Excerpted from One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America’s Future by Ben Carson, MD, and Candy Carson, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) American Business Collaborative LLC, 2014.
The 2013 National Prayer Breakfast
I was totally shocked when in the fall of 2012 my office received a call inquiring whether I would be willing to give the keynote address for the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. I had already had the pleasure and honor of being the keynote speaker for the 1997 National Prayer Breakfast when President Clinton was in office. That speech was well received, even by President Clinton, despite my pointed comments about integrity in public office. “I just want to know who is responsible for putting this guy on before me,” he quipped when he came to the podium after my talk. The audience roared with laughter and he went on to give his usual very good speech. The event had gone as well as it could have, but I didn’t give a second thought as to whether I’d be asked again.
Stunned by the request, I asked if anyone had ever done it twice and I was informed that only one person fit into that category and that was Billy Graham. I prayed about it and felt that there was a reason why I was being asked for a repeat performance. I talked by telephone and in person with members of the National Prayer Breakfast staff and they informed me that many senators thought that I was the right person not only to encourage people but also to help bring a sense of unity back to our nation’s capital. I was honored to accept the challenge and immediately begin praying for the necessary wisdom and words to gently address the spiritual, financial, and moral decline of America, a difficult task in the highly partisan atmosphere that exists in Washington, DC, today.
The event organizers were obviously familiar with many of my public speeches in which I had taken no prisoners. I call it as I see it without dancing around a topic in order to spare everyone’s feelings. They were therefore somewhat concerned that I might say something that would offend the president. I indicated that I had no intention of offending anyone, the president included. Nevertheless, the organizers were still quite interested in receiving a copy of my transcript just to be on the safe side. I informed them that the 1997 National Prayer Breakfast committee had also wanted a copy of my notes but because I don’t speak from a transcript, I wasn’t able to provide them with a copy at that time either.
The breakfast was held at the Washington Hilton in the District of Columbia. The predictable protocols were shared by security and the Secret Service the evening before the event. And in the morning, I had the opportunity to chat with other participants in the Green Room over breakfast appetizers. I recalled that the menu in 1997 was considerably more varied and robust, and thinking that the fact that the selections were meager was a good thing since the federal budget is under a lot of pressure. I also remember the affability of the president and First Lady in the 1997 receiving line. They were both very gracious and easy to talk to. This year, President and Mrs. Obama were not present in the Green Room, so there really was no opportunity to meet them or chat beforehand. However, there were many well-known dignitaries in the platform party there.
Once we were on stage, I was seated on one side of the podium between Vice President Biden and Senator Schumer of New York, while the president was seated on the other side of the lectern between his wife and Senator Sessions of Alabama. Before my speech, Bible readings and inspirational comments were made by a variety of people. I was introduced, followed by very generous applause, and began my speech by reading several Bible verses that seemed particularly applicable to the leadership in Washington, DC, today. The text of the speech follows:
Thank you so much. Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Obama, and distinguished guests . . . which includes everybody. Thank you so much for this wonderful honor to be at this stage again. I was here 16 years ago, and the fact that they invited me back means that I didn’t offend too many people, so that was great. I want to start by reading four texts which will put into context what I’m going to say.
Proverbs 11:9: Evil words destroy one’s friends; wise discernment rescues the godly.
Proverbs 11:12: It is foolish to belittle a neighbor; a person with good sense remains silent.
Proverbs 11:25: The generous prosper and are satisfied; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.
2 Chronicles 7:14: Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face
and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.
You know, I have an opportunity to speak in a lot of venues. This is my fourth speech this week. And I have an opportunity to talk to a lot of people. And I’ve been asking people what concerns you? What are you most concerned about in terms of the spirituality and the direction of our nation and our world? I’ve talked to very prominent Democrats. . . very prominent Republicans. And I was surprised by the uniformity of their answers. And those (answers) have informed my comments this morning.
Now, it’s not my intention to offend anyone. I have discovered, however, in recent years that it’s very difficult to speak to a large group of people these days and not offend someone. People walk around with their feelings on their shoulders waiting for you to say something. “Ah, did you hear that?” and they can’t hear anything else you say. The PC police are out in force at all times. I remember once I was talking to a group about the difference between a human brain and a dog’s brain, and a man got offended. He said, “You can’t talk about dogs like that!” People just focus in on that . . . completely miss the point of what you’re saying. And we’ve reached the point where people are afraid to actually talk about what they want to say because somebody might be offended. People are afraid to say “Merry Christmas” at Christmastime. Doesn’t matter whether the person you’re talking to is Jewish or, you know, whether they’re any religion. That’s a salutation, a greeting of goodwill. We’ve got to get over this sensitivity. You know it keeps people from saying what they really believe.
You know, I’m reminded of a very successful young businessman. And he loved to buy his mother these exotic gifts for Mother’s Day. [One year] he ran out of ideas, and then he ran across these birds. These birds were cool, you know? They cost $5,000 apiece. They could dance, they could sing, they could talk! He was so excited, he bought two of them. Sent them to his mother, couldn’t wait to call her up on Mother’s Day, “Mother, Mother, what’d you think of those birds?” And she said, “They was good.” [laughter] He said, ”No, no, no! Mother, you didn’t eat those birds? Those birds cost $5,000 apiece! They could dance, they could sing, they could talk!” And she said, “Well, they should have said something.” [laughter] And, you know, that’s where we’ll end up, too, if we don’t speak up for what we believe. [laughter] And, you know, what we need to do— [applause]what we need to do in this PC world is forget about unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought, and we need to concentrate on being respectful to those people with whom we disagree.
And that’s when I think we begin to make real progress. And one last thing about political correctness, which I think is a horrible thing, by the way. I’m very, very compassionate, and I’m not ever out to offend anyone. But pc is dangerous.
Because you see, in this country, one of the founding principles was freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And it muffles people. It puts a muzzle on them. And at the same time, keeps people from discussing important issues while the fabric of this society is being changed. And we cannot fall for that trick. And what we need to do is start talking about things . . . talking about things that are important. Things that were important in the development of our nation.
One of those things was education. I’m very passionate about education because it made such a big difference in my life. But here we are at a time in the world—the information age, the age of technology—and yet 30% of people who enter high school in this country do not graduate. 44% of people who start a four-year college program do not finish it in four years. What is that about? Think back to a darker time in our history. Two hundred years ago when slavery was going on it was illegal to educate a slave, particularly to teach them to read. Why do you think that was? Because when you educate a man, you liberate a man. And there I was as a youngster placing myself in the same situation that a horrible institution did because I wasn’t taking advantage of the education. I was a horrible student. Most of my classmates thought I was the stupidest person in the world. They called me ”Dummy.” I was the butt of all the jokes.
Now, admittedly, it was a bad environment. Single-parent home . . . you know my mother and father had gotten divorced early on. My mother got married when she was 13. She was one of 24 children. Had a horrible life. Discovered that her husband was a bigamist, had another family. And she only had a third-grade education. She had to take care of us. Dire poverty. I had a horrible temper and poor self-esteem. All the things that you think would preclude success.
But I had something very important. I had a mother who believed in me. And I had a mother who would never
allow herself to be a victim no matter what happened . . . never made excuses, and she never accepted an excuse from us. And if we ever came up with an excuse, she always said, ”Do you have a brain?” And if the answer was yes, then she said, “Then you could have thought your way out of it.” It doesn’t matter what John or Susan or Mary or anybody else did or said. And it was the most important thing she did for my brother and myself. Because if you don’t accept excuses, pretty soon people stop giving them, and they start looking for solutions. And that is a critical issue when it comes to success.
Well, you know, we did live in dire poverty. And one of the things that I hated was poverty. You know, some people hate spiders, some people hate snakes . . . I hated poverty. I couldn’t stand it. [laughter] But, you know, my mother couldn’t stand the fact that we were doing poorly in school. And she prayed and she asked God to give her wisdom . . .what could she do to get her young sons to understand the importance of developing their minds, so that they could control their own lives? And you know what, God gave her the wisdom . . . at least in her opinion. My brother and I didn’t think it was that wise. Because it was to turn off the TV, let us watch only two or three TV programs during the week, and with all that spare time read two books apiece from the Detroit Public Libraries and submit to her written book reports which she couldn’t read, but we didn’t know that. She’d put check marks and highlights and stuff— but, you know I just hated this. And my friends were out having a good time. Her friends would criticize her. They would say, “You can’t make boys stay in the house reading books, they’ll grow up and they’ll hate you.” And I would overhear them and say, “Mother, you know they’re right.” But she didn’t care, you know.
But, after a while, I actually began to enjoy reading those books, because we were very poor. But between the covers of those books I could go anywhere, I could be anybody, I could do anything. I began to read about people of great accomplishment. And as I read those stories, I began to see a connecting thread. 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 decision. And I came to understand that I had control of my own destiny. And at that point I didn’t hate poverty anymore, because I knew it was only temporary. I knew I could change that. It was incredibly liberating for me, made all the difference.
To continue on that theme of education, in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study this country. The Europeans were fascinated. How could a fledgling nation, barely 50 years old already be competing with them on virtually every level? This was impossible. De Tocqueville was going to sort it out. He looked at our government and he was duly impressed by the three branches of government— four now because now we have special interest groups, but it was only three back in those days. He said, “WOW, this is really something,” and then he said, “but let me look at their educational system,” and he was blown away. You see, anybody who had finished the second grade was completely literate. He could find a mountain man on the outskirts of society who could read the newspaper and could have a political discussion . . . could tell him how the government worked.
If you really want to be impressed, take a look at the chapter on education in my latest book, America the Beautiful, which I wrote with my wife— it came out last year, and in that education chapter you will see questions extracted from a sixth-grade exit exam from the 1800s— a test you had to pass to get your sixth-grade certificate. I doubt most collegegraduates today could pass that test. We have dumbed things down to that level. And the reason that is so dangerous is because the people who founded this nation said that our system of government was designed for a well-informed and educated populace. And when they become less informed, they become vulnerable. Think about that . . . our system of government. That is why education is so vitally important. Now some people say, “Ahhh, you’re overblowing it, things aren’t that bad, and you’re a doctor, a neurosurgeon. Why are you concerned about these things?” Got news for you. FIVE doctors signed the Declaration of Independence. Doctors were involved in the framing of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights . . . a whole bunch of things. It’s only been in recent decades that we’ve extracted ourselves, which I think is a big mistake.
We need doctors, we need scientists, engineers. We need all those people involved in government, not just lawyers. I don’t have anything against lawyers, but you know, here’s the thing about lawyers . . . I’m sorry, but I got to be truthful . . . got to be truthful— what do lawyers learn in law school? To win . . . by hook or by crook . . . you’ve got to win.
So you got all these Democrat lawyers, and you got all these Republican lawyers and their sides want to win. We need to get rid of that. What we need to start thinking about is, how do we solve problems?
Now, before I get shot, let me finish. I don’t like to bring up problems without coming up with solutions. My wife and I started the Carson Scholars Fund 16 years ago after we heard about an international survey looking at the ability of eighth graders in 22 countries to solve math and science problems, and we came out number 21 out of 22. We only barely beat out number 22 . . . very concerning.
We’d go to these schools and we’d see all these trophies: All-State Basketball, All-State Wrestling, All-State this, that, and the other. The quarterback was the big man on campus. What about the intellectual superstar? What did they get? A National Honor Society pin? A pat on the head, “There, there little nerd?” Nobody cared about them. And is it any wonder that sometimes the smart kids try to hide? They don’t want anybody to know that they are smart? This is not helping us as a nation. So we started giving out scholarships from all backgrounds for superior academic performance and demonstration of humanitarian qualities. Unless you cared about other people, it didn’t matter how smart you were.
We’ve got plenty of people like that. We don’t need those. We need smart people who care about other people. We would give them money. The money would go into a trust. They would get interest on it. When they would go to college they would get the money. But also the school gets a trophy, every bit as impressive as any sports trophy— and it goes right out there with the others. They get a medal. They get to go to a banquet. We try to put them on the same kind of pedestal as we do the all-state athletes. Now I have nothing against athletics or entertainment, please believe me. I’m from Baltimore. The Ravens won. This is great— okay. But—but what will maintain our position in the world? The ability to shoot a 25-foot jump shot or the ability to solve a quadratic equation? We need to put the things into proper perspective.
Many teachers have told us that when we put a Carson Scholar in their classroom, the GPA of the whole class goes
up over the next year. It’s been very gratifying. We started 16 years ago with 25 scholarships in Maryland, now we’ve given out more than 5,000 and we are in all 50 states. But we’ve also put in reading rooms. These are fascinating places that no little kid could possibly pass up. And uh, they get points for the amount of time they spend in there reading, and the number of books they read. They can trade the points for prizes. In the beginning they do it for the prizes, but it doesn’t take long before their academic performance begins to improve.
And we particularly target Title I schools where the kids come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the ones who drop out. We need to truncate that process early on because we can’t afford to waste any of those young people. You know, for every one of those people that we keep from going down that path, that path of self-destruction and mediocrity, that’s one less person you have to protect yourself and your family from. One less person you have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system. One more taxpaying productive member of society who may invent a new energy source or come up with a cure for cancer. They are all important to us and we need every single one of them. It makes a difference. And when you go home tonight, read about it, Carson Scholars Fund, carsonscholars.org.
But why is it so important that we educate our people? Because we don’t want to go down the same pathway as many other pinnacle nations that have preceded us. I think particularly about ancient Rome. Very powerful. Nobody could even challenge them militarily. But what happened to them? They destroyed themselves from within . . . moral decay, fiscal irresponsibility . . . they destroyed themselves. If you don’t think that can happen to America, you get out your books and you start reading. But you know, we can fix it. Why can we fix it? Because we’re smart. 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.
I think about these problems all the time. And you know, my role model was Jesus. And He used parables to help people understand things. And one of our big problems right now (and like I said, I’m not politically correct, so I’m sorry), but you know— our deficit is a big problem. Think about it. And our national debt— $16 and 1/2 trillion dollars— you think that’s not a lot of money? I’ll tell you what! Count one number per second, which you can’t even do because once you get to a thousand it will take you longer than a second, but . . . one number per second. You know how long it would take you to count to 16 trillion? 507,000 years— more than a half a million years to get there. We have to deal with this.
Here’s the parable: A family falls on hard times. Dad loses his job or is demoted . . . gets part-time work. He has 5 children. He comes to the 5 children, he says, “We’re going to have to reduce your allowance.” Well, they’re not happy about it but . . . he says, “. . . except for John and Susan. They’re . . . they’re special. They get to keep their allowance. In fact, we’ll give them more.” How do you think that’s going to go down? Not too well. Same thing happens. Enough said. What about our taxation system? So complex there is no one who can possibly comply with every jot and tittle of our tax system. If I wanted to get you, I could get you on a tax issue. That doesn’t make any sense. What we need to do is come up with something that is simple.
And when I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the Universe: God. And He’s given us a system. It’s called tithe. Now we don’t necessarily have to pay 10% but it’s the principle. He didn’t say, “If your crops fail, don’t give me any tithes.” He didn’t say, “If you have a bumper crop, give me triple tithes.” So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. You make $10 billion dollars you put in a billion. You make $10 you put in $1. Of course, you’ve got to get rid of the loopholes. But now some people say, “Well 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 a billion dollars in the pot. We don’t need to hurt him.
It’s that kind of thinking . . . it’s that kind of thinking that has resulted in 602 banks in the Cayman Islands. That money needs to be back here, building our infrastructure and creating jobs. And we’re smart enough . . . we’re smart enough to figure out how to do that.
We’ve already started down the path to solving one of the other big problems: health care. We need to have good health care for everybody. It’s the most important thing that a person can have. Money means nothing, titles mean nothing when you don’t have your health. But we’ve got to figure out efficient ways to do it. We spend a lot of money on health care, twice as much per capita as anybody else in the world, and yet not very efficient. What can we do?
Here’s my solution. When a person is born, give him a birth certificate, an electronic medical record, and a health savings account [HSA], to which money can be contributed, pretax from the time you are born, to the time you die. When you die, you can pass it on to your family members so that when you’re 85 years old and you’ve got 6 diseases, you’re not trying to spend up everything. You’re happy to pass it on and there’s nobody talking about death panels. That’s number one.
Also, for the people who are indigent, who don’t have any money, we can make contributions to their HSA each month because we already have this huge pot of money. Instead of sending it to some bureaucracy, let’s put it into HSAs. Now they have some control over their own health care and what do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to learn very quickly how to be responsible. When Mr. Jones gets that diabetic foot ulcer, he’s not going to the emergency room and blowing a big chunk of it. He’s going to go to the clinic. He learns that very quickly . . . gets the same treatment. In the emergency room they send him out. In the clinic they say, now let’s get your diabetes under control so that you’re not back here in three weeks with another problem. That’s how we begin to solve these kinds of problems. It’s much more complex than that, and I don’t have time to go into it all, but we CAN do all of these things because we are smart people.
And let me begin to close here by another parable: Sea Captain. And he’s out on the sea near the area where the Titanic went down. And they look ahead and there’s a bright light right there . . . another ship, he figures. He tells his signaler, “Signal that ship: Deviate 10 degrees to the south.” Back comes the message, “No, you deviate 10 degrees to the north.” Well, he’s a little bit incensed, you know. He says, “Send a message, ‘This is CAPTAIN Johnson. Deviate 10 degrees to the south.’ ” Back comes the message, “This is Ensign 4th Class Reilly. Deviate 10 degrees to the north.” Now Captain Johnson is really upset. He says, “Send him a message, ‘This is a naval destroyer.’ ” Back comes the message, “This is a lighthouse.” Enough said.
Now, what about the symbol of our nation? The eagle. The bald eagle. It’s an interesting story how we chose that, but a lot of people think we call it the bald eagle because it looks like it has a bald head. That’s not the reason. It comes from the Old English word piebald, which means crowned with white. And we just shortened it to bald. Now, use that the next time you see somebody who thinks they know everything. You’ll get ‘em on that one.
But, why is that eagle able to fly . . . high . . . forward? Because it has two wings: a left wing and a right wing. Enough said.
And I want to close with this story: Two hundred years ago this nation was involved in a war, the War of 1812. The British, who are now our good friends, thought that we were young whippersnappers. It was time for us to become a colony again. They were winning that war . . . marching up the eastern seaboard, destroying city after city. Destroyed Washington, DC, burned down the White House. Next stop . . .Baltimore. As they came into the Chesapeake Bay, that armada of ships . . . war ships as far as the eye could see. It was looking grim. Fort McHenry standing right there. General
Armistead, who was in charge of Fort McHenry, had a large American flag commissioned to fly in front of the fort. The admiral in charge of the British fleet was offended, and said ”Take that flag down. You have until dusk to take that flag down. If you don’t take it down, we will reduce you to ashes.” There was a young amateur poet on board by the name of Francis Scott Key, sent by President Madison to try to obtain the release of an American physician who was being held captive. He overheard the British plans. They were not going to let him off the ship. He mourned. As dusk approached he mourned for his fledgling young nation, and as the sun fell, the bombardment started. Bombs bursting in air . . . missiles . . . so much debris. He strained, trying to see, was the flag still there? Couldn’t see a thing. All night long it continued. At the crack of dawn he ran out to the banister. He looked, straining his eyes, but all he could see was dust and debris.
And then there was a clearing and he beheld the most beautiful sight he had ever seen . . . the torn and tattered Stars and Stripes still waving. And many historians say that was the turning point in the War of 1812. We went on to win that war and to retain our freedom. And if you had gone onto the grounds of Fort McHenry that day, you would have seen at the base of that flag, the bodies . . . of soldiers who took turns propping up that flag! They would not let that flag go down because they believed in what that flag symbolized. And what did it symbolize? One nation, under God, [applause] indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Thank you. God Bless.
Many have commented that the president appeared to be uncomfortable during my speech, but I was not paying particular attention to him or his reactions, as my comments were really directed more at the American people than the people on the dais. At the conclusion of the program, the president approached me to shake my hand and thank me for my participation. He did not appear to be hostile or angry, but within a matter of minutes after the conclusion of the program, I received a call from some of the prayer breakfast organizers saying that the White House was upset and requesting that I call the president and apologize for offending him. I said that I did not think that he was offended and that I didn’t think that such a call was warranted.
Although I thought the speech was good— the audience response was overwhelming, I had no idea that it would go viral and that literally millions of people would be talking about it over the next few days. This reaction was a reflection of the fact that the American people are excited to know that they are not the only ones who value common sense. People are also excited when they see one of their fellow citizens unintimidated by political correctness and unafraid to express his opinions.
The conservative news outlets were very excited about the talk and in fact the Wall Street Journal penned an article entitled, “Ben Carson for President.” Requests for my appearance on television and radio exploded and there was and continues to be much speculation about my political future. Over the years, there have been many attempts to get me to throw my hat into the political arena. I have been offered support from around the country and tremendous financial resources if I decide to run for national office. But I have not felt called to run. I suspect that there are many others who think logically and are interested in a political future who might be better candidates than myself. Nevertheless, if I felt called by God to officially enter the world of politics, I certainly would not hesitate to do so.
However, at the moment, I believe 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. Knowing that the future of my grandchildren and everyone else’s is put in jeopardy by a continuation of reckless spending, godless government, and mean-spirited attempts to silence critics leaves me with little choice but to continue to expound on the principles outlined in my prayer breakfast speech and to fight for a bright future for America.
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