There’s been a lot of discussion lately about an ad that Democrat Jack Conway has been running against Libertarian loony Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate race. The ad notes that Paul engaged in a lot of weird behavior while a member of a kind of Animal House club at his Baptist college, including humorous blasphemies intended to annoy the school administration and some sort of drunken prank that included pretending to kidnap a woman (who apparently played along) and forcing her to “worship Aqua Buddha”. Basically, he was a dick (not clear if that was a cause or an effect of his being a libertarian, though it’s obviously not unrelated) and acted like it, in ways that took on religious overtones at his hyper-religious school. But he’s now campaigning as a conservative in a Bible-Belt state, and his opponent shrewdly advertised his previous wild and anti-Christian behavior to the electorate, describing Paul as having “mocked Christianity”, worshipping “false idols”, and wanting to “end faith-based initiatives” and religious tax deductions.
The ad has come in for criticism from the left, on grounds that it’s improper for Democrats to engage in religion-baiting and that this sort of thing implicitly endorses the kind of religious orthodoxy requirement for office that the right wing is constantly trying to impose.
Jonathan Chait, in The New Republic, offers one of the most widely-quoted criticisms:
The ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year may be this one, from Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway . . .
I actually don’t doubt the implication of the ad, namely that Rand Paul harbors a private contempt for Christianity. He’s a devotee of Ayn Rand, who is a fundamentally anti-Christian thinker. And much of Paul’s history, which he is frantically covering up in an attempt to pass himself off as a typical Republican, suggests among other things a deep skepticism about religion.
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.
This sentiment has been echoed by many commentators, and the overwhelming consensus seems to be against the Conway ad. But there is another perspective on the issue. Kos has this dissenting take on it:
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.
But this “controversy” is particularly stupid for one big reason — Conway didn’t inject religion into this race, Rand Paul did . . .
If you’re going to start the “holier-than-thou” bullshit, then you absolutely make religion a valid issue in the campaign. Remember, it was Rand Paul that tried to gin up the outrage machine when Conway said the word “hell” during his Fancy Farm picnic earlier this year. To criticize Conway for pushing back aggressively is not only wrong-headed, it’s also self-defeating.
It’s easy to understand both these reactions. Democrats rightly oppose making personal religious beliefs a test for office, and abhor the religious pandering and personal demonization that constitute a large part of right-wing campaign tactics. At the same time, it can’t be denied that religious ideology is an important part of political inclination, especially on the right, and ignoring it is merely conceding an important campaign issue to the opposition without addressing it. There are also tactical questions regarding how certain issues ought to be addressed, and questions of fairness as to how the opposition’s tactics should be countered – in some cases these overlap. And, because the Democratic party holds an aspirational ideal for politics – that the democratic process should turn on substantive issues of public welfare, and that the public/private distinction at the heart of liberalism should be respected – campaigning on improper issues, even justified as a matter of political efficacy or fairness, degrades the best vision of what American politics, and America, should be. This seems to leave a very confused landscape of principle and practicality, in which reasonable liberals can fall out on either side of this issue. I’m not sure it’s as complicated as that, however.
The balance of these arguments breaks down against religious campaigning when considered from a perspective of political principle. Chait, above, exemplifies the high road, acknowledging that the claims in Conway’s ad are true but arguing that they should still be off-limits for liberal campaigners. That’s an easy position to understand, based upon the aspirational democratic/Democratic ideal. Even the anti-Conway tactical position is partly substantive – this kind of argument is unlikely to work for a Democrat anyway, but, worse, it poisons the debate for other Dems now and in the future, making it harder to return politics to the substantive grounds it should not have left in the first place. So the opposition to Conway is based on, or at least strongly incorporates, principled notions of politics as it should be practiced. The pro-Conway position, however, is largely tactical: religious politicking works, and Democrats need to take command of an issue that Republicans have been using against them. Even the fairness question – the idea that it’s OK to bring up religion if the other side has done so – is largely a defensive response to the principled criticism, not really an argument in favor of religious campaigning in its own right. (Kos argues that religious campaigning is legitimate because religious voters respond to it, but that is a position that, I think, most liberals would reject, or at least would hope could be transcended in a more mature democracy.) At best, then, tactics like Conway’s are a necessary response to low-minded or unfair practices on the right, but they carry a cost, and are not in keeping with how we want to see campaigns conducted; to the extent they are adopted as an expedient in individual races, they make things harder for decent and principled politicians in the long run.
But there is one more issue that comes up for me in this debate, that I find harder to reconcile with the discussion above. That is the issue of hypocrisy, or at least consistency, on the right.
The “fairness” argument for religious attacks on right-wingers – they do it most, so they deserve it when they get it done back to them – is a bit childish, and clearly destructive in the end. It merely endorses pursuing exactly the same tactics and arguments religious panderers use, on the rare occasions that you can get them in the crosshairs of their own weapons; that’s hardly any better, and most of the time that approach is going to work in their favor anyway. (In the case of Paul, it’s even a bit indirect, since, while he’s clearly courting the religious right, he’s not doing so through overtly religious appeals, so if he deserves some religious payback in the name of fairness, it would have to be on the general grounds of his association with the Republican party.) But there is another kind of reciprocity argument that is not aimed at the religious content of the right wing’s politicking, but at the question of its honesty and sincerity more generally.
There is tremendous hypocrisy on the right, regarding both economic and, most especially, “values” issues. If it’s not the closeted gay homophobic Senators, it’s the hooker-addict anti-sex preachers, the smug pedophile priests, the mandatory-monogamy adulterers, the embryo fetishists who make exceptions for stem-cell research for diseases their family members just happen to have, the Jesus-screamers who are anti-abortion for everyone except themselves or their daughters, the war-on-drugs pill poppers, the rugged individualist welfare queens, the free-market subsidy hogs, the many, many, far-right uptights who conveniently forget or dismiss having been “young and irresponsible” (including alcoholic coke-addict military deserter George Bush, and, in just this one election, former sex freak and part-time witch Christine O’Donnell and of course Rand Paul), or, the recent favorite, the virulently homophobic and sex-negative whackos who gladly do business with gay bars and sex shops. As with all forms of hypocrisy, the inconsistency between personal behavior and claimed moral or political commitments calls the sincerity of those commitments into question. And whether or not one’s opponent truly believes the winger malarkey they are peddling is surely a legitimate issue in any campaign. The fact that “trickle down” apologists at large corporations hoarded their bailout money and refused to invest it in their own businesses clearly indicts their own claims that giving subsidies to corporations is good for the economy. Likewise, the fact that right-wingers campaign on “moral” positions that are contradicted by their own behavior clearly undermines their claims in favor of those positions in the first place. And this is useful information: it tells us something about the trustworthiness of these politicians or ideologues, and it undermines some of their most destructive policy positions by demonstrating that they themselves aren’t really committed to them. Most importantly, it shows those positions to be hollow and merely propagandistic.
So, pointing out hypocrisy is both an important contribution to political discourse and a useful campaign tactic. And the structure of the anti-hypocrisy argument is the same no matter what the substance of the hypocrisy is: the issue is that one’s opponent does not believe what they themselves offer as a reason for supporting their position, and therefore the audience should not accept their claims in favor of it, which is an argument that can be made about any hypocritical position the opponent holds. In the case of conservatives, so much of the hypocrisy is religious that the anti-hypocrisy stance is often an argument against religious politicking, but that is only incidental. This can, and probably should, be made clear in the way the argument is framed, but the essence of the anti-hypocrisy argument necessarily consists in pointing out the hypocritical behavior. In the case of religious hypocrites, that means pointing out that they do things that would be regarded as wrong by religious conservatives.
Conway’s ad attacks seemingly hypocritical aspects of Paul’s behavior (he courts religious conservatives while concealing his own blasphemous behavior and apparent atheism). It does not frame the argument explicitly in terms of hypocrisy – in fact, it appears to be a straightforward exercise in pandering, working in “scandalous” anti-Christian behavior and stirring fears that religion might lose its special legal privileges. For this, possibly, it should be condemned, for all the reasons given above. But the basic substance of the ad – that Paul’s standing on religious issues is not what his supporters are led to believe – is a legitimate issue if framed as a question of the sincerity of that stance. And the right-wing landscape is rife with opportunities for attacks on the hypocrisy of religious politicking.
Again, the basis for that – perfectly legitimate – argument is to point out that the opposition candidate’s behavior is not in keeping with the religious beliefs they extol. This is the same basic fact pattern that underlies a religiously-based argument against such candidates. Because of that overlap, it is important to make clear what the substance of the attack is: not that the candidate is (horrors!) insufficiently Christian, but is insufficiently honest, forthright, or self-disciplined. But, given that distinction, religious hypocrisy is a valid argument. It may even be a valid argument against Rand Paul, though here again that argument has not been made clearly by Conway and is likely not what he was intending.
UPDATE: Actually, I was wrong – it appears Paul is explicitly positioning himself as a Christian in the campaign (though Chait’s point about the Randism still holds good), so the contrast highlighted in the attack is more direct than I said above. But the question of the difference between religious pandering and attacking hypocrisy still holds, perhaps with greater force in this instance.