Rand Paul, Religious Skeptic?

Rand Paul appeared on the Daystar television network earlier this week, sitting for an interview with televangelists Marcus and Joni Lamb, to sell not only his faith in God, but his faith in small government.

Paul’s most sincerely held religious belief, no surprise, was in minimizing government. People “think somehow there’s salvation in government,” Paul said, but “there isn’t.”

In fact, lack of government oversight has been a salvation, at least a financial one, for the Lambs. As NPR reported last year in an in-depth investigation of Daystar, the Internal Revenue Service permits the network to be organized as a church–meaning that donations to it tax-free, and it is exempt from having to file public disclosure about where those donations go:

With $233 million in assets, Daystar is the largest religious TV network in America that calls itself a church. As such, there’s no objective way for viewers — who annually give an average of $35 million to Daystar — to be certain how their money is spent.

But by examining court records in a lawsuit brought by a former Daystar employee, NPR was able to piece together part of the story:

In them were six years of audited financial statements from Daystar, including balance sheets, income and expense records and detailed accounting of donations.

Those records offer a deep and unprecedented look at the inner workings of a modern religious empire, and they raise issues as basic as the definition of “church” and as grand as the role of government in religion.

They show generous donations and loans that Daystar made to friends, and records of charitable giving that looked different from what Daystar describes on the air.

While they talked at length about the role (or lack of one) for government, Paul and the Lambs didn’t talk about how Daystar itself is a beneficiary of the constrained government Paul champions. Typical for these sorts of interviews, Lamb lobbed Paul softballs, giving him the opportunity, for example, to recite a laundry list of reasons why he loves Israel. Asked about America’s relationship with Israel, Paul reiterated the special relationship and the need to attend the Netanyahu speech. Without missing a beat, he then called for defunding the Palestinian Authority and touted legislation he has proposed to cut off foreign aid to countries that persecute Christians.

But it was in talking about his own religious devotion that Paul seemed to really veer off course–that is, if his intention was to woo the Daystar audience. Good for him, right? Who wants to hear the recycled, insincere politician testimonies of I’ve-been-saved-and-America-needs-a-revival?

Lamb gave Paul an opening to seize the moment to share his own testimony, the time he found Jesus and it changed his life forever. “I wasn’t always a choir boy,” Paul admitted, creating precisely the sort of tension that would culminate in a made-for-televangelism salvation story. But Paul didn’t go there. Instead, he said something very unusual for a Republican presidential aspirant courting an evangelical audience:

As a teenager, I found that something was missing and decided that I would find that in Jesus. It’s something that–I tell people it didn’t always stick, either. I don’t know if that’s not–if that’s uh, blasphemy to say you have to be saved more than once, but I think sometimes it takes more than once for people. I’m also somebody who’s in science and medicine so it’s not always been easy for me to say, well, gosh, how do I see God’s hand in this horrible, horrible thing that I’m seeing, how do I see God’s presence in something–you see small children dying from brain tumors and this and that. Religion and faith isn’t always easy. But I always keep coming back.

Lamb, taken aback, I’m sure, offered no amens to that, but transitioned to asking Paul about his family, and then about what should be done to get evangelical Christians engaged in the political process. (He seemed to have missed the obvious point that Paul himself, who attends a mainline Protestant church, isn’t an evangelical himself.) And to that, Paul offered a milquetoast answer about encouraging people to register to vote and vote, but added that he doesn’t want to hear partisan messages at church. Not a word about the religious freedom of pastors to endorse candidates! Not a word about how the Christian nation needs a revival! No diatribe against the horrors wrought by secularism!

In a way, it was refreshing to see a candidate be frank about his doubts about his faith. (As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, doubt as an element of religious belief is not favored by conservatives.) Kudos, I guess, to Paul, for his honesty about that. But that begs the question: what was Paul doing on Daystar anyway?