Can Rand Paul make a case to the Christian right? The answer will have implications for the Republican Party far beyond the Kentucky senator’s hypothetical 2016 presidential campaign.
In the Bluegrass State’s 2010 Republican senatorial primary, Paul was the candidate of choice for Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and Concerned Women for America. James Dobson reversed course after initially endorsing Paul’s opponent. “Have you ever made an embarrassing mistake?” Dobson asked in an ad, before suggesting that endorsing against Paul fit the bill.
In that race, Paul was able to unite social and economic conservatives against neoconservatives and other hawks in the GOP. The party establishment’s attempts to portray him as weak on national security and liberal on social issues fell on deaf ears.
Early in his Senate tenure, Paul has managed to do much the same thing. He took a well-publicized trip to Israel to reassure evangelicals that his skepticism of foreign entanglements didn’t prevent him from being a well-wisher of the Jewish state. Paul targeted countries where American flags are burned and anti-Israel sentiment runs high for cuts in foreign aid.
Paul talked about the persecution of Christians that followed the Iraq war and could be expected after a similar military intervention in Syria. He also drew attention to the flight of Christians in Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The campaign drew a rebuke from Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter and leading evangelical interventionist. Gerson called the actual events on the ground a “caricature” while ending with an empty exhortation that we not “resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians.”
The Tea Party senator has drawn attention to the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences, a cause that has won the support of George Will, the dean of Washington’s conservative columnists. This has dovetailed into advocacy for prison reform, an issue dear to the hearts of many evangelicals since the days of Chuck Colson.
Paul’s speech at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University was not about abortion, contrary to press reports. In fact, he mostly criticized the Patriot Act and warrantless surveillance. But his remarks did touch on how the desire to minimize risk, whether through medical technology or government regulation, can diminish the individual in ways that ought to concern both libertarians and social conservatives.
In short, Paul gave a fusionist speech, to use the late National Review senior editor Frank Meyer’s term for the synthesis between liberty and tradition that has been at the heart of the American right from the founding of the modern conservative movement to the Tea Party. But there are many things that can cause conservatism to come unfused.
Pope Francis’s critique of capitalism, insofar as it is not dismissed simply as liberal Catholicism, reminds us of the tensions between traditionalists and free-market enthusiasts. The right has to a lesser extent fractured over social issues like gay marriage. Iran looms as a source of conflict that will draw social conservatives away from their new realist and anti-interventionists allies, back into the familiar embrace of Republican hawks.
In the realm of electoral politics, such tensions could also fracture the electoral coalition necessary to advance Paul as a leader of the Republican Party. A Rick Santorum or a Mike Huckabee could become the evangelicals’ candidate of choice in 2016. Both men have already notched wins in Iowa during the past two election cycles.
Iowa will be a tough, if necessary, state for Rand Paul. Interestingly, it was also the contest where his father turned in one of his best performances among evangelicals in 2012. At 18 percent of the vote, Ron Paul finished a distant second with this socially conservative bloc behind Santorum—and ahead of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann.
In theory, if the younger Paul held onto his father’s base and added some Santorum, Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann votes, he would be quite a formidable contender for the Republican presidential nomination. If he can get social conservatives to add the plight of prisoners and a more prudent approach to American power to their grave concerns about the sanctity of innocent human life, he can do something even more important.
Either way, a partnership between the Christian right and liberty movement could change the Republican Party. And, God willing, the country.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author ofDevouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?