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?

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Dr. Ben Carson’s faith makes news, this time

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Every now and then, the newspaper that lands in my front yard runs a story about one of the most famous and, for many, most inspirational men currently alive and well and working in Baltimore.

No, this is not another post about coverage of the theological insights of Ray “God’s linebacker” Lewis of the world champion Baltimore Ravens.

I’m talking about Dr. Ben Carson, who is usually, in media reports, described as the “trailblazing black neurosurgeon” at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is also well known as an author, of course.

The most recent Baltimore Sun story about the good doctor is not, repeat, is NOT, haunted by a religion ghost. In fact, the story does a pretty good job of noting that his Seventh-day Adventist faith is a crucial part of what makes him tick — even if the references settles for the usual “devout” label without providing any material that demonstrates that fact, as opposed to simply proclaiming it.

Let me repeat, this particular story does not ignore religion. In fact, the team that produced it made sure to include the doctor’s beliefs as part of his public persona.

So what, in my humble opinion, makes this a story that deserves some GetReligion attention? I was fascinated by the fact that the Sun team clearly took the content of Carson’s faith semi-seriously for a completely and painfully obvious reason, which is that his recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast have stirred up political talk about his future.

The content of his faith is news because it’s political, not because it’s a key element in the life of a major figure in the city. Thus, readers are told right up front:

Dr. Ben Carson says he didn’t anticipate the reaction to what he considered his common-sense remarks as keynote speaker this month at the National Prayer Breakfast. But after video went viral of the trailblazing black neurosurgeon taking jabs at Barack Obama’s health care overhaul a few feet from the president himself, some want the famed doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to parlay the attention into a new career: politics.

“Here you have this guy who has been a celebrity minority for 30 years coming out and making the conservative case better than a lot of conservatives can,” said Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review Online. “Emotionally, that had a really big impact for a lot of people.”

While some objected to Carson raising health care and tax policy at the traditionally nonpolitical Washington breakfast, conservative heavyweights Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter all cheered his address. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial with the headline “Ben Carson for President.”

Trust me on this: How does the Sun team expect their readers to react to all of those names, to this litany of cultural doom, in a news report about a prominent local African-American leader? Click here for the YouTube answer.

So what was Carson actually trying to say at the breakfast? It would have been nice if the piece had actually quoted a chunk or two of the address, but this information made it into the report:

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