Rand Paul’s “Bible-Thumping” Nothing New

At TNR, Julia Ioffe does an admirable job of cataloguing Sen. Rand Paul’s many shout-outs to Christian sectarian interests in promoting his non-interventionist views on the Middle East. It didn’t start with his periodic references to the Assad regime’s history of “protecting” (a very relative term when you talk about a country like Syria) Christians as part of a non-Sunni coalition in which his own highly heterodox Alawite community is the glue. Paul also anticipated many conservatives in attacking the Obama administration’s support for aid to Egypt before and after the recent coup on grounds that Egyptian Christians were in the crossfire in a civil war we had no business messing with.

As Ioffe notes, there’s a domestic political rationale for this tack given the highly unpopular nature (within the GOP, at least) of the foreign policy views of his father, who often sounded Chomskyish in his sympathy for other countries’ resentments of U.S. hegemony.

His need to prove himself to the traditional, non-libertarian Republican base would seem to explain why he picked up on the Christians-in-Syria trope long before this most recent political crisis in the Middle East. In June, for instance, he banged on this drum at a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally in Washington. “The Senate is attempting to arm the rebel forces in Syria, many of whom are al-Qaida or affiliates,” he said. “They do so out of a misguided attempt to stop the violence in Syria. Instead their actions will bring more violence and more persecution of Christians, who have long been protected in Syria.”

What’s more, he reframed his infamous opposition to foreign aid as standing up not just for American pride, but for Christianity as well. “In Egypt, in Pakistan, they burn our flag—I say not one penny more to countries that burn the American flag,” Paul said. “While they burn the American flag and the mobs chant ‘Death to America,’ more of your money is sent to these haters of Christianity … It is clear that American taxpayer dollars are being used to enable a war on Christianity in the Middle East, and I believe that must end.”

Where I’d part company with Ioffe is by noting that what she calls “Bible-thumping” is hardly new for Rand Paul or for his father, regardless of the usual assumption that “libertarians” and “social conservatives” are at each others’ throats. Both Pauls have had a close association with the quasi-theocratic Constitution Party. Both are hard-core antichoicers. Both have a particularly intense base of support in a homeschooler movement dominated by conservative evangelicals, many of whom regard “government schools” as secularist indoctrination centers. And as every alert observer should realize by now, the “constitutional conservative” movement of which Rand Paul is a leading champion fuses theocratic and capitalist ideological tenets into a sort of free-market authoritarianism in which the only legitimate role of the state is to defend absolute property rights and traditional culture. The proper question isn’t whether Paul can maintain a tactical alliance with the Christian Right; it’s whether constitutional conservatives like Paul can maintain a tactical alliance with actual libertarians.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.