Rand Paul isn’t a libertarian: Marriage edition

“You can only be free if I am free” – Clarence Darrow

On Thursday, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spoke at a closed-door prayer breakfast with about 50 evangelical pastors and thought leaders. Paul’s self-described libertarianism has often put him at odds with the evangelical community, which has some decidedly restrictive ideas about marriage and the family, and his visit was part of a larger pivot to the religious right as he prepares for the upcoming GOP primary.

As it turns out, Etch-a-Sketching your beliefs about the intersection of freedom and religion is harder than it looks.

In video obtained by the Christian Broadcasting Networks’ David Brody, Paul ran through a list of statements that put him squarely at odds with his “libertarian” roots:

  • “The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn’t say keep religion out of government.”
  • “We need a revival in the country. We need another Great Awakening with tent revivals of thousands of people saying ‘reform or see what’s going to happen if we don’t reform.’”
  • “There is a role for us (the federal government) trying to figure out a thing like marriage.”

Setting aside for the moment the fact that Paul is wrong about the First Amendment (more on that below), theocracy and libertarianism don’t mix. But for Rand Paul to try and fail to integrate the two should come as no surprise.

As I’ve written before, Paul has a pretty shaky grasp on what it means to be a libertarian. Like a college freshman who read the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged and followed Reason Magazine on Twitter, Paul seems to think that as long as you say “personal freedom,” “contracts” and “privacy” enough times then it doesn’t matter what policies you endorse; you’re for freedom and everyone else wants to force you into an Orwellian dystopia where the only choice the government lets you have is whether to vaccinate or abort your fetus.

That disconnect seems to be lost on Paul’s advisers, who in the wake of Paul’s comments at the prayer breakfast held firm that the soon-to-be candidate’s position on marriage hadn’t changed. As Paul advisor Doug Stafford told The Daily Beast:

Senator Paul does not want his guns or his marriage registered in Washington. He has said this repeatedly and consistently. Marriage is not a federal issue. It is an issue for state and local governments to deal with.

As Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi noted, “Thursday’s statement, then, would seem to suggest to anyone with eyes and ears and basic critical thinking skills that the Senator has had a change of heart.”

A change of heart, or at the very least a change of circumstance. The closer we get to the Republican primary the farther away Paul gets from whatever semblance of libertarian principles he nominally holds. From meeting with Sheldon Adelson to smooth over his positions on Israel, to signing Tom Cotton’s warmongering letter to Iran, to now opening the door for a federal intervention against marriage equality, Rand Paul has apparently learned a few lessons from his father’s failed presidential bids. Namely, that starting with “liberty” and working forward doesn’t work nearly as well as starting with “median GOP voter” and working backward.

If Rand Paul really was a libertarian, he would know that the only way to truly protect religious liberty in a secular liberal democracy is for the government to be completely indifferent to theological concerns as they pertain to public policy. Giving preference to one religious appeal opens the door for asymmetric preference and, by extension, discrimination on the basis of religion.

In fact, these concerns over asymmetric preference were the inspiration for the term “separation of Church and State” in the first place. The phrase comes from a letter written by then-President Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, who were seeking protection from, well, the Congregationalists of Danbury, Connecticut, as the state had established Congregationalism as its official religion. In assuring the Baptists that they enjoyed equal protection under federal law, Jefferson assured them that the First Amendment established “a wall of separation” between religion and government. As Baptists, they could go about being Baptists — and not-Congregationalists — as they pleased, and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause guaranteed that federal government would protect that right and that right alone.

This makes it impossible for one to claim Constitutional inspiration for the claim that you can’t keep religion out of government. In order to adhere to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, you have to keep religion out of government.

It’s the only way to guarantee that one religion doesn’t gain undue privilege over another. Anyone who’s serious about freedom should be all for it.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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64 Responses to “Rand Paul isn’t a libertarian: Marriage edition”

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  3. rmthunter says:

    Wow. Let me take this point by point: removing the federal government from marriage is a non-sequitur: the Supreme Court did that when it overturned Section 3 of DOMA. In spite of what you’re going to hear from conservatives, the question is not whether the federal government should be defining marriage, but whether the states must adhere to the Constitution in their treatment of marriage laws. That is the overall question the Supreme Court has said it will consider. So far, the overwhelming consensus in the courts has been “Yes, they must.”

    I believe I made the point that because “Christians” have failed to persuade people, they’ve resorted to the statehouses and the spate of “religious freedom” bills we’re seeing. Amanda Marcotte has a very good take on how conservatives have flipped the idea of religious freedom on its head. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/how-conservatives-hijacked-religious-freedom-indiana-pence Yes, it would be better if they tried to sway public opinion, but they haven’t, and they’re not going to settle for that — they are intrinsically anti-democratic and in most respects, anti-American.

    He is not neutral on equal rights for LGBTs, at all. He’s come right out and said he doesn’t believe “in rights based on behavior,” which is again, a mischaracterization of the issue. See this story: http://www.buzzfeed.com/dominicholden/rand-paul-doesnt-believe-in-the-concept-of-gay-rights#.pweM5aPa0 One can just as easily say that marriage rights enjoyed by straight people are based on behavior. Where is his argument then? He is, as usual, incoherent.

    Getting government completely out of marriage is not only not possible, I don’t see that it’s particularly desirable. Coming from an anthropological/historical perspective, I subscribe to the definition of marriage as “The recognition by the community of the establishment of a new household.” When the community numbers a few million people, we have government recognition — “government” being the institutionalized “community.” “Get government out of marriage” is an empty gesture. Sounds nice — makes no sense. Who’s going to recognize marriages then? The churches? What about non-believers?

    As for voting for Paul in the primaries — the teabaggers will swarm the primaries, as usual, and the candidate will wind up being someone acceptable to the plutocrats.

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  5. farrar says:

    If you are not exaggerating or misreading their desire to shoot someone, they are not as libertarian as they think they are.

    Or if they want the opportunity to shoot an aggressor then they can still be libertarians, but its odd to wish for the opportunity.

    Your evaluation of a handful of “libertarians” does not change the fundamental principle of libertarianism.

    You can find libertarians who are hypocrites.
    You can exaggerate and misunderstand them.
    You can find libertarians who are not very well adjusted.

    And you can do that for liberals, conservatives, Christians, atheists…

    You are not really making a point. You are trying to redefine the political philosophy/doctorine by speaking for a handful of people you have observed. Packaging it into an almost sarcastic sound bite.

  6. Centaur927 says:

    Opportunist is an understatement. He would still be an eye doctor if his father’s retirement didn’t allow him to leap right into presidential contention with that support base.

  7. GeorgetheElder says:

    The idea that the federal government should be involved in marriage in any way is decidedly anti-libertarian. Marriage is a religious sacrament that has been usurped by the government who now want to extend it to individuals outside what has always been considered the norm in Western Civilization.

  8. farrar says:

    I don’t think there is any question about whose terms. His and the rest of the evangelicals in the room. But he is not advocating the use of government to enforce his terms. He is advocating a removal of the term marriage from federal law, and allowing states to enforce marriage however they want, if at all.

    And you are right that Christians have alienated people. But isn’t it better for Christians to peacefully attempt to convert people and fail miserably, then to allow them to use the federal government to shove their terms down everyone else’s throat?

    I’m just saying, as correct or incorrect he may be on the issue due to his faith, he isn’t stomping out gay rights or promoting it. He is just sort of neutral, which is a lot for a republican (unfortunately). He is trying to redirect the way evangelicals try to enforce their definition of marriage.

    I wish he would just say “Get government completely out of marriage!” and take 50 brownie points from yours truly. But if republicans in this country were more like Rand Paul on gay marriage, there would be a lot more freedom for people who are in homosexual relationships than there is today. Not as much as many of us would like, but a lot more. I’ll give him a point for that, and one more for trying to plant a seed in the rest of conservatives.

    With Hillary almost locked in for the democrat nod, some liberals and gay rights activists might have something to gain from voting for rand in the primary, if only to abandon him in the General.

  9. 2karmanot says:

    Non-aggression, as I understand it, is a form of politeness that one assumes when it becomes obvious that ‘a’ Libertarian’ is wearing his/her thong on backwards.

  10. texcynical says:

    The “libertarians” I’ve known are just itching to kill someone with their concealed handguns. Non-aggression? Not so much.

  11. Strepsi says:

    I agree he’s an opportunist, but you are wrong in your example: your 2 examples of gay marriage are NOT “both halves of the story”, because both your examples are ways of saying gay marriage should not be recognized. He has NEVER come out with the real other half, and said “Yes, let gay people have civil marriage if they want to, the same as everyone else, it’s their life”, (which would also be the libertarian position).

    Libertarians in the U.S. right now are completely in thrall of Tea Party evangelicals.

  12. Houndentenor says:

    The problem, though, is that’s how we got Ted Cruz in the Senate instead of David Dewhurst. It’s not like those far right nuts always lose. They get elected and they’re gumming up the works in DC as we speak. I know a lot of liberals are cheering on the wingnuts because they think they are bound to lose if they go that way, but a lot of things are possible in an election year.

    Also, we need to remember this conversation when we hear liberals complaining about moderate Democrats. Neither party can maintain a majority for long without moderates who don’t always vote with them. I think some in both parties would rather lose and be right than get something done.

  13. rmthunter says:

    Well, the money spent on foreign wars is pretty much going to someone’s corporate cronies anyway.

  14. rmthunter says:

    I tend to go back to one basic question when examining political philosophies: Why do people form societies? At this point, it’s pretty much hard-wired, and has been since before we were Homo sapiens.

    In real terms, what passes for libertarianism flunks the smell test: I very much doubt that we come together in groups so that the greediest and most dishonest can take everything.

  15. rmthunter says:

    I’m not so sure that “cherry picked” is an accurate conclusion. The quotes I’ve heard seem to fit the thrust of his remarks in the video — although it’s a bit of refreshing honesty to hear a sitting senator confess that Washington is completely out of touch in such plain terms, no matter how self-serving the admission might be.

    It’s the subtext that’s the give-away: a “moral crisis”? In whose terms? I can agree that there is a moral crisis in this country, but it doesn’t have anything to do with other people’s sex lives. It’s much more, I think, that our priorities are screwed up — not the stated priorities, but the real ones: look at the relationship between Wall Street and government (and not just the feds); look at a criminal justice system in which racism is an operative factor; look at the lack of accountability for actions that have demonstrably harmed the public good; and look at a major political force that spends its time and energy attacking our basic institutions and foundational principles.

    As for Paul’s emphasis on generating social change — the “Christian” right has been trying to do that for a couple of generations now, and all they’ve done is alienate people. Most Americans are basically fair-minded and tolerant. We have to be to make this country work at all. Paul’s audience here is not. That’s why they’re losing public support, and why they’ve had to turn to things like “religious liberty” laws and the like: they can’t be honest about what they’re trying to do, because that’s a sure recipe for failure.

  16. rmthunter says:

    The notion that Rand Paul has a coherent political philosophy is more than a little humorous. He’s a business-oriented Republican trying to cater to the social conservatives because the primaries are coming up. That translates as “political opportunist.”

  17. Max_1 says:

    No freak out… don’t mean it that way. It’s pure ridicule of the man… that’s all.
    And in turn, his devotes…

  18. He’s a ‘conservative libertaryan,’ aka ‘fauxbertarian.’

  19. BeccaM says:

    In a way, I almost don’t mind that the hyper-cons think the only problem is their losing candidates aren’t conservative enough, rather than what a sane person would conclude: “Maybe we should run candidates who are popular with voters who aren’t 100% to the right of ME.”

    They demand ideological purity and the end up with Grumpy McWalnuts and the Wasilla Chillbilly. Or Mittens Rmoney and the Zombie-eyed Granny Starver. Hell, a lot of them weren’t happy with Dubya & Darth, feeling they should’ve been rounding up us evil libruls and putting us all in prison.

    I suppose Walker’s a possibility. The son of a bitch is ruthless enough, and all the things he’s done to Wisconsin are exactly the things GOPers love, including running its economy straight into the toilet.

  20. farrar says:

    This is interesting, because most of the articles I have read have completely taken what he has said out of context based on this video.

    Seems like he is telling a room full of evangelicals (him self being one) that you can use government to force people to your way of thinking but it is probably not going to work. If evangelicals want their way, there needs to be social change. Not political change. And regardless of whether or not one wants that change, that is really the only chance evangelicals have at limiting gay marriage. Convincing others, not government, to believe what they believe.

    That is not really a flip-flop. Its more like inception. That is so weird to me that liberals are wigging out over this. It is helping them. If he had gone in there with a rainbow flag and started talking about gay rights they would have kicked him out. He went in there and told a bunch of conservatives “Hey, guess what? Government doesn’t do anything right including defining marriage. Maybe we ought to think about peaceful social change versus government laws and force”.

    Tailoring a message to audience tends to work a lot better than tailoring it to yourself. I was a little annoyed with him at first, but after seeing this video I think people have cherry picked what he was saying.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    You are probably right. But since all I’ve heard from right wing relatives for years now is that McCain lost because he wasn’t conservative enough and then the same about Romney. This is going to be a battle between the “base” and the people who actually run things and make the big donations. Conventional wisdom says Jeb, but I still think it’s going to be Walker.

  22. farrar says:

    I don’t think he is a libertarian. I also don’t think he argues for the aggression either. He does seem to distinguish between personal belief and the role of government, and then conveniently speaks from the part of him that is beneficial in the moment.

    He will tell a room full of social conservatives that gay marriage is immoral in his opinion.He will say that government should deal with it at the state level, if at all. Then,

    He will tell a room full of liberals that tolerance is important and that the government probably shouldn’t be involved in marriage anyway. He will tell them that his personal definition of marriage is irrelevant.

    When he gets pressed on it, he gives both halves of the story. But only if pressed.

    Is is inconsistent and flip-flopping. No. He “just” conveniently leaves out the other half depending on his audience. He is a politician, and he is trying to have the best of both worlds. Some people will buy it, forgive it, and others will not.

    He will get my primary vote. But if he wants me in the general election he is going to have to start telling the whole story all the time and not half the story half the time. Its just too close to dishonesty. Even though he comes clean when asked the right questions.

  23. BeccaM says:

    The earliest clowns to jump into the GOP Klown Kar Kaucus are never the ones who last. But right now, we’re in the PanderFest phase, where any Republican willing to spout the far-right authoritarian theocratic orthodoxy is permitted to use the soapbox.

    At least until someone with more money and more powerful backers shows up and shoves them ignominiously into the gutter.

    I honestly think it’s going to be Jeb in ’16, regardless of his baggage, only just like with Willard Mittens Rmoney, it’ll be “Anybody but Jeb” week after week, with current favorites out front until some buffoonery topples them, until like Romney, he’s the last one left standing.

  24. farrar says:

    Yeah, or the democrats for that matter. The two parties are very utilitarian in nature. Promoting the ends to justify the means. Which many outside of politics think that way as well.

    Often times I see Rand Paul as trying to cast libertarian conclusions through a utilitarian social conservative prism. Unfortunately the end result is not libertarianism.

    I would vote for him in the primary, because at that point in the process the vote has more to do with granting the candidate a voice than it does with putting them in office. I don’t think there will be anyone I can vote for in the general election. Including him. I’d prefer him have a voice to a Jeb, Walker, Rubio, or Cruz though.

  25. Houndentenor says:

    You beat me to it. I was born in Texas. I got a backstage pass!

  26. Houndentenor says:

    I can’t believe his following among Evangelicals considering some of his activities when he was at Baylor. He’s never going to be president and if there were ever any chance that he’d get the nomination (and there’s not any) there’s plenty of info ready to be released. (It’s not that big a secret as it is.)

  27. Houndentenor says:

    I’ve talked to a lot of libertarians over the years and it’s clear that libertarian means whatever the person using the word wants it to mean at the time they use it (and don’t dare quote back something they said last week!). Paul is as much a libertarian as the rest of them. He likes saying things that he thinks sound good but have no basis in the real world.

  28. Indigo says:

    Speaking of the teachings of Jesus:

  29. Indigo says:

    I don’t believe a word of it. Much spin, no content.

  30. Freedonian says:

    Indeed, it would mean that to be true.. The Pauls have never impressed me as libertarians, although their stands on Federal issues is, for the most part, close to being correct. It is their ‘states rights’ stands that make it a ‘deal breaker’. Look up Ron Paul’s “We The People Act”, which is anti-libertarian in any sense of the term.

  31. Naja pallida says:

    If they reject the use of fraud, and reject the initiation of violence, no self-respecting libertarian could ever be a member of the Republican party.

  32. Naja pallida says:

    There is also their fundamental belief in the redirection of the money spent on foreign wars to their corporate cronies, whereas rank and file Republicans want both war and rampant cronyism. If you look at Paul’s record, it puts him squarely in the middle of the pack of Republicans. Of course, they all like to think they’re different, when they’re not.

  33. Strepsi says:

    That dpes make sense, and further proves the point of the article: when it comes to religious-social-conservative issues, Rand Paul repeatedly argues in favor of aggressive government regulation of provate behaviors. A libertarian would not. A theocon would.

  34. Strepsi says:

    He is consistently, and repeatedly, a Christianist.

    There are no libertarians running for President.

  35. Nicholas A Kocal says:

    And I bet not one of the evangelical pastors and thought leaders at the breakfast actually follow the teachings of Jesus.

  36. BeccaM says:

    I’ve met a few Libertarians who were pretty consistent in the political and philosophical outlook. These ones never go into or succeed at politics, because there is a core anarchistic motive going on. Besides, the notion of expansive personal freedom is at odds with modern American politics, which is all about power.

    Power to do what? The power to make other people do what you want them to. A guy like Rand Paul practices this form of faux-Libertarianism: “I get to do what I want. You get to do what I want.”

    His positions on social issues like civil rights (LGBT, racial, etc.), reproductive rights, consumer rights and all the rest are consistent with the notion that some rights are ‘more equal’ than others. In other words, it’s a position where his liberties (and those of his financial and electoral backers) take precedence over everybody else’s. The liberty to be a fundamentalist Christian is valued over the liberty to be a liberal one or a Muslim, Hindu, or Wiccan or anything else.

    But let’s get real: Rand Paul’s only priority is Rand Paul. He’ll pander to anybody who’ll support him, and the plain fact is there’s a lot more money and votes to be had in courting the far right bigots than the fringy Libertarian preppers.

  37. farrar says:

    What conflicting statements?

  38. farrar says:

    You cannot harm the life, liberty, or property of others, unless in self defense. Obviously not everyone feels the same way, so someone who follows the non-aggression principle strives for this but also prepares for the possibility that others may harm them. Preemptive acts of aggression are not self defensive.

    That is libertarianism. Libertarians may use this principle to draw conclusions you do not agree with, but its not a salad of other opinions.

  39. Max_1 says:

    Courting the Conservative Christian… It’s a Libertarian thing now???

  40. Freedonian says:

    Simply put, libertarians reject the initiation of violence, or the use of fraud, in any of their dealings. In a perfect world, principled libertarianism would stand as the political polar opposite to theocratic authoritarianism. I suppose that makes Rand Paul somewhat ‘bi-polar’.

  41. nicho says:

    There you go. This word salad — or hodge-podge, if you will -exemplifies the problem with libertarianism. What is non-aggression principle and howmdoe it work?

  42. nicho says:

    Not, it is not one principle. It’s a hodge-podge of conflicting statements.

  43. farrar says:

    The whole philosophy is based on the non-aggression principle. Are there incoherent libertarians? Certainly. Is the philosophy in coherent… it is one principle. How can that possibly be incoherent?

  44. farrar says:

    Libertarians believe in the non-aggression principle. While libertarians may disagree with one another on the application of that principle, the part that makes one a libertarian is his/her reverence for that principle. It is dishonest to suggest that libertarians are a hodge-podge of issues, when they clearly have governing principles that are separate from other political and ethical philosophies. You seem to suggest that you are well read in libertarian canon. You don’t have to agree with them, but it is a little odd that you read the canon but make no mention of the non-agression principle while condensing libertarianism. That is like someone condensing Christianity without mentioning Jesus. You can do it, but anyone who knows the subject will think you have completely missed the point.

  45. 2karmanot says:

    Give it up parasite

  46. 2karmanot says:


  47. Doug105 says:

    Or a part in the show.

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  49. heimaey says:

    There is no such thing as a libertarian.

  50. emjayay says:

    He may not be much of a real libertarian, but he is consistent, sort of. He is also against the federal government meddling in things like state Jim Crow policies when allowed for private businesses, although he famously beat furiously around the old bush when pressed on that one and then later sort of semi changed his mind.

    The marriage thing is a step farther though, because it is similarly a state policy of discrimination but applied to a governmental function like voting, not private like running a lunch counter.

  51. keirmeister says:

    “The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn’t say keep religion out of government.”

    Shameless pandering. Surely he is familiar with the Establishment Clause? Hell, keeping religion out of government comes BEFORE keeping government out of religion in the 1st Amendment. It’s the first bloody statement!

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

  52. nicho says:

    “When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.” – George Carlin

  53. nicho says:

    Libertarianism is probably the most incoherent excuse for a political philosophy that there is. So, expecting Paul to tell us anything reasonably coherent is a fools errand. In fact, that’s who he seems to attract most easily — fools.

  54. nicho says:

    Yes, Go, Paul, Just please go. Far away. Leave normal people the fuck alone.

  55. 2karmanot says:

    “The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food
    for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

    – Mark Twain in Eruption

  56. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    P.T. Barnum had an explanation for such behavior.

  57. Guest says:

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  58. Indigo says:

    I continue to assert that a Libertarian is just a Republican who wants permission to smoke marihuanah. Their whole program, as stated in alternative history novels and position papers and other various hoohah just don’t hold together. They don’t have a platform, they have a contrarian posture. And that’s about it.

  59. Demosthenes says:

    Sen. Aqua Buddha used to be a libertarian until his raw ambition, combined with no core beliefs (other than his narcissism) made him change his mind.

    He’s almost the quintessential politician.

  60. The_Fixer says:

    I only have one quibble with the article, Jon, and that is this sentence:

    On Thursday, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spoke at a closed-door prayer
    breakfast with about 50 evangelical pastors and thought leaders.

    How can one be a “thought leader” when he or she has to first think? :)

    I suspect that ol’ Rand thinks he’s promoting a “New Libertarianism” that embraces the evangelical right. If he were to stick with the true definition of Libertarianism, he’d never even think such a thing.

    A quick aside: Ever notice that these things are always taking place “behind closed doors”? That way these cheeseballs can let their hair down and tell each other how they really feel, and let their true intentions be known to a carefully selected crowd.

    It won’t bring him the success he thirsts for, either. Evangelicals are a minority to start with, and evangelism is an anathema to the youngest of voters (who are not dying off, unlike the old, religious voters). He may also piss off old-school Libertarians with this stunt.

    He’s going to be an “also ran” in the next election.

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  62. jkarov says:

    Rand Paul is a titanic hypocrite, and he’s kidding himself if he thinks his shameless pandering to the Christian Taliban will go unnoticed

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