By Thomas J. Whitley
Rand Paul, Republican senator from Kentucky, announced today that he is running for the President of the United States. Paul becomes the second Republican candidate to officially announce a bid for the GOP nomination, after Ted Cruz announced his bid March 23. The two announcements stand in stark contrast, particularly when viewed from the “religion” angle.
Cruz gave his speech at Liberty University, the conservative evangelical Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell. Paul gave his speech at a hotel in Louisville. Cruz spoke of spending time in prayer to prepare for his speech and during his speech spoke of God’s special relationship with America: “God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet.” Having just listened to Paul’s speech, I recall only one reference to God (there were no stories of his father giving his life to Jesus Christ as Cruz had in his speech): “Today I announce with God’s help, and the help of liberty lovers everywhere, that I am putting myself forward as a candidate for president of the United States.” (Full transcripts are not yet available. Time does have this post up with lengthy excerpts. Paul did also include the seemingly obligatory line, “God bless you. God bless America” to close.)
Cruz and Paul have different strategies for trying to win the GOP nomination and are employing religion quite differently. Cruz appears focused on locking up the evangelical wing of the Republican party while Paul is aiming for the libertarian group.
Paul made no mention of religious freedom or even of Israel, though he did make one explicit statement about religion: “The enemy is radical Islam. You can’t get around it. And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind!” Here Paul is employing a tactic that has become common among Republicans lately, explicitly setting up “radical Islam” as the enemy (or even just “Islam” in some instances). This is, to be sure, a critique of President Obama’s refusal to say that America is fighting a “religious war” with Islam (I wrote about that here).
It should not be overlooked, though, that when Paul said we as a country cannot defeat our enemies unless we can name them, he chose to go with “radical Islam” instead of “ISIS”/“ISIL”/“Daesh.” Even in Paul’s vision of limited American intervention and his claim that we must be specific about just who our enemies are if we are to be successful, the enemy is not a specific terrorist group, but rather a particular religious ideology, as identified by our pundits and politicians. We see in Paul’s words here the need that many politicians feel to define what counts as true/authentic/normal Islam and what doesn’t. Moreover, even though he is trying to define “Islam” in a particular way that so as to not include groups like ISIS, he will still likely be seen as being in opposition to Islam more generally. Paul’s insistence that we name our enemies and then his immediate refusal to actually be specific about who our enemies are will likely signal to many that our fight is against Islam more generally (we must make all Muslims into “good Muslims” with the help of our freedom, liberty, and democracy). This will likely hurt Paul with liberals (whose votes he would never get anyway) and help him with those conservatives that do see Islam as the problem.
One could surmise that Paul did not want to speak of “terrorists” in a general sense, but he offered no more specific identification of our enemies than the Obama administration has. Indeed, his labeling of “radical Islam” as our enemy (and apparently our only enemy) and not mentioning “radical” elements of other religions/ideologies implies that he actually does think that the deeper problem is with Islam itself.