Is church-state separation holding American back? Dr. Ben Carson seems to think so.
You may not be familiar with Carson, but you should have him on your radar. He’s a retired neurosurgeon with an impressive resume including an undergraduate degree from Yale and a past teaching position at Johns Hopkins University.
Carson became a conservative hero after speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, and he addressed the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last fall. He is now being talked about as a potential GOP presidential candidate.
The more you learn about Carson, the more you can understand why the Religious Right loves him so. He has come under fire for comparing gay marriage to bestiality, telling Fox News last March “no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality” has the right to “redefine” marriage in the United States.
Carson later apologized for the comment, but the ensuing controversy led Johns Hopkins to distance itself from Carson. He ended up canceling his planned commencement address at the university, which had been scheduled for May.
Now, it seems Carson wants to keep his name in the news by taking shots at church-state separation. In a recent opinion column for the conservative-leaning Washington Times, Carson asserted, “The separation clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is being inappropriately applied to a host of situations that involve religion. By reinterpreting the law to mean separation of God and state, as opposed to the original intent of keeping the church from having undue influence over state affairs and keeping government from ruling the church, the secular progressives have succeeded de facto in redefining part of the Constitution.”
Carson is making something of an oil-and-water argument, and his ideas just don’t gel. While it is true that the First Amendment is intended to keep the church from engaging in state affairs and the state from meddling in church matters, there is no way for that principle to be applied if God and state are not separate. It would be impossible for the state to be aligned with God and at the same time argue that the government is not endorsing religion, or at least belief over non-belief.
Carson went on to take a page out of disgraced pseudo-historian David Barton’s playbook, claiming that prayer has saved America before, as evidenced by an event from 1787.
During the Constitutional Convention of that year, Carson said proceedings were at a standstill until none other than Benjamin Franklin “reminded them of their frequent prayers during the war against Great Britain” and suggested that everyone pray on the spot. Carson said the delegates listened to Franklin, and afterward the U.S. Constitution was completed.
What a heartwarming story. Too bad it’s just that – a fairytale. According to the Library of Congress, Franklin did make a well-known speech in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in which he asked that each session begin with a prayer. This was indeed at a time of high tension among the delegates.
But in reality Franklin’s motion failed and there was no official prayer – and yet the delegates managed to write the Constitution anyway.
Sadly, the inaccurate story of Franklin saving the Constitution with prayer wasn’t the only tall tale Carson told in his column. He claimed that when his book Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential For Excellence came out, some lawyers “[A]dvise[d] me that we could not hang our ‘Think Big’ banners in public schools. They claimed the ‘G’ stood for God and this would be tantamount to government endorsement of religion, which would be contrary to the First Amendment.”
Carson countered that government is not allowed to suppress religion. And while it’s hard to see how banning some banners counts as inhibiting worship, he claimed then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor herself told him the banners would have been permissible.
“I knew that the very next week I would be going to the Supreme Court to receive the Jefferson award,” Carson said. “I figured I would bring up this issue while I was there, and I did. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said we were nowhere near violating the First Amendment and that, of course, we could put our banners up in a public school without constitutional infringement.”
This is highly dubious. O’Connor was an advocate for church-state separation, and it seems extremely unlikely that she would have drawn a conclusion in any case without knowing anything close to all the facts.
Carson’s central point in his column was that “Our Judeo-Christian values led this nation to the pinnacle of the world in record time. If we embrace them, they will keep us there.”
So if we have strayed from those "shared values,” who then should we look to as an example of a “Christian nation”? None other than Russia. Seriously, Carson said Russia.
In December, Carson noted, Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the “godlessness” of the West and suggested that religious morality is linked to the greatness of nations.
Carson said Putin’s growing alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church has Russia “[G]aining prestige and influence throughout the world while we are losing ours.”
He cannot be serious. Russia has drawn tremendous criticism for its treatment of gays not just from the United States, but also from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who condemned Russia’s homophobia.
Russia is also a really violent place. In 2009, there were more than 21,000 murders there. That same year, there were about 13,000 in the United States, even though the U.S. has more than twice the population of Russia. If having more murders than the U.S. is something to aspire toward, then Russia is doing pretty well.
Carson just could not be more wrong. He said church-state separation is being applied incorrectly in the United States, then he holds up a country run by an oppressive pseudo-dictator as an example to which the United States should aspire.
That doesn’t sound like the argument of someone who values the U.S. Constitution, as Carson claims he does. It sounds like someone who wants to redefine the First Amendment to permit the government to force his understanding of God onto the people of the United States. That’s about as unconstitutional as it gets.