If only we could all speak so freely as Dr. Ben Carson. He is the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the world. He grew up in poverty in Detroit, raised by a single mother who made her sons read two library books each week and write reports on them. She couldn’t read them, but they didn’t know.
On Feb. 7 he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., a preeminent annual get together held since 1953. It is hosted by members of Congress and focuses on finding common ground through faith. Every president attends, and it is billed as one of the only nonpolitical events in the capital.
Carson’s speech ignited a firestorm from both left and right on cable news in the past week, with some on both sides calling for him to apologize to President Barack Obama for making overtly partisan remarks. Many on the right praised him for attacking the president, who sat a few feet away from him during his address, with Fox News inviting him on multiple programs. CNN’s Candy Crowley asked a panel of guests if his remarks were “offensive.” And Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist who organizes a media dinner connected with the event, wrote, “Our politics have become so polarized and corrupted that a president of the United States cannot even attend an event devoted to drawing people closer to God and bridge partisan and cultural divides without being lectured about his policies.”
It’s true, Carson did assail the tax code, suggesting the tithe as a much simpler and fairer model for raising revenue than the current progressive tax structure with carve-outs for myriad interest groups. And he also said health care would be cheaper and more effective if people took more responsibility for their care via health savings accounts “instead of sending it [money] to some bureaucracy.”
But all those either offended by Carson’s speech or those thrilled that he allegedly berated the president in his presence missed the point. Only those who see life filtered through a political lens would have taken his remarks that way.
His main point, the one he led with and returned to repeatedly, was about freedom of speech. “We’ve reached the point where people are afraid to actually talk about what they want to say because somebody might be offended,” he said.
He called political correctness “dangerous” because it “keeps people from discussing important issues while the fabric of this society is being changed.” He added, “What we need to do in this politically correct world is forget about unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought, and we need to concentrate on being respectful of those people with whom we disagree.”
He went on to lay out the biggest moral problems facing America in his mind — a foundering public education system, skyrocketing national debt and a health care system that costs too much and delivers too little — and solutions to them using modern-day parables to illustrate his points. Surely those items are worthy of discussion at a breakfast dedicated to bridging partisan divide at a critical moment in America’s history?
Second, if speakers are not allowed to talk about issues of pressing national concern at an event that elevates the Christian faith, doesn’t it implicitly reduce God to a figurehead? If anything, Carson acted like Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple — waking up those in the audience at the event and those watching on television to the things of ultimate importance and calling out the hypocrisy of organizers who want a happy talk about common principles while America is falling apart outside the doors of the Washington Hilton.
If he and future speakers are not allowed the freedom to express their deepest concerns, then what’s the point of a prayer breakfast except as a hollow tradition?
Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs and politics in Maryland, where she lives. Read her at www.martamossburg.com. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.