Will Rand Paul Break the Religious Outreach Mold?

Rand Paul just got an F. No, it wasn’t for his second nationally televised condescension to a female reporter. Or for this. It was for his reaction to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The failing grade came from Maggie Gallagher, doyenne of the anti-marriage equality movement, writing for The Pulse 2016, a website run by the conservative advocacy group American Principles in Action. In her “Indiana Crisis Report Card,” Gallagher castigated Paul for being “unavailable for comment when the Indiana brouhaha broke,” adding that his call for a Great Awakening to a group of pastors was a wholly inadequate substitute for real talk on religious freedom. As Steve Benen pointed out when Paul spoke to that group of pastors in Washington late last month, the prospective candidate told them, “[T]here’s a moral crisis that allows people to think that there would be some sort of other marriage.”

That kind of talk–of moral crises, the hint at the “redefinition” of marriage–might have passed religious conservative muster in 2008 or 2012. It might pass muster for a candidate whose last name is not Paul. But it won’t be enough for Rand Paul to win over evangelical thought leaders in 2016. The field is far too crowded with candidates or presumed candidates who are much better at that game (Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum). What’s more, the current religious freedom battles are leading religiously conservative advocates and pundits to demand that the candidates give clear voice to their claims that religious freedom and cultural mores are at risk, requiring legal protections from such alleged infringements.

Paul, obviously, is pursuing an uncharted path to the nomination. It’s not yet clear, though, how that path will include religion or religious outreach (or not). On the one hand, Paul has reversed course on issues like foreign aid to Israel, not only changing his policy position, but adopting a more GOP-standard expression of love for the Jewish state. He extolled the idea of tent revivals in the pastors’ meeting last month. But on the other hand, as I wrote in February, Paul was weirdly awkward during an appearance with Marcus and Joni Lamb on Daystar (awkward, that is, if his goal was to appeal to the Lambs’ evangelical and charismatic audience). He seemed, in fact, to be a serious doubter:

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.

Watching Paul campaign for his father in Iowa in 2011 and 2012, I never had the sense that he was angling for Iowa’s coveted evangelicals to vote for his father in the caucuses. I spent time there and in South Carolina interviewing the elder Paul’s religious supporters, and none of them fit the mold of the sort of activists who were waiting for social conservative elites to rally around a candidate to decide who to vote for. I wouldn’t even really call them libertarians, in large part because of how they envisioned a drastically constrained federal government in order to cede ground to their religious ideology. Whether they were gun rights activists to the right of the NRA or avid home-schoolers, the common denominator was their shared belief that Ron Paul’s ideology was the most protective of their “liberty,” including their religious liberty, leaving room for biblical authority to take hold in their communities. As one told me, government is “out of control,” as it is trying to replace laws that “God has already established.”

Rand Paul has unquestionably sought this constituency through his depiction of the government as tyrannical. His calls for a national revival, in contrast, come off as contrived and insincere. Still, though, it’s not clear that his father’s followers will hitch their wagons to his campaign, or that Paul is happy to limit his religious outreach, if any, to voters already cultivated by his father’s campaign. As a result, his religious outreach has appeared hodge-podge, veering from questioning his own salvation to calling for a national revival.

Unlike his competitors, Paul is not aiming to win the nomination by winning over the religious conservative vote. He’s not Huckabee, Cruz, or Santorum. What’s more, the GOP playbook religious outreach might not even be the smartest strategy for a candidate with strong millennial support. A major survey of millennials conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that majorities of millennials in all major religious groups, except for white evangelical Protestants, believe that employers should be required to include no-cost contraception coverage in their health plans—showing they think that last year’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was wrongly decided.

Daniel Cox, PRRI’s director of research, told me that in all age cohorts, white evangelicals are the “outliers” in opposing the coverage. White evangelicals are more likely to say that small business owners should be permitted, on religious grounds, to refuse service to LGBT people.“They’re quite distinct in their attitudes,” Cox said. But here’s the kicker: while white evangelicals make up 18-19% of the general population, they represent only 10% of millennials. Unaffiliated millennials, Cox said, “are three times as large.”  Maybe the F from Gallagher won’t matter for Paul after all.