The National Prayer Breakfast is not supposed to serve as a forum for a clash of political visions, but that was what Ben Carson made it last week.
The Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon and motivational speaker lit up the event with a politically charged speech that quickly went viral. Mention "death panels" standing a few yards from the president, and that tends to happen.
Putting aside the propriety of Carson delving into policy at an event that is supposed to be apolitical, the speech demonstrated the power of the old-fashioned American up-from-the-bootstraps success story joined to a celebration of old-fashioned American virtues.
Carson's personal story sounds like an elaboration of the old saw about walking to and from school through the snow uphill both ways. He grew up in Detroit. One of 24 children, his mother married when she was 13. Her husband was a bigamist, and she ended up raising her kids on her own with nothing.
Carson was a rotten student, teased by other kids for being "dumb." At times, he lashed back at them, losing "all rational control," as he put it in his autobiography. A broken family. Poor impulse control. Anger. These are not ingredients for success. For too many young men, in fact, they are ingredients for jail or an early grave.
As Carson tells it, his mom, working as a domestic, noticed that people in the homes where she was employed didn't watch much TV. One day, she came home, turned off the TV and told Carson and his brother that they would read instead. She assigned them two written book reports a week, even though at the time she was only semi-literate herself.
She refused to take welfare, and she forbid her kids from feeling sorry for themselves. As Carson put it at the prayer breakfast: "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.'"
Carson's grades improved. He went on to graduate from Yale and then from the University of Michigan Medical School. He became a gifted and celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon, performing the first successful surgical separation of conjoined twins.
Against this personal backdrop, Carson has a very traditional American attitude toward success. He celebrates it unabashedly and believes in the gospel of self-reliance. Don't become dependent on anyone else. Don't consider yourself a victim. Don't begrudge others their success. Get an education, work hard, and thank God you were born in the greatest country in the world.
Carson's is a voice of hope and aspiration but also of rigor and of standards. He spent a long part of his speech decrying the decline of American education.
There is none of this that President Barack Obama or most any other liberal would disagree with. President Obama has spoken of his own single mom prodding him to study as a child. But Obama and company represent the party of government, and the premise of government programs tends to be that you can't help yourself.
A few days after being subjected to Carson, Obama delivered a State of the Union address that offered some program or other for practically every problem he identified. He took a pass on dealing with the debt and pushed for more taxes on the rich.
Warning of the disastrous effects of "moral decay" and "fiscal irresponsibility," Carson touched on a very different approach in his speech, advocating government frugality, a flat tax and healthcare accounts controlled by individuals.
Carson insists — not persuasively, given the complexities involved — that these items are just common sense. What is common sense, or used to be, is the ethic of self-discipline and individual advancement that he exemplifies and extols so powerfully.
May his viral moment give him the chance to spread the message even more widely.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and a variety of other publications. Read more reports from Rich Lowry — Click Here Now.