Dr. Benjamin Carson, the eminent Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon, has received much attention over the years not only for his skills in the operating room but for what he has achieved beyond it. For many Baltimoreans, his story is a familiar one — born in Detroit, raised in poverty by a single mother, he overcame much to not only become a Medal of Freedom winner but a benefactor to thousands of young people through his scholarship program.
He is also a devout Seventh-day Adventist, so it was no surprise to hear that he would be speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday in Washington, D.C., a traditional, nonpartisan affair devoted to national unity, good will, and the embrace of religion and the spiritual. The soft-spoken, genial, Yale-educated 61-year-old physician who so often preaches self-reliance is a good catch for most any speaking engagement.
But what has happened since Dr. Carson spoke last Thursday is an interesting lesson in partisan politics, the shrillness of the blogosphere and the dangers of missing context. Right-wing outlets from the Heritage Foundation on down have cast the doctor's speech as some kind of attack on President Barack Obama and a repudiation of his policies.
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Two topics Dr. Carson touched on stirred this interest. First, he advocated for a flat tax to help solve the nation's massive national debt (comparing it to religious tithing). Second, he suggested that health savings accounts would be a good way to get people to use health care dollars more efficiently. Neither is a particularly shocking recommendation, particularly coming from a practitioner of a particularly remunerative medical specialty.
One would think from the reaction of conservatives, however, he had denounced Mr. Obama on the spot and perhaps challenged him to a duel afterward behind the Washington Hilton. "Ben Carson for President," was the headline on a Wall Street Journal editorial. RedState called it an entertaining "truth-to-power" speech. It was praised on Fox News, and Breitbart.com declared that "God spoke through Ben Carson."
Nevertheless, it requires some pretty selective editing to see Dr. Carson's speech as some kind of conservative manifesto. In his rather lengthy address, he spent far more time on the need for society to reward good students as it does successful athletes than he did on the flat tax or HSAs combined. He never used the term Obamacare, nor suggested it be repealed. Indeed, to read the transcript is to encounter a gentle talk with much personal reflection and a rejection of both political correctness and partisan politics. (Although he does take a nice shot at lawyers at one point.)
As far as his views on flat taxes and health savings accounts are concerned, Dr. Carson is entitled to his beliefs, but we would take them with a grain of salt. Just as we would be reluctant to ask Princeton University's Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman to separate conjoined twins, we're not certain Dr. Carson is our best-informed voice on tax policy or even the business side of his own profession. When last we looked (take, for instance, last year's Republican nominee for president), the rich often paid a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the middle class. And while health care savings accounts can be helpful, they could never hope to pay for most any of those elaborate procedures Dr. Carson performs.
Indeed, the popularity of those edited video clips suggests that what conservatives really want to hear is a smart and successful African-American contradict the sitting president of the United States who also happens to be African-American. Dr. Carson has all the credentials, and he has a right to his views, and he shared them. But there wasn't much in the way of fireworks. Would that every right-wing talk radio host presented his point of view as respectfully. Incidentally, Dr. Carson said in an interview after the prayer breakfast that he shook Mr. Obama's hand afterward and found the president warm and gracious.
We are second to none in our admiration for Dr. Carson, and few cities have better goodwill ambassadors or role models. Those who go to the trouble of reading his full remarks are likely to find them thought-provoking — whether one agrees with his viewpoint or not. Oh, and here's one reason why President Obama probably wasn't offended by them: His own prayer breakfast speech was on the need for humility and respect for those with whom we disagree. "While God may reveal his plan to us in portions, the expanse of his plan is for God and God alone to understand," Mr. Obama said.