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Cal Thomas: Prayer breakfast not place for political jabs

  • Tribune Media Services
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 5:12 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 5:12 p.m.

Our politics have become so polarized and corrupted that a president of the United States cannot even attend an event devoted to drawing people closer to God and bridge partisan and cultural divides without being lectured about his policies.

Last Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Ben Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a 2008 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, broke with a 61-year-old tradition and publicly disagreed with some of President Obama’s policies, such as “Obamacare,” taxation and the national debt. Disclosure: I have attended this event since 1971 and host a dinner the night before for members of the media.

Several in the audience of 3,000 applauded Carson’s remarks, which must have made the president feel even more uncomfortable.

I am no fan of the president’s policies, but the National Prayer Breakfast is billed as one of the few nonpolitical events in a very political city. Each year those who co-chair the event, one Democrat and one Republican from either the House or Senate, put aside their political differences, as they do in weekly gatherings, to pray for the nation’s leaders.

Carson, who spoke at the same event several years ago, has a compelling and inspirational personal story. He and his brother grew up in Detroit. His parents divorced when he was 3. His mother kept an eye on her children and made them turn off the TV and read books. Carson said he did poorly in school and was mocked by classmates until he later caught the learning bug. He retold part of that story, but it was overwhelmed by his criticism of the president’s policies, which were inappropriate for the occasion.

The president had a right to expect a different message about another Kingdom. I’m wondering if the president felt drawn closer to God, or bludgeoned by the Republican Party and the applauding conservatives in the audience (there were many liberals there, too, as well as people from what organizers said were more than 100 nations and all 50 states).

If Carson wanted to voice his opinion about the president’s policies, he could have done so backstage. Even better, he might have asked for a private meeting with the man.

As a fellow African-American who faced personal challenges and overcame them, the president might have welcomed Carson to the White House. Instead, Carson ambushed him.

Carson should publicly apologize and stop going on TV doing “victory laps” and proclaiming that reaction to his speech was overwhelmingly positive. That’s not the point. While many might agree with his positions (and many others don’t, as shown by the November election results), the National Prayer Breakfast in front of the president was the wrong venue at which to voice them.

Organizers for this event tell speakers ahead of time to steer clear of politics, but Carson apparently “went rogue” on them. I’m told organizers were astonished and disapproving of the critical parts of Carson’s keynote address.

The breakfast is supposed to bring together people from different political viewpoints and cultures. It is supposed to bridge divides, not widen them.

If this and future presidents think their policies will be prey for political opponents at the prayer breakfast, they might decide not to come. That would be too bad for them and too bad for the country.

Cal Thomas, a columnist with Tribune Media Services, appears in Opinion on Wednesdays.

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