Review of One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, by Ben Carson, MD with Candy Carson. New York: Sentinel, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014.
For more than 125 years Seventh-day Adventists have vigorously opposed endeavors to bolster American identity as a “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” nation by means of law and public policy. Yet in his new book, Dr. Ben Carson, who has achieved greater prominence on the national political stage than any other Adventist in the denomination’s history, advocates an agenda that looks very much like what Adventists have long opposed in the name of religious liberty.
Raised in urban poverty by a single mother who was a devout Seventh-day Adventist, Carson transcended the limitations of his circumstances, rising to international acclaim for unprecedented achievements as a pediatric neurosurgeon. In the 1990s his star began also to rise as a best-selling author and speaker, addressing national issues.
Already quite well-known, he broke through to a new level of notoriety in 2013 with his keynote speech at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. It was his second time keynoting this prestigious event, Billy Graham being the only other person invited for a return engagement, his new book tells us (ix). But it was, of course, the content of the speech that created a stir in the news media. Carson’s comments on economic and healthcare policy were seen as unusually pointed in their criticism of the President of the United States.
An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Ben Carson For President,” reflected the enthusiasm the speech generated in conservative circles. In the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll on potential 2016 presidential candidates earlier this year, Carson made an impressive third-place showing with 9 percent. This placed him behind Sen. Rand Paul (31%) and Sen. Ted Cruz (11%), but ahead of well-known figures such as Gov. Chris Christie (8%), former Sen. Rick Santorum (6%), Gov. Rick Perry (3%), Congressman and 2012 Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan (3%), and former Gov. and 2008 Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin (2%). In his Preface to One Nation, Carson leaves open the possibility of a run for national political office, should he feel “called by God,” but states his present belief that the most important contribution he can make is to use the attention he has generated to speak out on the issues he sees as crucial to the nation’s future.
Unity under God
Religion suffuses Dr. Carson’s manifesto. He sees a nation imperiled not just by “reckless spending” and “mean-spirited attempts to silence critics,” but by “godless government” (xxvi). God, Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and Creation figure prominently, as they would in the faith of most any Seventh-day Adventist.
Yet, his development of these themes is strikingly discordant with much that has been central in the Seventh-day Adventist heritage. The national unity Dr. Carson promotes requires that “most citizens” look to the Bible and the Ten Commandments for authoritative answers on moral issues disputed in the public realm such as abortion and gay marriage (192-193). He hastens to add that this does not mean being unkind to nonbelievers or forcing our beliefs upon them. However, he affirms that “we have to make a choice as to what we believe and form our societal values around that choice” (201).
Foundational to Dr. Carson’s program, then, is the embrace of an identity centered on religious faith: Americans have “a heritage of Judeo-Christian morality,” he writes, and he exhorts us to “remember who we are and unite around the vision dictated by our identity” (195). Carson places a great deal of weight on the phrases “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on coins as definitive statements about the nation’s identity, and therefore both descriptive and prescriptive for national polity. Though the drafters of the Constitution assiduously avoided such references to God and the phrases did not come into official usage until long afterwards, Carson accords them a quasi-constitutional status, even while making restoration of the Constitution just as the founders wrote it one of his main solutions for saving America’s future.
Additionally, for Carson as for conservative evangelicals generally, the “my people” called by God’s name in 2 Chronicles 7:14 are the American people, and the promise that God will “heal their land” if they “humble themselves and pray” a promise for the American nation. Adventist biblical expositors have for the most part understood the people of God in the Christian era to be those who are “in Christ” – in other words, His church – an identity that transcends any national identity. When Adventists first entered the political arena in the late nineteenth century, it was to defend the Constitution against a growing movement to “nationalize Christianity.” In more recent times, Adventist evangelistic and doctrinal presentations have critiqued the dispensationalist teaching that makes the modern nation-state of Israel central to the fulfillment of end-time Bible prophecy. The related notion that America’s special vocation under God is military support for Israel to ensure fulfillment of its last-day role makes for a very direct influence on the foreign policy advocated by conservative evangelicals.
In brief, the faith that forms the identity at the heart of Dr. Carson’s agenda is a civil religion that re-defines the God of the Bible as the patron deity of the United States of America. This makes for a highly selective use of Scripture that ignores some of its most central themes.
For example, Carson finds in the practice of tithing biblical guidance for making the nation’s income tax more fair and beneficial to the common good. He contends that the graduated income tax penalizes the wealthy, invites the biases of special interests in establishing rates and exemptions, and demeans the poor with the message that they are not able to take responsibility for themselves. It is not necessarily the ten percent rate, but the principle of requiring the same percentage of all taxpayers that Carson recommends – a flat tax or “proportional tax,” as he terms it (104-106).
Whether or not a flat tax might enhance the common good, I am not qualified to say, though I am highly skeptical. But Carson has applied a biblical practice intended mainly to support priests and other religious vocations to a society’s overall economy while ignoring the great bulk of what the law and the prophets actually do have to say regarding a just and humane economic order. He makes no mention of the sabbatical year and jubilee year provisions (see Lev. 25, Deut. 15) that, however partial and erratic their implementation, conveyed the divine intention for curbing the extremes of wealth and poverty. Ellen White nicely summarizes these biblical provisions in Patriarchs and Prophets with a chapter entitled “God’s Care for the Poor,” and observes that their intent was to “promote social equality,” though not obliterate class distinctions (530-536).
Dr. Carson extols acts of charity and compassion on the part of the privileged. Yet he has little or nothing to say about the relentless protests against systemic oppression of the poor and calls for justice that are of such unmistakably large prominence in the message of the biblical prophets.
A line of thought from his 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech concerning America’s place in the history of “pinnacle nations” (more commonly known as “empires”) highlights another important contrast between Dr. Carson’s civil religion and a central biblical theme. He cited ancient Rome’s decline from unchallenged military supremacy as a particularly significant warning to contemporary America. Then, after noting that he thinks “all the time” about the social problems undermining the nation’s strength, Carson invoked Jesus as his “role model” in setting forth solutions. It turns out, though, that in this instance at least, it is not the content but a major form of Jesus’ teaching – parables – that Carson found exemplary, for he proceeded to relate a parable of his own illustrating the importance of reducing the national debt.
I am not claiming that this single excerpt shows that the life and teachings of Jesus have no substantive influence in Carson’s political philosophy. But it does accurately reveal a general tendency to use the Bible primarily for practical wisdom and selective moral discipline that he believes will strengthen America’s power and prosperity as world hegemon.
Adventists, by contrast have typically emphasized the portrayal of human empires in apocalyptic prophecy, and more broadly the entire sweep of the “story of redemption,” as arrogant oppressors, reiterations of “Babylon” that defy the true and living God and persecute the people of God. The main role of the latter is faithful witness to God’s government and coming kingdom, not to promote the might of worldly empires.
To be sure there are striking examples of biblical heroes who faithfully serve in imperial government and instances in which God uses empires both to punish the evil of their predecessors and protect the people of God. Yet it seems safe to say that the overall thrust of the biblical story, and certainly its conclusion in the book of Revelation is “counterimperial” – calling for faithfulness to God’s reign in contrast to earthly empires and people of all nations to that higher loyalty.
It would also be unfair to review One Nation as an exposition of Adventist biblical theology – its purpose is far different. Yet it does seem fair to point out the ways in which Dr Carson’s program runs opposite to much that Adventists have long taught. As Ellen White would be the first to acknowledge, “The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible”(Counsels to Writers and Editors, 35). Some Adventists may find Carson’s approach a useful corrective to the gloomy passivity that has too often dominated Adventists’ outlook on society. But those who see the Adventist message and mission as the guiding light and impetus for their lives would be well-advised to take a careful look.
Unity through common sense
A call for Americans of differing views to rise above bitter partisanship and find unity through mutually respectful dialogue runs through One Nation. That harmonious theme, however, alternates with more dissonant strains about the “political correctness police” (PCP) who seem to lurk everywhere to “muzzle” the convictions of God-fearing Americans and the “secular progressives” who will stop at nothing in attacking them (21).
The clash of these two outlooks comes through in Carson’s treatment of Obamacare. On the one hand, it seems that the main problem with the Affordable Healthcare Act was its comprehensive implementation as “a gigantic governmental program” all at once. “Common sense,” says Dr. Carson, “would dictate piecemeal implementation.” This outlook, which cites nothing intrinsically evil in the ACA, apparently worth trying in its distinct components, seems conducive to a process of open-minded evaluation, negotiation and compromise in an ongoing effort to grapple with an exceedingly complex problem (147-148).
Elsewhere, though, Dr. Carson speaks of Obamacare as absolute evil, so tyrannical that “slavery” is an apt comparison. Not just slavery in a general, metaphorical sense but in the specific historical sense of the African American experience of slavery. Dr. Carson attempts to clarify but does not retreat from his controversial statement in an interview that Obamacare is “the worst thing in our country since slavery.” Based on the false generalization that “we have no choice but to purchase the only proscribed product – Obamacare,” Carson explains the point of his “slavery” comparison: “Once we give the government this kind of power, it is naïve to believe that they will stop here in their quest for total control of our lives” (12-13). Apparently passage of the ACA reveals the government to be an oppressive, external “they” completely detached from the nation’s citizens even though their elected representatives passed the bill.
If the kindest observations I can make about these statements is that they show an incredibly heedless disrespect to the memory of those who experienced American chattel slavery and reflect the sort of polarizing extremism that Dr. Carson himself repeatedly castigates, am I thereby a PCP agent? Is holding Dr. Carson accountable for his assertions and making negative evaluations where warranted by evidence by definition just more of the relentless effort of secular progressives to discredit him and other “effective representatives of American values”? (13, 21).
I don’t think so, in part because I happen to agree with Dr. Carson that “civil union” would be a more appropriate category than “marriage” for honoring the rights of same-sex couples (116-117). I also believe the biblical witness regarding God as Creator, and think that it is narrow-minded to ridicule Carson’s views about creation and evolution without giving them a respectful hearing and shabby to disinvite him from speaking engagements because of those views.
Beyond the pros and cons of specific issues, what I find most unpersuasive about Dr. Carson’s manifesto is his oft-repeated confidence in simple common sense to light the way to a bright future for the nation. Because the knowledge provided by experts is often amassed in support of bad economic and healthcare policy, Carson declares “I would choose common sense over knowledge in almost every circumstance” (142). But surely common sense born of ignorance would be a dangerous guide.
For example, Dr. Carson’s remedy for health care – an individual Health Savings Account (HSA) for every American – looks to me like a great idea. But even in his brief treatment of the subject, Carson brings up several issues that would need to be addressed: securing the data, the relationship between employers, individuals and government in funding the accounts, the “catastrophic insurance” component needed if an individual has insufficient funds in his account, the necessity of regulations and precautions regarding those unable to pay, and preventing inappropriate use of the accounts by “addicts” and others who have “proven themselves to be fiscally irresponsible.” Some entity would need to hammer out these regulations and administer them. Would it be the despised governmental “they”? For all I can tell, the HSA system may be preferable to that created by the ACA, but I am entirely unconvinced that it would simply be an application of basic common sense that would easily “eliminate massive bureaucratic nightmares for both patients and providers” (142-147).
Unity through a shared story
Carson’s attempt to marshal the support of history backfires, further undermining the credibility of his proposals. He portrays an America originally united by a vision of individual freedom – the “can-do attitude” – in its revolution against Britain and establishment of its Constitution. Today, though, that vision has become imperiled to the point of extinction by the advocates of a “more communal society” seeking to re-distribute wealth with “massively complicated taxation schemes” and “impossibly intricate and uninterpretable health care laws” (172-174).
Again, the nation’s dire condition, as Dr. Carson sees it, is to a great extent attributable to complexity, and his solution is simplicity itself: “I believe that the only thing that will correct our downward trajectory is the rekindling of enthusiasm for individual freedom and the reestablishment of the U.S. Constitution as the dominant document of governance” (176). Central to this return to the Constitution is emulation of its literary form – both its simple clarity and succinctness. The document, says Dr. Carson, “is quite easy to understand and should serve as a gold standard for the language and size of subsequent legislation.” Indeed, the legislator who drafts “a law that cannot be easily understood by an average citizen is not worthy of leadership” (179).
Among much else that invites comment here, Carson simply ignores the fact that right from the start, the nation’s political history has centered on debate over the meaning of that easy-to-understand Constitution. Jefferson and Hamilton, among the founders that Carson idealizes, headed the first major round of the conflict. Has it been political forces defiant of the Constitution’s meaning, or a sinister campaign of obfuscation that has brought its influence to the brink of complete demise? And that has caused the government somehow to develop “its own ideology” for re-distributing wealth, thereby “changing us from a representative type of governmental structure to a nanny state” (172-173)? Parallel to his use of the Bible, Carson offers a few problematic historical anecdotes but no serious historical arguments that address these questions.
Illustrative of his misuse of history, Carson upholds Martin Luther King, Jr. as a great role model in a way that is both deeply false in its overall thrust and self-contradictory. He groups Dr. King with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver as “great proponents of self-reliance and self-help” (30). That is true, and would be equally true of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Carson quotes a speech Dr. King gave in 1953, before his emergence as a civil rights leader, in which he declared that it is a human weakness to place the blame for our sins and mistakes on “some external agency” and that “personal responsibility is the final determining factor in our lives” – relatively noncontroversial moral wisdom for a Christian leader.* On that basis, Carson asserts that “the current leadership in America’s black community could learn a great deal about effective leadership by studying some of the writings and the real history of Dr. King” (42-43).
Throughout the “real history” of his career, Dr. King espoused the “social gospel” that called for radical change of the economic and political systems that institutionalize the kind of injustice condemned by the biblical prophets, along with individual transformation through the power of Christ. Throughout his public career, but especially in its latter years (ca. 1965-1968), he urged an allocation of resources to empower the nation’s poor far more radical than anything Barack Obama has even suggested.
Dr. Carson denounces the “historical revisionists” who emphasize the negative aspects of American history, such as the racism that prevailed “especially before the crusades of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “the atrocities witnessed during the Vietnam War” (39). But the Dr. King that Carson extols had the following to say about the Vietnam War in 1967: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”^
Like Dr. Carson, Dr. King saw a nation in moral decline that imperiled its very future and wanted America to reverse course and live up to its highest ideals. In the same speech, he stated: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Indeed, he believed that America faced divine judgment if it did not repent.
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
So, with Dr. Carson, I would highly recommend – not the air-brushed icon of conservative civil religion – but the “real history” of Martin Luther King, Jr. And not just to “the current leadership of America’s black community” but to all its current and aspiring leaders.
*“Accepting Responsibility for Your Actions,” 26 July 1953, in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VI, Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948–March 1963, edited by Clayborne Carson, Susan Englander, Susan Carson, Troy Jackson, Gerald L. Smith (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2007), 139-142.
^“Beyond Vietnam,” 4 Apr 1967, Riverside Church, New York City, full text in the King Institute Encyclopedia, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/
Douglas Morgan teaches in the History Department at Washington Adventist University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6055