Holy Roller

08.02.14

Is Rand Paul Christian Enough for the GOP?

If he’s going to make it through the wilderness of the GOP primaries, the libertarian senator is going to need guides with faith. He may have found them.

In early July, Rand Paul went shopping in the graveyard of Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign. In a move that signaled to a narrative-hungry press that the Kentucky Senator was gearing up for 2016, he hired Mike Biundo, a New Hampshire native who served as Santorum’s campaign manager, to be the chief strategist in New England for his political action committee, RANDPAC. Just a few weeks later, Paul returned to Santorum’s ruins, and brought back with him John Yob—head of national convention and delegate operations for the former Pennsylvania Senator—who he named national political director and the leader of his Michigan operations at RANDPAC.

In the last election, Santorum was the Republican of choice for the evangelical establishment. Santorum spoke like a pastor and did not seem to fully buy into the concept of a separation of church and state. He believed that America was under attack by “the Father of Lies” (Satan) and compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

In Christ-fearing Republican Iowa, he won the caucus, edging out Mitt Romney—who, having been pro-choice early in his career and perceived as soft on marriage, was not an easy sell to social conservatives. But by the time Evangelical leaders formally decided to throw their collective weight behind Santorum, in January 2012 (the result of a closed-door meeting in Texas, reportedly consisting of over 100 Christian conservatives), his opportunity to win was gone—Romney had taken too many steps toward the nomination to be knocked down.

A smart strategy for someone hoping to run for president in 2016, whose name may or may not be Rand Paul, would be to figure out—early—how to effectively court the evangelical vote. And hiring some of the architects of Santorum’s campaign would surely be a meaningful part of such a strategy.

For Paul, whose faith was questioned during his first political campaign four short years ago, being welcomed into arms of the evangelical base (which some believe was not tapped to its full potential the last cycle) may require some extra effort.

With just a few months until election day in 2010, a bomb dropped on Paul’s Senate campaign: GQ reported that while at the Baptist Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Paul was part of a secret society called the NoZe Brothers, a group who, in the words of a former member “'aspired to blasphemy.’”

The publication detailed that the NoZe Brothers “would perform ‘Christian’ songs like ‘Rock Around the Cross'” and “parade around campus carrying a giant picture of Anita Bryant with a large hole cut out of her mouth after the former beauty queen proclaimed oral sex sinful.”

But perhaps most damaging of all was the retelling of an act of humiliation on a female student. She told the publication that Paul and another NoZe brother tied her up and tried to make her take bong hits, and then drove out to the Waco countryside, where they blindfolded her and “’told me their god was ‘Aqua Buddha’ and that I needed to bow down and worship him…I had to say, I worship you Aqua Buddha, I worship you.’”

Paul’s opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, capitalized on the bad press with an attack ad that was almost a parody of an attack ad. “Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that that called the Holy Bible ‘a hoax,’ that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ?” The ad’s narrator asked. “Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his God was ‘Aqua Buddha’? Why does Rand Paul now want to end all federal faith-based initiatives? and even end deductions for religious charities? Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?”

Paul employed his wife, a deacon in their Bowling Green presbyterian church, for damage control. In a press conference, Kelly Paul called the ad “a desperate, shameful attack on our family…I could hardly believe my eyes when I first saw it, and neither could our three sons, who are ages 11, 14, and 17. Rand and I are both Christians and our faith is very important to us.”

Once in the Senate, Paul began making uneasy attempts to discuss his faith.

In 2012, he spoke at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit—an annual social conservative confab, where he detailed his struggles with religion: “My faith has never been easy for me. Never been easy to talk about and never been without obstacles.” Paul said he struggled to understand “how tragedy could occur in a world that has purpose and design.” Borrowing language from his father, Paul said he does not wear his religion “on my sleeve.”

It was refreshingly candid, but not necessarily theologically sound or comforting to Christian voters. “The presidential stage is not one that lends itself to candidates who aren’t real sure about their faith,” Hogan Gidley, former communications director for Rick Santorum’s campaign, told me.

Paul, along with Senator Ted Cruz, met privately with Christian leaders at the conference. Gidley explained he was curious what social conservative kingmakers like Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of The Family Leader, would make of Paul after talking to him one-on-one. “I remember, when they came out of the meeting, I said, ‘How’d he do?’ and he said, ‘Rand Paul wouldn’t answer the marriage question.’”

Paul is seen as being solid on the issue of life. He is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest (but has said that in cases where the life of the mother is at risk, exceptions can be made). But, he believes that marriage should be decided at the state level—"soft,” if you’re a social conservative. “He’ll be able to placate concerns from some Christians,” Gidley said. “But on fundamental issues like marriage, that’s going to be more difficult to do.”

In the time since his shaky speech and that meeting, Paul has found a way to discuss faith that both distracts from marriage and seems more comfortable for him: by weaving it into political issues he is already passionate about.

When Paul returned to the Summit in 2013 (following a social conservative credibility-boosting trip to Israel) he honed in on a message about Christian persecution. “I want to tell you about a war the mainstream media is ignoring. From Boston to Zanzibar, there is a worldwide war on Christianity,” he confidently declared. “The President tries to gloss over who is attacking and killing Christians,” he charged, noting that “the answer is not convenient and does not fit the narrative we have been told about radical Islam.”

He said a minority of Muslims were committed to violence against Christians and “unfortunately, that minority is in the tens of millions…American tax dollars should never be spent to prop up a war on Christianity, but that is what is happening right now.”

Paul has also been a vocal leader on prison reform, which has the benefit of being attractive to both fiscal and social conservatives, since focusing on rehabilitation over incarceration saves money as well as provides a chance at redemption. Paul has united with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, to introduce legislation which will overhaul the criminal justice system, and give nonviolent offenders a chance to break the “cycle of poverty and incarceration,” Paul said.

Paul has to master the delicate balance of appealing to the libertarians who make up his base of supporters and to the evangelical voters who could ultimately dictate the fate of the primary—and to what degree there is overlap between the Liberty and the evangelical movements could be what makes or breaks Paul.

“I think the evangelical vote is up for grabs,” Biundo, the former Santorum aide now working for Paul, told me. “I think there’s a symbiotic relationship between the liberty movement and those who you would consider to be evangelicals, and a lot of those folks carry the same beliefs on each side…I think you will see some convergence.”

Gidley wasn’t so sure. “You've got to have some certainties in life. And the Christian voter—the certainty they have is that God is God of All. He’s the beginning, he’s the end, he’s alpha, he’s omega, and he is sovereign. So, to be wishy washy on that fundamental principle—and I’m not saying that he is—but to be wishy washy on a fundamental tenet of Christianity could pose some problems for him.”