Did the National Prayer Breakfast Create a New Conservative Superstar?

The Atlantic’s David Graham has a great assessment of the apparently sudden and meteoric rise of Dr. Ben Carson, the evolution-denying pediatric neurosurgeon and keynote speaker at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast:

Carson delivered an opening shot against “political correctness,” and then—after namechecking Tocqueville, recapping his own inspirational life story, and calling for a better education system—voiced concern about the national debt and argued the case for a flat tax, using the Bible’s injunction to tithe a set percentage, and for health-savings accounts, a medical option popular that has gained currency among conservatives. Crucially, he delivered this speech from a podium just feet from President Obama, who of course oversaw the passage of a very different health-care plan and has been a major proponent of progressive taxation. 

This, Graham reports, has earned Carson accolades from conservative pundits, and even a Wall Street Journal editorial bearing the headline “Ben Carson for President.

Graham notes what should be obvious, but of course what isn’t discussed by conservatives fawning over Carson:

Though many commentaries have tried tiptoe around it, it’s impossible to pretend there’s no racial dimension involved in a successful black conservative castigating the liberal black president. Black conservatives remain fascinating to Americans of all political persuasions and ethnicities; look no further than Herman Cain’s presidential campaign. And in the age of Obama—when many on the right feel that any criticism of the president is liable to draw undeserved claims of racism—a champion for the cause who can sidestep that retort is sure to be welcomed. Jonah Goldberg came closest to addressing this question, likening Carson to Booker T. Washington.

Graham also zeroes in on the conservative star-making machinery, and draws interesting comparisons between the rise of Carson and that of Herman Cain.

Carson, of course, won’t give a straight answer about his political aspirations, saying this weekend he’d leave his future in politics “up to God.” Isn’t invoking God’s plan for your future the last step right before a presidential exploratory committee?

One can’t help but think, of course, that the whole thing was no accident, despite the annual (and unconvincing) insistence that the National Prayer Breakfast is a non-partisan event intended to draw Washington’s elite together in prayer. During each year of his presidency, Obama has strained to satisfy the group by using the occasion to prove he’s a Christian, but each year he is slapped in the face for it. Last year, Obama’s efforts to invoke religion as support for policy led conservatives to mock his “phony religiosity.” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) walked out; his spokesperson later said he “was disturbed and offended by the president’s use of prayer and reflection time for partisan politics and class warfare,” and that “Rep. Gingrey enjoyed listening to the keynote speaker and found the breakfast to be inspiring until President Obama began politicking.”

Ah. Did Rep. Gingrey walk out during Dr. Carson’s speech?

One conservative, Graham notes, has criticized Carson for his partisanship: the columnist Cal Thomas has called Carson’s remarks “inappropriate for the occasion” and called on him to apologize because “the president had a right to expect a different message about another Kingdom.” Perhaps he had a right to, but given the history of the National Prayer Breakfast, he really didn’t have a reason to.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email