Adventist Doctor Speaks at National Prayer Breakfast, Sparks Political Reactions
by AT News Team
Dr. Benjamin Carson was the keynote speaker last week at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. He is an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore. The event is the closest thing to a truly national religious celebration that the country has.
The 25-minute speech has been greeted by positive comments from right-wing columnists and bloggers while being described by others as preachy and disrespectful of the United States President, who sat just one person away. Carson promoted at least four things that are popular among political conservatives in America—reducing the national debt, a flat tax, health savings accounts and the danger of “political correctness.” But he also pushed for expanding quality education, reducing the school dropout rate and health care for everybody, while advocating that elected officials “focus on how to solve problems” instead of “how to win.”
A number of references in the sermon sounded like a standard theme from right-wing evangelicals. “I’ve been asking people what concerns them about the spirituality and direction of our nation,” Carson said near the beginning. He asserted that it was appropriate to say, “Merry Christmas” instead of using less Christian-specific holiday greetings. “My mother would never allow herself to be a victim,” he stated in a description of his upbringing amidst inner-city poverty. He expressed concern that “the fabric of our nation is changing” and mentioned “moral decay” as a cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire.
He also told a parable that reveals a much more centrist perspective. Speaking of the eagle, the American national symbol, Carson asked, “Why is it able to fly so high? Because it has two wings…a left wing and a right wing,” he said, answering his rhetorical question.
Critics also dinged Carson for mentioning his newest book; for talking about his scholarship program that has seeded savings accounts for college education of 5,000 school children; and for getting in the web address for the program. Jason Hines, a doctoral student at Baylor University, wrote a piece for Spectrum, the journal of the largest organization of Adventist academics, which pointed out the lack of spiritual focus in Carson’s message. This was the National Prayer Breakfast and Carson had almost nothing to say about prayer.
Carson did begin by quoting Scripture, including 2 Chronicles 7:14, a key text of the prayer movement; “If my people … humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (ESV). His other three texts, from Proverbs 11, are less religious, mentioning knowledge, wisdom and generosity. He did state that “Jesus is my role model” at one point, although it was unclear how he might have developed that idea.
Overall, it was more an expression of Carson’s views on public policy and current issues than an attempt to feed the spiritual lives of the listeners. It should be kept in mind that Carson is a physician and teacher, not a theologian, Bible scholar or pastor.
One source pointed out to Adventist Today that Carson ended with the kind of nationalistic narrative that joins patriotism and faith in a way that Adventists have long feared. He told the story behind the National Anthem, written near Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, and ended with key lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God … with liberty and justice for all.”
“I had the distinct impression that he was primarily speaking to President Obama,” an Adventist pastor who viewed the presentation on C-SPAN told Adventist Today. “I could not put out of my mind the fact that the president has been on the offensive lately and the opposition party was weakened in the election last fall. I would give anything to know what Obama was thinking while he listened to Carson.”
“Some Adventists will have mixed emotions about this event,” a church member who has worked professionally in government commented to Adventist Today. “We are not used to seeing one of our own so prominently involved in current affairs and surveys show that Adventists are about evenly split between conservative and liberal political views. Carson really embodies some of the key features of the contemporary Adventist experience in the United States. He is from an ethnic minority, as are most Adventists now; and he represents the professional success that education brings, as do most Adventists in one way or another. This could result in some interesting discussions.”