African-Americans in the politically liberal state of Maryland.

Carson is not only one of the most famous and respected African-American leaders in Baltimore, he is one of Charm City’s most famous and respected leaders — period. In addition to being a global figure in medicine and science, the outspoken director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is also an outspoken Christian and moral conservative, which raises problems.

So what to do when he actually speaks out? Read the following material from The Baltimore Sun very carefully and look for the ghost:

Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson stepped down Wednesday as commencement speaker at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine after complaints from students about controversial comments concerning same-sex marriage.

The withdrawal came less than a week after medical school Dean Paul B. Rothman chastised Carson for his comments and met with graduating students concerned that the famed physician was an inappropriate commencement speaker. Carson sent Rothman a letter saying that he didn’t want to “distract from the celebratory nature of the day.”

“Given all the national media surrounding my statements as to my belief in traditional marriage, I believe it would be in the best interest of the students for me to voluntarily withdraw as your commencement speaker this year,” he wrote in the letter to Rothman, which the dean shared with the Hopkins community. …

As Carson, 61, prepares to retire from medicine in June, he has become more outspoken about his political and social views. He criticized President Barack Obama’s health care reform law at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, which made him a darling of conservatives.

Now let me stress that my goal here is not to discuss the actual content of the public remarks that led to this embarrassing standoff between our city’s most prestigious academic and scientific institution and its most acclaimed medical superstar. Don’t click “comment” to bash or to praise Carson.

I also know — since I keep writing about this fact at this here weblog — that as a liberal private institution, Johns Hopkins has every right to limit the degree to which members of its voluntary association speak out in ways that contradict its core, defining doctrines. It appears, at this point, that the leaders of Johns Hopkins believe in cultural and intellectual diversity, so long as the members of its proudly tolerant community do not have to tolerate the views of anyone they deem to be intolerant.

What I am trying to note is how the Sun leaders have decided to frame the nature of the doctor’s comments and, thus, the current controversy.

This is the key, for me, journalistically speaking. If you read Carson’s own words on moral issues, you learn that he does not have (How does the story put it?) “political and social views” on issues linked to sex and marriage. The moral views of this political independent are pretty much defined by his Christian beliefs.

Why write about this conflict between Carson and Johns Hopkins without making a single reference to the intellectual content of his faith?

Why turn this into a story about his alleged “political” and “cultural” views on sex, marriage and family? By the way, what does “cultural” mean in this context? Is that a reference to, well, race?

So what happens when Carson is quoted in this piece?

Carson apologized for his rhetoric last week, but also said he stands behind his views on the issue. He previously said he would step down as commencement speaker if that was what students wanted.

“I am sorry for any embarrassment this has caused,” he wrote in an apology letter to faculty and students last week. “But what really saddens me is that my poorly chosen words caused pain for some members of our community, and for that I offer a most sincere and heartfelt apology.

“Although I do believe marriage is between a man and a woman, there are much less offensive ways to make that point,” he continued. “I hope all will look at a lifetime of service over some poorly chosen words.”

In his most recent letter to Rothman, Carson said he hoped there would be more tolerance for views like his in the future.

“Someday in the future, it is my hope and prayer that the emphasis on political correctness will decrease and we will start emphasizing rational discussion of differences so we can actually resolve problems and chart a course that is inclusive of everyone,” he wrote.

I am left wondering: What else did Carson say about his faith? Here’s another key question: Readers hear the views of those he offended. But, note, that the words defending him are taken from, you guessed it, political activists.

At some point, as the Carson stories continue to flow, might members of the Sun team consider talking to some real, live, articulate, African-American Christians on the political left and right? On the theological left and right? I predict that the results would be both enlightening and diverse.

That would be nice.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • William Harris

    Some of what you are looking for can be found in the Twitter feed of Ta-Nehisi Coates, for whom Dr. Carson was an exemplar and role model growing up. Others can be found chiming in on the same theme. As Coates noted,
    “for us, Carson was Black History Month.”


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