There are still two weeks left until the midterm elections, but it’s not too early to declare a winner in the contest for the most despicable political ad of this campaign season. On Friday night, Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, released a 30-second spot questioning the Christian faith of his Republican opponent Rand Paul. Conway’s ad focused on two episodes from Paul’s days as a college student in the early 1980s. At Baylor, Paul belonged to a secret society known as the NoZe Brotherhood which, according to the ad’s narrator, “called the Holy Bible ‘a hoax’ [and] was banned [from campus] for mocking Christianity and Christ.” It was also during his time at Baylor that Paul and a fellow NoZe brother allegedly tied up a female classmate, tried to get her to do bong hits with them, and then took her to a creek where they made her worship “Aqua Buddha”—which, as the ad points out, is “a false idol.” During a candidate debate on Sunday night, Conway repeated these charges, while Paul accused Conway of “descend[ing] into the gutter” and “demean[ing] Kentucky.” When the debate was over, Paul refused to shake Conway’s hand.
Frankly, I don’t blame him. First, no candidate over the age of, say, 30 should be held politically accountable for anything he or she did in college—short of gross academic misconduct or committing a felony. Second, and more importantly, a politician’s religious faith should simply be off-limits. If it’s disgusting when conservatives question Barack Obama’s Christianity, then it’s disgusting when Jack Conway questions Rand Paul’s.
Alas, as the guy who first shined a light on Paul’s NoZe membership and the Aqua Buddha prank in GQ this past summer, I suppose I’m responsible for supplying the raw material for Conway’s disgusting ad. But the reason I wrote about Paul’s college days was not because I thought they revealed anything interesting or significant about his religious faith, or even his attitudes toward illegal drugs. Rather, I wrote about them because I believe they point to traits that are crucial to understanding Rand Paul: namely, his anti-authority streak and his lack of respect for institutions.
Although the Conway campaign makes the NoZe Brotherhood sound like a bunch of pagans who got together to sacrifice small woodland creatures in tribute to the anti-Christ, the group was, in reality, the closest thing Baylor had to the Harvard Lampoon. In other words, the NoZe existed to poke fun at and, whenever possible, piss off the school’s administration; and since Baylor was (and, to a lesser extent, still is) a devoutly Southern Baptist school, the surest way to do that was to engage in absurd acts of sacrilege. So that’s the context for understanding why the NoZe, in its satirical newspaper, called the bible “a hoax”; and why Paul allegedly told a female classmate his God was “Aqua Buddha”; and why the Baylor administration ultimately banned the NoZe from campus. After all, during Paul’s time at Baylor, the Baylor administration banned dancing on campus, too. (Chapel attendance, meanwhile, was required.) Belonging to the NoZe didn’t mean a Baylor student was irreligious or a bad Christian. It simply meant the student didn’t subscribe to—or, at the very least, was questioning toward—all of the very conservative dictates of the Southern Baptist Convention.
And that’s what’s so interesting about Paul’s membership in the NoZe. As the son of a Texas Republican congressman, he might have been expected to join a fraternity or a campus Christian group—as the sons of other prominent Texas politicos did when they went to Baylor. Instead, Paul fell in with the one group at Baylor that flagrantly thumbed its collective nose at the cult of conformity that permeated every corner of the campus. “None of us were real line-toers,” John Green, one of Paul’s old NoZe brothers, explained to me. “We all had conflicts with authority. If you didn’t get that about our group, you weren’t going to fit in with us, so it does say something about him that he belonged.”
What it says is that, unlike so many politicians who cast themselves as outsiders, Paul is the real deal. Time and again throughout his life—first as a student at Baylor; then as a renegade ophthalmologist who tried to secede from the specialty’s leading professional organization in protest of its membership rules; and finally as a Senate candidate who ran against the state’s Republican establishment in the GOP primary—Paul has demonstrated a profound lack of respect for authority and institutions. In this, he’s very different from the typical Republican senator. And if Paul makes it to Washington, it stands to reason that he’ll display a similar attitude toward the powers that be in the Senate Republican caucus, occasionally making Mitch McConnell look like Dean Wormer.
Granted, now that Paul’s running for the Senate, he’s a lot less forthright than he once was about this part of his character. In fact, while Conway obviously gets the lion’s share of the blame for making Paul’s behavior in college part of this campaign, I think Paul could have defused the entire Aqua Buddha story back in the summer if he’d simply owned up to it with something along the lines of, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” Instead, he and his campaign offered up carefully worded statements that denied accusations his former classmate never made while refusing to address what she did say occurred.
Then again, maybe Paul was doing the politically smart thing by playing coy—in the hope of baiting Conway into this attack. The fact that Paul’s now raising money off of Conway’s commercial would seem to suggest that Paul sees an advantage there. Indeed, if I had to guess, I actually think Conway’s ad makes Paul’s election—already probable—even more likely. Just as voters in North Carolina recoiled when Liddy Dole questioned Kay Hagan’s faith in 2008, I imagine Conway’s ad will generate a similar backlash among voters in Kentucky. Which is unfortunate. After all, there are many, many good reasons to vote against Paul. What he did during his time at Baylor, however, isn’t one of them.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.