When I turned nine years old, I started dreaming about who and what I wanted to be when I grew up. Predictably, those dreams included the usual “nine year old boy” suspects: firefighter, astronaut, karate kid, power ranger, etc. Long before I turned nine years old, my mother had a single dream in mind for me, her first-born son: to become a physician. My mom, who now has her doctorate in nursing & serves as a nurse practitioner, was not shy in expressing her desire to me. It was so strong that when I enrolled in my first semester of college at the age of 17, she signed me up (against my will) for Anatomy & Physiology class. So for the first 5 weeks of my freshman year, I was the only history major taking Anatomy & Physiology…as an elective. Luckily, my dad assisted me in dropping the class – thank you dad. This was her last ditch effort at me “seeing if I liked it….you’ll never know until you try.” I tried…and I did not like it.
Shortly after I turned nine in November of 1996, my mother planted the first seed in her attempt at cultivating a love for medicine in my heart. She purchased a copy of Gifted Hands, by Dr. Ben Carson which would become required reading for me in the summers to come. She began reading to me about this Seventh-Day Adventist who had become the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital at the age of 33. A year later, my father accepted a call to pastor in the DMV area and we would drive by the hospital in Baltimore often. Though that initial seed never grew into a love for the profession that made Dr. Carson so iconic in our church (and beyond), I developed a deep respect for who he was and what he represented.
As a Black Adventist, the “Mount Rushmore” of admiration and achievement includes E.E. Cleveland, C.D. Brooks, Barry Black & Ben Carson. The first three are ministers by trade – in our church we laud our great ministers and dream about one day preaching with something close to the passion and charisma they were blessed with. Dr. Carson was transcendent. His reach went far beyond the walls of our denomination with a resume that truly does speak for itself:
- He became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital at age 33. He did this for 29 years.
- In 1987, he gained worldwide recognition for his part in the first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the back of the head.
- In 1997, he conducted the first completely successful separation of type-2 vertical craniopagus twins in 1997 in South Africa.
- In 2001, Dr. Carson was named by CNN and TIME Magazine as one of the nation’s 20 foremost physicians and scientists. That same year, he was selected by the Library of Congress as one of 89 “Living Legends.”
- He is also the recipient of the 2006 Spingarn Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the NAACP. In June, 2008, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the land.
- Dr. Carson holds more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees.
- He has published 8 books, 3 of which, including Gifted Hands (and this one), were New York Times Bestsellers.
- Cuba Gooding Jr. played Dr. Carson in a movie about his life.
The list could go on and on. Dr. Carson truly was an inspiring role model who has prompted many to follow in his footsteps and overcome humbling obstacles and circumstances to achieve much more than anyone expected of them. As is explained in the foreword to Gifted Hands:
“Gifted Hands reveals a man with humility, decency, compassion, courage, and sensitivity who serves as a role model for young people (and everyone else) in need of encouragement to attempt the seemingly impossible and to excel in whatever they attempt.”
It was this true sense of character that caused everything that his gifted hands touched to turn to gold. This all begs a very important question: what is Dr. Carson doing now? How did he transform from the first 700 words of this blog into the political punch-line – a label beneath a man of his intelligence & acumen – that he has become today? What does his candidacy, or lack thereof, say about the SDA church and how we relate to some of these vitally current political issues that Dr. Carson seems to find himself on the wrong side of? I believe a brief analysis of where Dr. Carson is now can help shed some light on where we are as a church, and where we might need to go.
Dr. Carson officially announced his presidential candidacy on May 4th, which prompted the SDA church to release a good, albeit predictable, statement on his presidential bid. Most people trace Dr. Carson’s meteoric rise to conservative political darling back to the controversial statements he made at the February 2013 National prayer breakfast. He made several statements that contradicted ones made by the man I met through Gifted Hands. In the speech, he criticized what he called the current “welfare state” in this country and insisted that the rich have always taken care of the poor and “no one is starving in America.” In Gifted Hands Dr. Carson talked about how his grades improved tremendously after a government program provided him with free eyeglasses as well as declaring that his mother would not have been able to provide for him and his siblings and keep up the house had it not been for food stamps.
In effect, Dr. Carson is speaking against many of the very policies and programs that allowed him to overcome the situation that he was born into. Unfortunately, he has not stopped there. He has compared gay marriage to animal and child rape. He used an example of an inmate going into jail straight, and then leaving gay to prove that being homosexual is a choice. He is disappointed that Black Americans “don’t kind of think for themselves and [that they] just kind of go with whatever they’re supposed to say and think.” He has made the now infamous statement that Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery, or 9/11. Dr. Carson has blamed police brutality on feminism, and when commenting on the recent protests in Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, he said :”if you wouldn’t protest a bad plumber, you shouldn’t protest police.”
It would be unfair to sum Dr. Carson’s candidacy up by continuing to state his numerous gaffes. Ironically, if he would have followed the advice of two verses from Proverbs that he read to begin his now infamous comments at that 2013 prayer breakfast, things may be going better for him:
“Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent.” -Proverbs 11:12 (ESV)
“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” -Proverbs 11:25 (ESV)
On his website, Dr. Carson outlines his stance on the issues that will be central to his campaign. He emphasizes keeping faith in our society, a balanced budget, keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison open, the ills of Obamacare, and an aggressive approach to the growing “Russia problem.” You can read more about his feelings on those issues on his website, however, you will not find many solutions offered. He provides a diagnosis, but does not offer any real plan to treat it. A man with his background should know that talking about whats wrong, in a vacuum, does nothing to make it right.
Why is he doing all of this? As has been chronicled in several publications, non-politician candidates do not do well in Presidential elections. He has labeled himself as the anti-politician and is not a big fan of political correctness. On his most optimistic day, Dr. Carson would have to admit that success for his campaign (however he would define that) is a long shot at best….but what is it at it’s worst? The sad reality is what we have seen of Dr. Carson in the political arena up to this point is probably as “good” as it is going to get. After the dust settles, and it will, he and his supporters will be left to ask themselves how the last 2+ years will affect/define his legacy. His church will have to decide if it should chip away at his place on that Rushmore Mountain.
As I mentioned earlier, the North American Division of the SDA church put out a statement in response to Dr. Carson’s presidential campaign announcement. The church has rightly taken the stance to refrain from endorsing any political candidates and the NAD said:
“While individual church members are free to support or oppose any candidate for office as they see fit, it is crucial that the church as an institution remain neutral on all candidates for office. Care should be taken that the pulpit and all church property remain a neutral space when it comes to elections.Church employees must also exercise extreme care not to express views in their denominational capacity about any candidate for office, including Dr. Carson.
We also want to remind our church members, pastors, and administrators of the church’s official position on the separation of church and state. The church has worked diligently to protect the religious rights of all people of faith, no matter what their denominational affiliation.”
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this statement. The church as an institution, a non-profit one at that, has to be careful to not be used as a tool for any particular person’s political gain. This objectivity in regards to political association has kept us on the right side of that separation between church and state.
My initial reaction to Dr. Carson’s new (at least new to me) political persuasions was that he definitely does not represent the views of the SDA church on most of the issues. As I began to unpack that in my head, I struggled to actually pinpoint why that is the case. My thought process went something like “I know that this guy doesn’t speak for me or my church…but…well what does my church actually have to say?” As has been the case with other hot button topics that have been discussed heavily in our church, there remains a void in our church’s institutional input on those issues. Dr. Carson has the potential to step into that void (perhaps he already has)…and if the church is not careful, it could allow the unintended consequence of having him speak for it.
The SDA church is not a political party, and it obviously should not be aligned with any particular party that currently exists. At the same time, it amazes me that the church seems to say so little, as an institution, in regards to the issues that the world it operates and serves in is talking about. Equal pay for women, trade agreements that may affect the job status of it’s members, race relations in this country and the church, staying faithful to our biblical integrity while actively addressing the issue of gay marriage and it’s real world implications…the list goes on. This is not a call for a campaign, we can leave that to Carson and the countless others who will be working for votes in 2016. This is a plea for an identity. A core set of values that do not just apply in the spiritual context, but one that can inform our thinking in other areas of life and prompt us to look for opportunities to apply those values to issues that matter to the world we are trying to save.
One of the issues that the NAD mentioned in the statement above is the church’s work in the area of religious liberty “to protect the religious rights of all people of faith, no matter what their denominational affiliation.” I would agree that this has overwhelmingly been the case. A recent article in Spectrum by Jared Wright might tell a different story – at least at one of the church’s flagship institutions. As you can read there, Lori Maria Walton, who holds an MPH in Epidemiology & Biostatistics from Johns Hopkins University (among other degrees), grew up in the Adventist Church and served as a professor in Andrews University’s School of Health Professions. In 2013, one year into her employment at AU, she officially converted from Seventh-Day Adventist Christianity to Islam. As a result, she received a “notice of non-renewal from the Dean of the School of Health Professions in which he said “[a]s you anticipated might be the case, your non-Adventist, non-Christian, faith commitment poses a challenge to Andrews University.” I encourage you to read the entire article to get the full context, as well as reaction from Dr. Walton. These words sum up some of her feelings on the church in the wake of this experience: “[a]dventists are such big advocates (in rhetoric, at least) for religious liberty. . . I did not imagine this would ‘pose a problem for them,’ especially since I teach research, statistics and physical therapy coursework and have never spoken about my religion on campus and have always upheld Adventist teachings.”
This is the perfect opportunity for the NAD, or even our church’s General Conference to release a statement clarifying and re-iterating it’s commitment to religious liberty for people of all religions and faith…especially the religious liberty of a professor at our largest, most popular educational institution. We cannot just advocate for these issues when there is something to gain for us, or when there is an opportunity to look good. A true commitment to the issues is about establishing an identity and sticking by it. When that identity is challenged or questioned, as it has been by this incident at my alma mater, our church has to stand up for what it claims to stand for. If we don’t, then the church’s value system is just as faulty as it seems the value system of one of it’s most prominent members has become.
I doubt that Dr. Carson will ever read this blog. I am not sure he really cares what a young Adventist man that used to look up to him thinks. I did not have to overcome what he overcame. I have not come close to accomplishing half of what he has accomplished. That being said I can promise you this: I will never forget where I came from. I will never demonize the people who may be struggling currently with what I overcame previously. The same hands that God gifted with the ability to save and transform lives medically are now being used to point down in judgment at the people Dr. Carson was gifted to inspire and save. There is nothing wrong with having political aspirations, or polarizing viewpoints…but if you would have asked me three years ago to name the least likely person to become what Dr. Carson has become, I would have named Ben Carson. If you do ever read this blog Dr. Carson, I would like to leave you with a favorite quote of mine from a great book I read a long time ago:
“The culture in which we live stresses looking out for number one. Without adopting such a self-centered value system, we can demand the best of ourselves while we are extending our hands to help others.”
―Ben Carson, Gifted Hands 20th Anniversary Edition: The Ben Carson Story