I suppose it’s possible that a different rhetorical approach hasn’t yet occurred to Ben Carson, but I’m here to tell him that it really is conceivable for a politician to express his opposition to same-sex marriage without resorting to spiteful and derisive language about gays and lesbians in the process.
And that argument probably goes something like this: I respect my fellow Americans from all walks of life, but I simply can’t square same-sex marriage with my religious faith.
People say stuff like that all the time. And Carson is a smart guy.
Which is why his argument, made to CNN’s Chris Cuomo earlier today, that “a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight, and when they come out, they’re gay,” somehow serves as evidence that being gay is a choice—and not an orientation—strikes me as more than just a half-baked justification for denying same-sex couples the right to get married.
At this stage, it sounds more like a deliberately inflammatory remark, calculated to refocus the media spotlight back on a would-be 2016 GOP presidential contender who’s been having trouble in recent weeks generating fresh enthusiasm around his nascent candidacy.
And, by the way, his rationale isn’t based on anything.
Some folks are gay or lesbian before, during and after incarceration. Some aren’t but opt for sex with same-sex partners while they’re in prison. And in some cases, inmates are forced physically or through coercion. In any case, as University of Tennessee professor Helen Eigenberg told the Washington Post, Carson’s analogy makes no sense because “there’s no data to support that claim.”
He’s either poorly informed or hanging on to a simplistic “don’t bend over for the soap” take on prison life as long as it helps frame his view that homosexuality is merely a choice—a view that Americans have been gradually rejecting for decades.
I don’t know anyone gay or lesbian who considers his or her sexual orientation a choice, and I don’t know any lawyer who can credibly make the argument that there’s a constitutional basis for denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
What really makes Carson’s comments sound so desperate, though, is that they arrive at a moment when he’s been failing at creating a buzz.
Carson still fares OK in Republican-primary polls—and he took fourth in Saturday’s CPAC straw poll. But he made no real news with his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Thursday or his Meet the Press appearance last Sunday—and his formal announcement on Tuesday that his exploratory committee is up and running barely made a ripple.
Which makes me think that he’s reaching, once again, for the kind of hyperbole—like when he said in 2013 that no one can “redefine” marriage, “be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality”—that has revved up his media attention and far-right street cred in the past.
Because, I assure you, when he wants to, Carson is quite capable of offering measured, cautious, noncommittal statements on any given issue, including this one. When I interviewed him for The Root back in January, he went out of his way to be vague about a wide range of actions he’d take, or not take, if elected.
I intentionally didn’t ask him about same-sex marriage because his views on the subject are well-known, and I didn’t want a discussion about “bestiality” to get in the way of finding out what he thinks about deficits and health care.
Based on his comment today, though, it seems that he does.
On an issue where he could have defended his position and still made an effort to sound sensible, he decided to go for the cheap shot that gets him maximal attention. Which is, of course, his prerogative.
But you can’t sell yourself as the wise, rational, “gifted hands” brain surgeon and simultaneously come off as the I’ll-do-anything-for-a-headline guy if you expect most voters to take your candidacy seriously.
Carson’s running out of time to decide which kind of candidate he wants to be.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.