Ben Carson became convinced of two things during his teenage years. First, that he was uniquely talented, “one of the most spectacular and smartest people in the world.” Second, that God would answer his prayers, however specific they might be. Carson absorbed his mother’s mantra: “If you ask the Lord for something and believe He will do it, then it’ll happen.”
Little has occurred in Carson’s life and career since then to counter those impressions, and much has happened to confirm them. That may help explain why, during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, the retired neurosurgeon has appeared at times indifferent to or uninformed about matters relevant to the office he seeks, such as the federal debt ceiling or natural disasters, and has expressed little regret over his controversial comments on the Holocaust, mass shootings, slavery and Islam. After reading five of his autobiographical, self-help and political books — “Gifted Hands” (1990), “Think Big” (1992), “The Big Picture” (1999), “America the Beautiful” (2012) and “A More Perfect Union” (2015) — I find this attitude more understandable. Why stress over policy details or gaffes when you’re the brightest person in the room, and when the Big Guy will show up if you ever need a hand?
Carson’s story is a nearly uninterrupted string of being proved right and smart. “I can learn to do anything that anybody else can do,” he tells his wife repeatedly. This certainty has guided him from Detroit, to Yale University, to medical school at the University of Michigan, to an illustrious career at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and now to the top of latest national polls in the GOP race. With that mind-set, the presidency isn’t a stretch; it’s an intellectual and divine entitlement.
In Carson’s telling, an early instance of heavenly intervention comes during his freshman year at Yale. It is the night before a final exam in chemistry, and Carson, who had developed weak study habits in high school, is hopelessly behind in the class. If he fails, he will have to drop out of pre-med. “Either help me understand what kind of work I ought to do,” Carson prays to God, “or else perform some kind of miracle and help me pass this exam.” While he sleeps, Carson dreams that a nebulous figure enters the chemistry hall and begins working out problems, while Carson, sitting alone in class, takes rapid notes. The next morning, the actual test contains all the questions from the dream. Carson scores a 97. “For whatever reason,” he concludes, “the God of the universe, the God who holds galaxies in His hands, had seen a reason to reach down to a campus room on planet Earth and send a dream to a discouraged ghetto kid.”
Set aside for a moment that when a college student has not prepared for an exam, yet somehow learns the questions ahead of time, supernatural assistance is but one possible explanation. God didn’t just help him pass a test, Carson decides, but also expressed divine support for the young man’s vocation. Carson tells readers that he had “the sense that God not only wanted me to be a physician, but that He had special things for me to do.”
Throughout his books, Carson, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, describes himself as an instrument of God, and the riveting stories of his most complicated surgeries — separating twins conjoined at the head, removing large portions of brains that were causing seizures and other ailments — are suffused with the divine. “We believe that God has led us to Baltimore and directly to you for this operation,” one parent of a sick child tells him in a typical conversation.
Carson courageously takes on impossible cases, brushes aside doubting colleagues and performs heroic surgeries. In the middle of one procedure, a 4-year-old patient goes into cardiac arrest, and Carson isn’t sure what to do. “Lord, I don’t know what’s going on or what caused this,” he prays. “Fix it, God please.” Suddenly her heart resumes pumping. “Thank you, Lord,” Carson responds. “I don’t know what happened, but clearly you fixed it.”
This man of science is often skeptical of non-spiritual explanations. When a dying patient makes a surprising recovery following a high-risk surgery, Carson cuts off a Hopkins colleague offering more Earth-bound hypotheses. “This is a miracle. Why not accept it for what it is?” Carson demands. “They don’t come any more blatantly than this.”
Such faith is self-fulfilling; the more fervently Carson believes in God’s involvement, the more he assumes it will happen again. Though still supremely confident in his medical skills — “I had been extremely well trained, was quite smart, and knew that I was especially capable” — he now has backup, too. “It has become abundantly clear to me that the Lord was letting me know . . . that He is there for me, available to be used if I call on Him,” Carson explains.
Once you have God on speed dial, well, it’s hard not to press that button. At one point, Carson requests God’s help to find his stolen passport; it is retrieved. On the eve of a safari in South Africa, Carson asks God to “bless us with the opportunity to observe a wide variety of wildlife.” No surprise: His party witnesses such an astonishing range of animals that the guide can remember nothing like it. (“I never dreamed just how literally my prayers would be answered,” he writes.) And in a particularly unnerving intercession, Carson asks God for help in dismissing his incompetent, alcoholic secretary without hurting her feelings. (“I’m softhearted,” the doctor assures, “and it is especially hard for me to fire somebody.”) Two weeks later, the secretary doesn’t show up for work. “We never did find out what happened to her,” Carson writes. “She simply disappeared.” He regrets not being able to help her, but nevertheless, he is “thankful that this problem was resolved without any unpleasantness on my part.” Prayers answered and unpleasantness avoided, at least for the softhearted surgeon.
Carson frequently cites a poem, “Yourself to Blame,” that his mother taught him as a kid. “If things go bad for you/ And make you a bit ashamed/ Often you will find out that/ You have yourself to blame” are the opening lines. The sentiment fits his philosophy of self-help and self-reliance, which in turn informs his views on poverty and race. Yet he rarely casts blame in his own direction. He repeatedly plagiarizes in college, but when he is finally caught, he minimizes the transgression as ignorance rather than malice. “Frankly, I had never even heard of the term plagiarism,” he writes. “Fortunately for me, the professor was very compassionate, realized that I was naive, and gave me a chance to rewrite the paper.” And when things go wrong for him in the operating room, when a patient dies, Carson concludes that the surgery was impossible from the start and, prophet-like, chastises God for wasting his talents. “Why did you let me spend so much valuable time and energy in something that could not possibly work out?” Carson asks God. “Why would you provide an opportunity like this only to allow us to fail? Why?”
It’s easier to lecture God when you’re convinced of your own virtue. Carson seems particularly pleased with his humility, as the prideful tend to be. “I am uncomfortable with praise,” he says. “It is embarrassing to be the subject of a string of complimentary remarks.” But he is eager to detail accolades. He mentions multiple times that the medical internship he won at Johns Hopkins accepts only two students from an average of 125 applicants each year and that he became chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the tender age of 33. “God has given me not only the natural gifts of a surgeon but also the sensitivity to feel the hurt of my patients,” he writes. “This, however, does not give me the right to boast — I am only using the gifts that were given to me.”
If gratitude for one’s greatness is a sign of humility, then Carson is quite good at being humble.
He reassures readers that achievement has not gone to his head. “After earning my M.D. degree, I tried to be aware that I was the same person I had always been,” Carson writes. “Now that I am a board-certified neurosurgeon, I am still the same individual that I was in high school. . . . I am no different now that I have six honorary doctorate degrees.”
The self-confidence of a surgeon, the dead certainty of faith and the inherent hubris of those who run for president — all these forces coalesce in Ben Carson. No wonder he is annoyed at any suggestion that he is unqualified for the Oval Office. “There are many today who think that doctors should stick to medicine and cannot possibly know anything about other areas of life,” he complains in his most recent book. “The opposite is true: Most doctors are deeply invested in areas of knowledge besides medicine.” He notes five doctors who signed the Declaration of Independence, and he disparages the political dominance of the legal profession. “While many of the founders were lawyers, many of the signers [of the Constitution] were businessmen or doctors,” he writes. “If they understood freedom enough to write the Constitution, you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to understand it today.”
His virtues and vices already call to mind recent presidents and candidates. In his books, Carson resembles President Obama in the incessant reliance on personal biography to illustrate the larger American story. The prominence of faith is reminiscent of President George W. Bush, though while Bush appeared to rely on it for individual discipline and resolve, Carson’s faith guides him through everyday tasks. And he comes off as even more confident than his chief rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. While Donald Trump’s books offer flashes of insecurity, Carson’s provide few that I can see.
If Carson wins the nomination, even the presidency, I suspect that in some future book he will deem the victory divinely ordained. If he doesn’t prevail, I’m sure the doctor’s postmortem will find someone to blame.
- Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story by Ben Carson with Cecil Murphey. Zondervan, 1990.
- Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence by Ben Carson with Cecil Murphey. Zondervan, 1992.
- The Big Picture: Getting Perspective on What’s Really Important in Life by Ben Carson with Gregg Lewis. Zondervan, 1999.
- America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great by Ben Carson with Candy Carson. Zondervan, 2012.
- A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim Our Constitutional Liberties by Ben Carson with Candy Carson. Sentinel, 2015.
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