Free Speech, Culture Wars, and Enlightenment
Dr. Ben Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, likes to pose as a man of faith, a steadfast Christian deriving his worldview from the Bible – heroically, unapologetically, in the face of wanton persecution by the liberal PC-police.
As a sedulous, restless oracle, he’s grown wont, of late, to offer his take on a variety of social and cultural issues. And like the ancient Pythia at Delphi, his utterances have shown the power to strike his audiences agape. Darwinists are nihilistic time-bombs – he maintains – since true morality only stems from the literal word of the Bible; parents should be encouraged to mete out a sound caning to their misbehaving tots, as the Book of Proverbs says so; fiscal policy is divinely-ordained to stand to benefit the rich; and last but not least, we’re assured the Good Book is riddled with warnings throughout that marriage is only the union of one man and one woman.
Not wholly surprisingly, a fierce row has finally erupted over one or the other of his eclectic remarks. His speakership at the 2013 medical class commencement at Hopkins is on the verge of an unprecedented revocation, prompting fury from the Right over alleged liberal intolerance. Apart from the unabashed dogmatism exuding from Dr. Carson’s pronouncements – standard fare in the raging culture wars of America –, we need only wonder whether they withstand rational scrutiny or not.
The Seven Hundred Wives of Solomon
What’s the viewpoint of the Bible on marriage? Contrary to common wisdom, the Good Book doesn’t provide any consistent definition. If anything, it seems to lean overall toward polygamy. The list of Old Testament figures having multiple wives is endless: from Abraham to Esau, Jacob, Gideon, Elkanah, and so on and so forth. Solomon, indefatigable stud, outdid them all, by taking 700 wives and 300 concubines. The New Testament is perfectly ambiguous on the subject, sporting some verses in support of monogamy (Mark 10:11, Matthew 19:4) and others hinting at polygamy (Matthew 25:1, 1 Timothy 3:2). Saint Paul himself recommended eschewing marriage altogether, in favor of a life of chastity – something we regret to learn Dr. Carson was all too quick personally to discount.
The Scarlet Letter
If the Bible’s stance on marriage is murky, other pieces of Bible-based morality are crystal clear:
“Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death.
The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born,
when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”
The capital punishment is prescribed with largess for many other sins, notably adultery, disrespecting one’s parents, having sexual relations with a menstruating woman, and various forms of incest. If we really are to believe Dr. Carson’s protestations that he’s a staunch, coherent, and fearless believer in the literal truth of the Bible, we should ask him what he proposes to do with adulterers. If he doesn’t support stoning them, as we all know he doesn’t, mustn’t we logically conclude he’s a hypocrite who cherrypicks passages from the Bible and wields them as a cloak, or disposable political tool, for his prejudices?
Jesus, the Commie
What about the Bible-mandated tax cuts for the rich? We confess after reading Dr. Carson’s words on the subject we were left wondering whether the good doctor has actually ever been introduced to the Gospels, where a prominent character named Jesus not once mentions the Gays, but adamantly condemns Roman Judea’s top 1% of earners:
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:21)
As for the saying, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”, we’re acutely reassured it came from Brutus.
The Parapet of Separation
Beyond scriptural (in)accuracy, the fundamental flaw in Dr. Carson’s reasoning lies, of course, in his failure to realize the United States is not a Christian nation, but a secular Republic, where there’s a constitutionally-mandated distinction between sin and crime, between civil order and religious institutions.
Whatever the Bible, or the Koran, or the Upanishads, have to say about “traditional marriage”, taxes or anything else is irrelevant to civil policies. This is for the safeguard of religion as much as the state. As James Madison (not Lenin) put it, the entanglement of religion and politics yields “in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution”.
Immanuel Kant, Party-Pooper
Finally, Dr. Carson seems utterly positive the only possible foundation of ethics is a supernatural law-giver descending from the clouds to hand over stone tablets to His favorite prophet. Murder is bad because God said so. Had God decided in His own free will that murder should be good, then it would have been so. The bedrock of morality, according to this line of thought, is God’s whim.
But the worse has yet to come. We all know God shies away from making regular appearances into the world to confirm which are His authentic wishes for ethical behavior.
Thus we’re left with a plethora of conflicting religious ethical systems, each urging people on to arbitrary commandments (“don’t eat pork!”, or “stone the blasphemer!”) that need to be revealed, or interpreted, or enforced, by God’s earthly representatives, be they priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, ayatollahs, etc.
Is there an alternative to this tottering source of ethical legitimacy?
Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawles, and a host of other modern philosophers have variously come up with universalist moral systems, all based on the common notion that there are objective moral truths out there applying to all, because each and every one of us has some shared feature with his fellow humans, be it practical reason or a common nature that favors what benefits us and is vulnerable to suffering. It is nothing less than game theory, the mathematical tool used to study the evolution of animal behavior, that suggests whenever rational, social agents evolve, a non-arbitrary set of rules (“ethical norms”) emerges in the fitness landscape that ensures an optimal outcome. For instance, cooperation among agents leads to demonstrably greater benefits than violence or exploitation. Nihilistic selfishness is not rationally defensible, as a universal morality based on reason requires one to rise above petty short-term interests, and see things as if sub specie aeternitatis (under the viewpoint of eternity).
Free speech and Personal Responsibility
What should we make of Dr. Carson and the backlash he’s suffering?
Nobody proposes the good doctor should be gagged. In fact, we’re pretty sure a lucrative contract is waiting for him at Fox News after his retirement, where he’ll be able to preach to willing crowds as much as he pleases.
What we should all demand, and indeed expect, is to hold him accountable for his declarations.
If Dr. Carson feels compelled to go on national TV to spout out ludicrous and embarrassing arguments about gays, evolutionists, or whatever ghost haunts his imagination at a given time, he’s free to do so. But once he’s lost his credibility, speaking at a university commencement is not something he should be rewarded with.
And this has nothing to do with free speech, but everything to do with bearing responsibility for one’s own actions.
Lorenzo Ospri is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins Department of Neuroscience.