I don’t care if Rand Paul’s been injured. I’ve been injured.

I don’t care if Rand Paul has been hurt by Jack Conway’s ad. I’ve been hurt.

Part of me regrets saying more about Jack Conway’s “Aqua Buddha” ad. But  I have to, because what seems to be a huge majority of the Left Blogosphere has grossly, dangerously, missed the point.

The ad is not complicated (transcript after the fold).  It attacks Rand Paul for being an atheist. (The focus on Buddha is a gigantic red herring, and I’m not fishing. I’ve lived in Tennessee, and assuming Kentucky to be roughly similar, I can bet that almost no strongly religious person there would recognize the difference between Buddhism and atheism. If it’s not Christian, it’s godless—with Jewish people getting a sort of honorary get-out-of-Hell-free card, most of the time, out of charity and a bit of confusion.)

Jonathan submits that the ad criticizes Paul not for disbelieving religion but for mocking it. Jonathan is incredibly smart and this is the only gobsmackingly absurd argument I’ve ever heard him make.  But the first time’s a doozy.   Stipulating for argument the possibility that Conway would cut an ad on the theme “Paul’s atheism is just fine, but his irreverence is disqualifying,” this ad isn’t doing that.  If you want proof, look at the repeated word in the upper left-hand corner: “Why?” That Paul’s college club mocked Christianity is not in dispute.  The question “why” can be digging for only one implication: he mocked Christianity—and praised Aqua Buddha and hates faith-based-initiatives—because he’s a non-Christian. The mockery, the implication goes, could be a drunken college prank—but it points towards what’s really sinister: the atheism.

Defenders of the ad (who include, besides Jonathan, digby, Theda Skocpol, and Kos [see below]) say Paul and the Republicans have no cause for complaint because Paul is demonstrably using religion instrumentally and because scores of Republican ads are bigoted, false, or both. I actually agree.  Let’s blaze away, and display very big cojones (or your favorite macho metaphor, since they seem to be mandatory on this one).  Paul and Rove deserve everything they get.

But I don’t.

As an unbeliever in America, I’m used to being a religious minority and I’m not especially aggressive in that role. I don’t insult the religious; I don’t even expect politicians to defend the legitimacy of my beliefs (though it would be nice if they did; it might chip away at the clear majority of Americans who would never vote for a candidate who shared my beliefs or the near-majority who would never want me to marry their daughter).  But I do insist that candidates who belong to my party and ask for my support not gratuitously reinforce bigotry against me, nor attempt to profit from it.  Implying President Obama is a secret Muslim is despicable not because there’s anything wrong with being a Muslim but because the implication profits from the prevailing prejudice that it is wrong, holds greater force the more we can count on that prejudice’s being unshakable,  and slathers an extra coat of implied respectability on the prejudice. And the same is true of implications that somebody is secretly and shamefully a Jew, a quarter Black—or an atheist.

Kos’s defense is particularly pathetic (and again, that’s the first time I’ve said that).  He admits that “the ad attacks Rand Paul for his irreligious beliefs” but then writes:

Personally, I see nothing wrong with it. Voters are less concerned with issues than values when casting their ballots, and for many voters, religion speaks to the candidate’s values. I may not like it, but it’s a democracy, and the notion that the source of a candidate’s values are off-limits is patently absurd.

Sure, that means that as an atheist I would never get elected in Mississippi or Alabama or Kentucky, but so what? No one has a right to electoral office, and in a democracy, you have to sell yourself to the voters. In many places, religion is part of the package.

If we crossed out “atheist” and wrote “Muslim,”  nobody—least of all progressives—would doubt the cowardice and injustice of this surrender to bigotry.  If we wrote “Jew” instead, we would wonder how somebody so self-hating could stand to show his face outside the shtetl. But when it comes to atheism, naked, shameless political prejudice directed against one’s beliefs is not to be denounced.  It’s not to be shrugged off as regrettable but unavoidable. It’s not even  to be quietly disapproved of but tolerated.  It’s to be cheered on: hey, that’s the way to show guts and a sense of democracy.

The projection involved here—and in the hundreds of tub-thumping comments that back Kos up—is breathtaking.  Disapproval of the ad is supposed to show that Democrats are wussy and don’t know how to fight back when punched?  That’s a strange way to put it.  Faced with a calculated, effective slander of his own group as unfit to share political office with real Americans, Kos hasn’t just said “thank you sir, may I have another.” He’s loudly called on every other atheist in the room to do likewise.  Strategy is one name for that, but not the best name.

Jack Conway has been praised for following “the Chicago Way,” for pulling a gun when the other guy pulls a knife.  Again, fine.  I’m not sorry for the guy with the knife.  I’m sorry that to get to that guy Conway casually decided to mow down a few million innocent bystanders—including me.  And I wish that fellow progressives could see the blood.

Transcript of the “Aqua Buddha” ad, for the record:

I’m Jack Conway. I approve this message.

Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible “a hoax”—that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ?

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 the deduction for religious charities?

Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

23 thoughts on “I don’t care if Rand Paul’s been injured. I’ve been injured.”

  1. The general attitude here is that momentary political advantage is everything. And everyone is expendable to that end. You hadn't figured that out?

  2. I can't argue with how you feel about the ad, but I have a hard time seeing it as an attack on atheism, and I'm not a theistic person myself. To my mind, the more problematic thing is attacking someone for being a jerk when he was much younger; there should probably be a statute of limitations. Of course, Paul still seems like quite an unpleasant person, so that tempers my distaste.

  3. Construing this ad as an attack on atheism requires more analysis than most voters will apply to it. They will not literally try to answer the "Why?" question beyond saying, "because there's something wrong with that guy." At least that's how I took it, and I'm an atheist.

  4. Nothing that Sabl says is wrong. But I think he is proving too much.

    Almost any effective political add is just a bit more evidence that we are not capable of governing ourselves. None of them appeal to republican virtue; few even appeal to rational policy positions. Effective political ads are sorry mixture of sentimentality, tribalism, mudslinging, and oversimplification. The Aqua Buddha ad may have been low on sentimentality, but it contained a normal mixture of the other three.

    Unless we can trim back on the current construction of the First Amendment (not a bad idea, IMO), a politician's only choice is between waiting for a better grade of voter (i.e., losing) or playing the game with the equipment at hand. Since the other side's politicians are not waiting for a better grade of voter, I don't see any alternative for our side but to play the game, disgusting as it may be.

  5. I'm a nonbeliever myself, but I don't see the ad as attacking atheism. It shows that Paul mocked religion when he was in college. Conway hopes that that won't sit well with people of faith in Kentucky. Also, If Paul is against federal faith-based inititives, why is that? Paul may have a perfectly good reason. I do. But let's hear Paul explain his.

  6. But I do insist that candidates who belong to my party and ask for my support not gratuitously reinforce bigotry against me,

    Oh please. You can't proclaim solidarity with people who mock God and then boohoo because they treat you a little roughly in return.

  7. In the big picture, I don't think Paul is being mocked for atheism — he's being mocked for hypocrisy.

    It's not like he *admits* to being an atheist. He certainly wants Kentucky voters to *think* he's a Christian.

    If he "came out" as an atheist, and were attacked by Dems for that, I'd be offended. But he's more like a closeted gay who appeals to homophobic voters.

  8. I'm not seeing this ad as an attack on atheism. It's calling Paul out for what he is — a fraud. He claims hard-core Christian credentials as a qualification for office, but the ad works to establish that's he not a Christian at all. Why would a real-live Christian do the things claimed in the ad? Being an atheist, I can't say for sure. But, I'm pretty sure that a real-live Christian wouldn't do most of those things.

    The ad correctly asks why we have so many questions about Paul. He's pretending to be something he's not. He's a fraud.

  9. I don't really see the attack on atheism either. Imagine for a moment that Rand Paul was campaigning for the congressional district that includes Crown Heights, outfitted himself in beard and yarmulke and prefaced all his campaign remarks with "As an observant jew…". Would video of him clean-shaven and partaking of the eucharist be an attack on christianity?

  10. It's an attack on Paul's hypocrisy. It's hard for me to believe people are actually reacting the way you are. It's one of the most galling developments of the culture wars, that many who exploit religious belief for political gain are not true believers. For instance, I have no doubt that Paul would viciously attack Conway were it Conway who professed at one time to be an Aqua Buddhist. Do I like this obsession with religion in politics? No. Do I think one way to lessen the obsession is to push back hard and often when you know the person staking a claim to votes based on religious identity is a complete flaming hypocrite? Yes, I think so.

  11. 'If we crossed out “atheist” and wrote “Muslim,” nobody—least of all progressives—would doubt the cowardice and injustice of this surrender to bigotry. If we wrote “Jew” instead, we would wonder how somebody so self-hating could stand to show his face outside the shtetl. But when it comes to atheism, naked, shameless political prejudice directed against one’s beliefs is not to be denounced.'

    I think this is the crucial issue. Andrew's error is to pivot from the majoritarian presumptive religious identity to that of any of a set of minority religious identities. But that's not what's actually going on. It would be more accurate to say that, in a majoritarian Muslim voting district, or Jewish, or Atheist, or whatever, Rand would be being attacked for claiming the mantle of the majority while being on record as previously ridiculing it. That is to say, he would (should) only be immune if he was consistent about his (claimed) identity over time. Or, at the very least, came clean about his religious transformation.

    History matters.

  12. Andrew, if a politician running for office claimed to promote tolerance and reason, and then quotes surfaced in which he mocks atheism in very crude terms, wouldn’t this make you less likely to vote for him? Wouldn’t it be fair for his opponent to bring those quotes up in a campaign?

  13. I, for one, think Andrew is absolutely right. It's not so much that there are other reasons people could choose to distrust Rand Paul, it's the question of what the main reason people will choose to distrust Rand Paul. If most Republicans decide he's not a Christian and Conway is, he will lose the election because he's not a Christian. It won't be because he's a hypocrite. It won't be because he was disrespectful towards religion in general. It won't be because he tied a girl up against her will (which, strangely, very few people have thought twice about). It will be because he's not a Christian. Conway is trying to win the election by getting people to believe Rand Paul isn't a Christian. That's just furthering the bigotry against the 20% of Americans who aren't Christian.

  14. But Aqua Buddha isn't a religion. It's hard to see it as anything other than just a mocking of religion in general (even Buddhism, when you think about it). So I am not even sure why this disrespects any OTHER religion — or no religion at all.

    It just galls me to give Paul and his ilk a get out of jail free card when one of his own claims for votes rests on being a religious dude. But just in raw terms, probably the biggest hypocrite now running for office is Nikki Haley in SC, who is basically throwing her entire heritage under a bus. And yes, it would bother me if she were mocked as a "closet Sikh" who embraced Christianity just for convenience. And yet, it also annoys me that she isn't forced to be more honest with South Carolinians about the need for tolerance. While a whisper campaign came up in the primary, her general opponent has steered clear.

  15. If we crossed out “atheist” and wrote “Muslim,” nobody—least of all progressives—would doubt the cowardice and injustice of this surrender to bigotry…

    I'm writing this from Mississippi, not ten paces from the office of one of our very few resident Muslims, and while I shouldn't try to speak for him, I don't think he'd disagree. It's not cowardly to state facts, and the Magnolia State is a hell of a long way from our first elected Muslim.

    It would only be cowardly to fail to try, which is not what Kos is calling for here. Conway did not, to my knowledge, face an atheist or for that matter a non-evangelical-Protestant in his primary, and if he did he certainly didn't make that election about how as a Christian (if he is one) he'd be the superior candidate.

    I'm all for kicking the "Democrats" who ever said "sure, Clinton/Obama would be great, but America won't vote for a woman/black man, so let's nominate Obama/Clinton/someone else." But pointing out that Rand Paul was openly contemptuous of Christianity is no worse than pointing out that Sarah Palin is not really a feminist, or in favor of "small government," or an expert in international affairs. She's not, although she claimed to be all those things, and the fact that people found out that she wasn't what she said she was is what kept a lot of them from voting for her.

    For what it's worth, I'm an agnostic, although not one who feels particularly oppressed.

  16. Wait a minute. He tied a woman up? Told – ordered – her to bow down to "Aqua Buddha?" Tied? Told – ordered – her to bow down? Seems to me that this is the most disturbing fact revealed in the ad.

    Maybe that's what we should be talking about.

  17. The Aqua Buddha incident had nothing to do with Rand Paul's religion and everything to do with trying to violate the religious practices of the woman who was victimized. Mocking Christians has nothing to do with Rand Paul's religion and everything to do with his contempt for the religion of his classmates. How going after him for these things is attacking him on the basis of HIS religion… well, I just don't get it. He has campaigned (for the last few months, at least) as a straight-up Christian, and asked for votes on that basis. It is utter bullshit, of course, and I can't believe that Conway is getting flack for calling him on it.

    BTW, I am an atheist and a Buddhist and wasn't offended in the least.

  18. Injured? Guns? knives? Mowing down bystanders? Blood? Oh dear.

    Professor Sabl, it's ok, it's just a TV commercial.

  19. Martha: I know it was just a commercial. And the gun/knife stuff was a metaphor, which I've extended. The only weapon being used is rhetoric. And the rhetoric is harmful to way more people than Rand Paul.

    As for the rest, I think Anderson's comment is key:

    "In the big picture, I don’t think Paul is being mocked for atheism — he’s being mocked for hypocrisy.

    "It’s not like he *admits* to being an atheist. He certainly wants Kentucky voters to *think* he’s a Christian.

    "If he 'came out' as an atheist, and were attacked by Dems for that, I’d be offended. But he’s more like a closeted gay who appeals to homophobic voters."

    Here's a couple of things: (1) "If he 'came out as an atheist'" is an absurd counterfactual. No candidate for the senate in the United States would ever consider for two seconds coming out as an atheist. It would be *much* easier to come out as gay—and the poll numbers back me up. The prejudice is not suppositious. (2) Closeted gays who appeal to homophobic voters are often outed by openly and unapologetically gay people who are outraged. And in such cases I usually think the outing justified. Now: would Conway be willing to couple his ad with a statement that "atheism should be no bar to political office"? Or that members of his campaign staff are atheists and he's proud to work with them? Or that atheists deserve a better shake in America generally? We know damn well that he wouldn't. He's not attacking an opponent of a group in the name of defending that group. He's attacking a (possible) member of that group in the course of reinforcing every phobia his state's residents have regarding that group. That's the difference.

  20. Andrew, I honestly totally fail to see how the ad is implying that Paul is an atheist, or that atheists in general are unqualified for office. I don't know any atheists who have ever done anything remotely like kidnap a woman and make her vow to support some other kind of deity. It's the dichotomy between what Paul says he is and how he has actually behaved. So if an avowed atheist (or avowed anything else) presented himself as a Christian in order to get votes specifically on that basis, I still think it would be okay to call him on it — not because it's bad to be an atheist, but because it's bad to be dishonest, and furthermore, things are never going to change if everyone has to run around pretending they are religious (or straight) when they aren't. Nikki Haley is the PRIME example of this phenomenon. The ball wont' be moved forward even an inch if she is elected governor because she has actually disavowed the religion of her upbringing, just like Bobby Jindal has.

  21. Whilst I don't feel especially "attacked" by Conway's ad (not least because I live in a society that, although actually fairly religious in western European terms, would be viewed as quite satanically godless by American standards), I do generally agree with Andrew. And I say that even though I actually agree with the disturbed opthalmologist that America should "end all federal faith-based initiatives, and even end the deduction for religious charities". (Hey: acorns, blind squirrels).

    Conway's ad is offensive. It is offensive to non-believers (i.e., not only non-theists like me but also non-Christian theists). And it is also, in fact, offensive to Christians. It's offensive to them because it assumes that they are stupid, bible-bashing, slack-jawed yokels who will vote against anybody painted as "godless"; but many of them are not.

    On a tangent, it's admittedly hard to be sure when n=1, but judging from politicalfootball's comment above, he just might possibly be even more belligerently stupid than Bux.

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