At the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, with the president seated only feet away, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson delivered a keynote address in which he criticized the Obama administration’s policies on key issues, including health care and taxes. Owing to the courage of his convictions and apparent common sense, there are now calls for Carson to run for president. For now, Dr. Carson says, “the more important thing that can be done with the platform I have been given is to try to convince the American populace that we are not one another’s enemies even if a (D) is by some of our names and an (R) by the names of others.” The author of the new book, One Nation: What We Can Do to Save America’s Future, Carson talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about his future plans and America’s hope.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: After an accomplished career as a brain surgeon, is it odd to be referred to as a “pundit”? Do the two have anything in common as best you can tell?
BEN CARSON: Technically I guess anyone who has opinions and expresses them is a pundit, so I don’t find that particularly strange. Certainly neurosurgeons have strong opinions about many things just as pundits too.
LOPEZ: What might you say to anyone surprised (both favorably and not favorably) to find you writing about “The Art of Compromise,” which is the title of one of the chapters in your new book?
CARSON: No one should be surprised that I am writing about compromise. We live in a diverse society and it is impossible to make progress if you can’t talk to each other and compromise.
LOPEZ: You explain the positive reaction to your most recent prayer-breakfast speech as people responding to common sense. But do we really have such a thing anymore? Agreed-upon good sense? There seems be so many conflicting truth claims out there.
CARSON: There is still plenty of common sense left in America. The problem is that people are afraid to express it because they will frequently be attacked by those who have a different vision for America. Common sense should reside in both parties and in all segments of the population by definition. Those interested in dividing America appeal to selfishness and sensitivity to accomplish their goals. Those things frequently do not include common sense.
LOPEZ: Why is it important for people to know that you are the son of a single mother? Does that hurt the arguments you make about marriage and fatherhood?
CARSON: It is important for people to know my origins in order to discern better the development of my philosophies. It is also important to recognize that even when one comes from difficult circumstances, by making the correct choices and being willing to work hard, great things can be accomplished. The fact that my mother came from even more difficult circumstances and refused to be a victim I believe provides a very good role model for others. Certainly I would have preferred to have a complete traditional family with all the advantages that would afford, but we have to make the best of our circumstances.
LOPEZ: What is “godless government”? Aren’t God and Caesar two different entities with a wall between them?
CARSON: Godless government tries to ignore the existence of God and the influence of godly principles. It has nothing to do with separation of church and state.
LOPEZ: How do you advise “prayerful action” that doesn’t use or abuse religious faith?
CARSON: There is nothing wrong with living a life that is informed by one’s faith. One is free at any time to pray for wisdom when making decisions. This does not impose upon anyone else’s rights.
LOPEZ: Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society speech, what is the bottom line for you on questions of poverty?
CARSON: Poverty remains a great problem in America even after trillions of dollars have been spent in an attempt to eliminate it. This is because people do not recognize that the creation of dependency by providing inappropriate handouts is actually cruel and perpetuates poverty rather than eliminating it. Our resources and intellects can be much better utilized by figuring out ways to empower people in our society.
LOPEZ: The current state of Detroit, where you were raised, must break your heart. Would you ever run for office there?
CARSON: I would not run for office in Detroit unless I lived in Detroit, which I do not. I very much sympathize with the people there and hope that they learn many lessons about fiscal responsibility. Hopefully our nation can also learn before it suffers the same fate.
LOPEZ: What is the Martin Luther King Jr. message that we forget at our peril?
CARSON: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us many lessons, but one of the most important ones is that we want to achieve a society where people are evaluated based on the quality of their character rather than on the color of their skin. To expect people to hold certain views based on their race is just as unfortunate as many of the things that occurred in our society before there was racial enlightenment.
LOPEZ: You point out that when there was some controversy that kept you from speaking at John Hopkins’ commencement a few years ago, you “asked if there was any position a person could take that did not include approval of gay marriage that would be acceptable to the gay community. After some consideration, I was told that there really was no other acceptable position. This explains why there was such a ferocious attack on my comments — there really was no argument that could have been made that would not have drawn an emotional response rather than a rational argument.” Where does this leave us? What hope is there for rational discourse on the topic?
CARSON: Rational discourse will be possible when people are able to sit down and discuss their differences without hysteria entering the conversation. This is one of the reasons that I oppose political correctness so vehemently. It stifles conversation and therefore solutions. We must do everything within our power to once again establish the concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This will foster an atmosphere of civil discussion which will solve this and many other problems.
LOPEZ: You write that “There was a time when I was a hothead, and my temper wrecked havoc in my life until I learned to take myself out of the center of the circle. The real key to staying cool and calm is to relinquish selfishness and always consider the feelings of others. When someone is being particularly mean and nasty, I simply think to myself, He or she used to be a cute little baby, I wonder what happened? Thinking about that question will soften your attitude and lesson the likelihood of an inflammatory confrontation.” How is that helpful and not patronizing?
CARSON: This is very helpful because it helps you to realize that people themselves may not be bad, but rather have had bad experiences. This will help you realize that maybe you can help reverse some of those bad experiences with a kind, accepting, and forgiving attitude.
LOPEZ: Is Washington D.C. really “dysfunctional” or does it have to do with our hearts and culture?
CARSON: The main problem with Washington DC is that it is populated by politicians who place party loyalty above loyalty to their nation. Until the situation is remedied, Washington will continue to be highly dysfunctional.
LOPEZ: “Pretend that you are in a different political party from yours and that you must give a rational defense of something you currently strongly disagree with that the other party embraces,” you advise. What good can this do? Have you done it recently on some issue? How did it go?
CARSON: I go through this exercise very frequently and it helps me to look at things from other people’s points of view. If we all learn to do this, we will become considerably more empathetic and reasonable individuals.
LOPEZ: Why is it important to understand that “sometimes you have to realize that you cannot heal all wounds no matter how hard you try”? Is that particularly humbling for a doctor to acknowledge?
CARSON: It is difficult for doctors and any thinking person who accepts personal responsibility to deal with situations where they cannot remedy deep wounds that are frequently emotional in nature. Maturity dictates that we must recognize when these situations occur so that we can move on with our lives.
LOPEZ: Being a brain surgeon who stresses the importance of knowledge and staying informed, how would you suggest we counter the short attention spans so many of us seem to have? Do we have a real cultural if not neurological problem that perhaps social media has brought about?
CARSON: There is no question that many children today are put in front of televisions as soon as they are able to sit up and given video games as soon as they acquire some manual dexterity. This affects their ability to pay attention to slow-moving situations. I hope wise parents will substitute time in front of these types of electronic media for time interacting and reading and discussing things with their children. This will make a huge difference in their future. I also strongly recommend reading for half-an-hour a day on a subject you are not already familiar with. If this is done for one year, you and everybody else will be astonished at how knowledgeable you are.
LOPEZ: How should we think about race and bigotry in America today? How do we live, as you emphasize, “with liberty and justice for all?”
CARSON: We need to strongly deemphasize race in this country. If we stop bringing it up on every possible occasion, its significance will quickly fade into the background. There are relatively few people who now believe that there are any significant intellectual differences between racial groups and most of the traditional stereotypes have been debunked. Does racism still exist? Of course it does and will as long as there are narrow-minded people, but it does not have to be elevated to a level of significance by the general populace. We must concentrate on treating everyone the same regardless of their race or circumstances. This does not eliminate fairness and compassion.
LOPEZ: Why did you approach this book with fairly practical “action steps”? It’s a little bit like All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten with a political edge.
CARSON: I included action steps at the end of each chapter because so many people get enthusiastic when they hear an inspirational speech but they don’t know what to do. Through these action steps we can get people accustomed to the idea of thinking about others and thinking about the influence that they have in their own sphere, as well as how they can make a difference locally and collectively.
LOPEZ: Who are the underappreciated heroes you see today?
CARSON: The unappreciated heroes of today are those individuals who take personal responsibility, work hard, support their families, and understand their civic duties as responsible voters. If everyone acted in this fashion, we would not be experiencing the problems that we have today.
LOPEZ: Do we take politics too seriously (making everything political) and yet at the same time not seriously enough (being cynical, knowing more about Dancing with the Stars than current political debates)? Is your book meant to be some kind of prescription to help with this ailment?
CARSON: Without question we do not take our political actions seriously enough. We must all become highly informed voters and we must know not only the names of our representatives but how they actually voted. We the people are at the pinnacle of power but we must exercise that power responsibly and intelligently. Hopefully after reading this book, American citizens will become very serious about their responsibilities to those who will follow us in this nation.
LOPEZ: Obviously, you come out with a book and a lot of the attention it gets has to do with your political prospects. But if there were one thing a reader takes from your book, what do you hope it would be?
CARSON: I hope that the reader will take from this book the idea that we the American people are not each other’s enemies. I hope they will also understand who the true enemies are who are trying to fundamentally change or society and divide our nation. We are very fortunate that our future is in our own hands. We will determine ultimate victory or failure.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.