Is it Fair to Question Rand Paul’s Religiosity?

Jonathan Chait calls it “the ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year.” Democrat Jack Conway, running for a Kentucky Senate seat against Rand Paul, uses reporting from a GQ article about Paul’s college days, in his latest political ad:

According to the August GQ piece, as a student at Baylor University, Paul, among other things, belonged to a secret society called NoZe, which aspired to blasphemy, and, while stoned, kidnapped a woman, tied her up, and demanded that she worship the Aqua Buddha. (Paul has denied kidnapping anyone, but the GQ piece has photos of him with his NoZe brothers.)

Chait writes, “I actually don’t doubt the implication of the ad, namely that Rand Paul harbors a private contempt for Christianity.” (I actually think Chait’s wrong about that; more on that in a minute.) He goes on, “The trouble with Conway’s ad is that it comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office. That’s a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign.”

I didn’t see Conway’s ad that way; I thought it questioned whether Paul had demonstrated disrespect for religion, as opposed to demanding that Paul profess a religion.

But I still think the ad misses the point about Paul and religiosity. Paul’s college daze notwithstanding, he’s gone out of his way to profess his Christianity, and it’s a distinctly illiberal brand. And just because he admires Ayn Rand doesn’t mean he can’t also claim that Christianity. His father hasn’t had a problem with meshing admiration for Ayn Rand and support for Christian Reconstructionism. As Julie has explained here, Paul, like his father, has drawn both on Rand and Biblical law, even in the same speech.

Paul’s a politician, and his profession of Christianity while running for office is certainly no measure of his actual religious belief. But he has gone out of his way to claim that Christianity is the singular basis for a moral society, and that we wouldn’t need laws if everyone were Christian.

The Conway ad misses the opportunity to tie Paul up in that particular hypocrisy. But the ad doesn’t demand a Christian test for office (in fact Paul has effectively demanded that). It’s not unfair of Conway to question Paul’s mockery of religion — but the ad would have been more effective if it had juxtaposed Paul’s pronouncements on Christianity as a moral and legal guide with his NoZe days.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent (to whom I mistakenly gave no credit for exploring the Aqua Buddha story) writes that the Conway campaign insists the ad doesn’t question Paul’s faith. It doesn’t question Paul’s faith; it questions whether he respects — or did respect back in college — other people’s religion. As I said originally, the ad could have more effectively made a point about Paul’s politicization of religion if it had juxtaposed his (possibly illegal) activities in college with his claim that the country would be a better place if everyone were Christian. But perhaps for the faint of heart that would have been seen as more questioning of Paul’s faith, when in fact it would have questioned his manipulation of it.