How to Challenge a President

Dr. Ben Carson at the National Prayer Breakfast

prayerbreakfastDr. Ben Carson is not a man to back down from challenges. As a young neurosurgeon, he daringly removed half of a child’s brain to relieve life-threatening seizures, successfully. A few years later, he performed the first operation to separate twins joined at the back of the head, also successfully.

So it’s no surprise that Carson took on the president of the United States at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. During his 25-minute address, he gently criticized Obamacare, lamented the poor state of education in America, and even provided an alternative to the administration’s plan to raise taxes on high-income earners.

“There’s no question that [President Obama] has advocated, you know, basically a policy of tax the rich,” Carson told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto in a post-breakfast interview. “And I have advocated a policy that comes from the Bible, which is a very fair policy of proportional taxation.”

Carson was referring to the idea of a straight percentage tax, similar to a tithe. During his speech, Carson actually put it this way:

You make $10 billion dollars, you put in a billion. You make $10, you put in $1. Of course, you gotta get rid of the loopholes. But now some people say, that’s not fair because it doesn’t hurt the guy who made $10 billion dollars as much as the guy who made $10. Where does it say you have to hurt the guy? He’s just put in a billion in the pot. We don’t need to hurt him.

Carson was presumably referring to what many see as a “punish the rich” overtone in much of President Obama’s rhetoric.

Carson went on to suggest an alternative to the expense of Obamacare: Provide each American at birth with a Health Savings Account, to which he or she can make pre-tax donations throughout life and then pass the money on to a relative after death. He included a provision for taking care of the indigent without spending increasing government debt.

But immediately following the speaker’s remarks, the media began to question, was the Prayer Breakfast an appropriate place to challenge presidential policies, and who exactly was this man doing the challenging?

Hosting a CNN panel, Candy Crowley remarked: “Whoa! So, this was really interesting—number one for the venue, number two for the person doing this. Not a, I mean, he may be a political person, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him on the national stage.”

To which former Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson calmly responded: “It reminded me of the prayer breakfast I went to when Mother Teresa was talking, and Bill and Hillary Clinton were sitting there, and [Mother Theresa] was talking about how bad abortion is.”

In other words, laypeople actually can and do challenge the President. In fact, it’s a protection against tyranny and a basic tenet of our constitutional form of government. As Abraham Lincoln expressed it: government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

And if the National Prayer Breakfast is not a place to suggest solutions to America’s problems that an invited speaker believes stem from the Scriptures, where exactly is that venue? Is not a National Prayer Breakfast part of the public square? And is it likely the president would ever invite Dr. Carson to the White House, knowing (as he most likely did before the surgeon’s speech) of Carson’s conservative positions on fiscal and social issues? (And don’t forget, Carson wasn’t the first Prayer Breakfast speaker to do this with President Obama!)

But at the breakfast, Carson had the rare opportunity of having the president’s ear, as well as the ears of many other lawmakers who attended the event. And, being the risk-taker that he is, and a man not easily given to intimidation, Carson stepped up to the plate and swung.

But it was a gentle swing. Throughout his speech speech, the Baltimore doctor’s tone was not one of anger, vitriol, or even challenge. It was more of a paternal tone.

Think about it. Obama and Carson. Both African-American men. Both the product of single-mother homes. Neither one born of privilege. Both encouraged by their hard-working mothers to make something of their lives. Both accepted at Ivy League schools. Both succeeding and becoming leaders on the national stage.

Perhaps Carson was speaking, then, as an elder brother to a younger one, a 61 year old to a 51 year old, a man edging out of his professional career to a man at the height of his. Maybe, in essence, he was saying, “Listen for a moment to a man very much like you, but with a rather different set of ideas about solving our nation’s problems.”

And those differences were clearly drawn in Carson’s speech.

While Obama champions more government money as the solution to America’s education challenges, Carson spoke about the initiatives of his private charity in providing scholarships to inner city youth and building reading rooms for young children in Title One schools.

While Obama encourages a wider and more generous safety net for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, Carson spoke about an epiphany of personal responsibility, stating:

I began to see that the person who has the most to do with you and what happens to you in life is you. You make decisions. You decide how much energy you want to put behind that decisions. . . . At that point I didn’t hate poverty anymore, because I knew it was only temporary. I knew I could change that.
And while Obama is in the midst of negotiations with Congress pushing for a higher ceiling to our national debt, Carson brought up the dangers of fiscal irresponsibility: “Ancient Rome. They destroyed themselves from within. Moral decay. Fiscal irresponsibility. . . . And if you don’t believe that can happen to America, you get out your books and you start reading.”

Yet, despite Carson’s challenges to the president’s policies, he also, as a paternal figure is apt to do, left the president with words of confidence and encouragement. “We can fix [America’s problems],” said the doctor. “We have some of the most intellectually gifted people leading our nation. All we need to do is remember what our real responsibilities are, so that we can solve the problems.”

Since the prayer breakfast last Thursday, the video of Dr. Carson’s address has gone viral. In response, Neil Cavuto asked the neurosurgeon if he had any political aspirations himself. “I've always said if God grabs me by the collar and sticks me in that arena,” Carson smiled, “that's the only way that I'll do it.”

For Further Reading:

Dr. Ben Carson with Candy Carson, "America the Beautiful: Discovering What Made This Nation Great," Zondervan, 2013.

Image courtesy of Gretawire.

Ginny Mooney is a freelance writer and Emmy Award-winning television producer.

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