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?