Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Rand Paul Edition

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Rand Paul Edition November 12, 2014

This post on politician Rand Paul, the latest in a series that has included Pentecostals, holiness groups, and Charles Spurgeon, will probably perturb everyone. Conservatives will object because they won’t want to be linked to the “liberal” position of pacifism. Libertarians will object because theirs is not a principled pacifism, but a fiscal one. Pacifists will object because theirs is a not a fiscal one, but a principled one. Progressives will object because they, though perhaps admiring Paul’s rhetoric of peace, don’t want to be linked to the right wing. But Rand Paul is a person, not a platonic ideal, and he, even more than most people, defies easy categorization.

Back in May 2013, Paul, a Kentucky senator and likely presidential candidate in 2016, gave an extended interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network. (You can watch the entire 28-minute feature here.) It didn’t get much press at the time, but Paul, as he is prone to do, pushed back against established narratives. Concerned about the Republican enthusiasm for international conflict, he contended that Jesus “wasn’t really involved in the wars of his days.” He continued, “Part of Republicans’ problems and, frankly, to tell you the truth, some in the evangelical Christian movement I think have appeared too eager for war. . . . I think you need to remember that [Jesus] was the ‘Prince of Peace.’”

Paul has persisted in this anti-violence refrain. In June at the Freedom and Faith Conference, he articulated a strong pro-life message on abortion (pro-life groups say he has a 100% pro-life voting record on 8 votes in the Senate). He also declared, “Jesus reminds us what our goal should be when he proclaims, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God,’ . . . It’s unacceptable to have, and appoint, leaders who really show no reluctance for war.”

Fellow conservatives were apoplectic. David Limbaugh, younger brother of shock jock Rush Limbaugh, tweeted, “I pray there’s some explanation.” Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution despaired of Paul’s “disastrous judgments” and naiveté. In an article entitled “Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism,” he wrote, “It is hardly wise to wait until ISIS is strong enough to mount a direct attack on the United States, when its operatives, acting out of safe havens, can commit serious acts of aggression against ourselves and our allies. It is far better to intervene too soon than to wait too long.” Epstein concluded, “Senator Paul’s position is inexcusable. It renders him unfit to serve as President of the United States should he be eyeing the 2016 candidacy.”

Paul was quick to point out that, despite using Jesus as an argument against war, he is not actually a pacifist. “I’m a Christian,” he clarified. “I’m not always a good one because I struggle still. I struggle with my faith and I struggle with my doubts. I’m not naive enough to say that ‘oh we’re gonna end war.’ I’m not a pacifist.” He then advocated for limited strikes with no ground forces. An article from the National Interest helpfully positions the senator, saying that Paul “thinks the establishments of both major parties are too quick to resort to military force, but he wants to reassure voters that he is not so dogmatic that he would not do what’s necessary to keep the country safe.” In short, he seems to hold a classic just-war position. What makes him unusual is that he seems more willing to actually practice that position’s criteria of restraint and last resort. Paul’s explicit endorsement of peace only seems like pacifism in the context of evangelical superpatriots.

It also may be that Paul’s anti-interventionism is animated more by libertarian principles than Christian ones (although a few, like the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” try to explicitly link libertarian and Christian principles). Libertarians, who want to reduce government spending, have historically spoken out against expensive wars. Rooted in the critiques of Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and David Boaz, the U.S. Libertarian Party has criticized hawkish neo-conservatives for supporting a “trillion-dollar foreign war” in Iraq. “It’s interesting that conservatives only notice “big government” when it’s something their political enemies want,” said Libertarian Party Executive Director Wes Benedict said. “When conservatives want it, apparently it doesn’t count.”

Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond FoodThis is a fascinating critique in a historical moment when many American conservatives pursue an unrestrained interventionism. They preach a gospel of unlimited economic growth and aspire to actively shape the global order. But these are very different impulses compared to conservatives’ historic esteem of restraint and limits. Back in the 1790s Edmund Burke, citing the radical nature of the French Revolution, urged slow political and cultural change. In the 1961 Dwight Eisenhower urged a contraction of the “military industrial complex.” And there are some traditional conservatives still around. Writers at the Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative—and just-war theorists at Calvin College and Catholic universities—plead for caution, emphasizing the role that U.S. interventions in the past have played in provoking jihadists.

They just don’t seem to be reaching big chunks of the electorate. Perhaps Rand Paul more than eggheads can get a hearing from Christian crusaders who wrap the cross in a flag.

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  • We have heard the joyful sound: Market saves! Market saves!

    Spread the tidings all around: Market saves! Market saves!

  • stefanstackhouse

    Paul isn’t a “pacifist”, but maybe one could fairly characterize him as being “pacific” – that is, he favors and strives for peace while being realistic enough to recognize that in a fallen world, strong measures are sometimes a necessary last resort to protect the innocent. That’s pretty much my own view as well, and I do think that there is considerable scriptural support for it.

    If the bloody war-mongers on the extreme right disapprove, then that improves my opinion of Rand Paul considerably.

  • philipjenkins

    Mr. Leibowitz, I may or may not agree with your comments, but your choice of handle bespeaks a person of fine literary taste.

  • Oaebcr

    Perhaps we need war to protect and maintain the status of the U.S Dollar? All things considered, maybe the people running the show believe that spending and deficits do not matter as long as U.S. dominance and spreading of democracy and American ideals and keeping world stability prevails. I am torn on that thought versus non- in torn to not and restraint on U.S money supply.

  • Bob Elder

    I think there’s actually a healthy, if small, strain of these folks in the midst of the Rothbard/von Mises crowd of libertarians, of which Paul is part. To them, libertarianism implies a total absence of the application of force, on markets, people, nations, conscience, etc., and they see pacifism in its Christian form as a natural corollary of that position. It would be just as accurate in their way of thinking to say that free market ideology is simply pacifism applied to the marketplace. In its extreme form it could accurately be called Christian anarchism, although not in Paul’s particular case.

  • mike flynn

    Just like Obama, should paul get elected, before the inauguration the neo-conzionistnsa will do a reprogram on him. he has little choice. ( at least Obama kept USA out of iran, only the fact that he was in 2nd term allowed him to ignore the cabal.)

  • Guest

    Remember when the golden rule was booed at a 2012 GOP debate when Ron Paul dared suggest it as a foundation for US foreign policy?

    Americans only have an on or off switch when it comes to political philosophy. If you think carpet bombing weddings in Afghanistan to kill one terrorist is a bad strategy, then you’re a naive hippie pacifist.

    Notice how these so-called Christians and conservatives never seem to offer up any other solution to a problem besides war. They wouldn’t dare mention going after the corrupt financing of organizations like ISIS (the House of Saud, perhaps?). What’s the point of even having a State Department or diplomatic corps if our entire foreign policy consists of either bribing or pointing guns at anyone who doesn’t give the US what it wants?

    Rand Paul needs to find simple and digestible language to state his opinion. He wants a sanity back in our foreign policy. He wants strategies design to bring conflicts to an end, rather than perpetuate them. He should call the war makers out to the mat and get them to express how to advocate war and claim to be Christian at the same time.

  • Sven2547

    Didn’t Rand Paul support military intervention in Ukraine a few months ago?
    He’s a dove when Obama supports military action, and a hawk when Obama is against it. That’s not anti-interventionism, that’s partisanship.

  • ” Paul’s explicit endorsement of peace only seems like pacifism in the context of evangelical superpatriots” whose support and cheerleading of the invasion of Iraq opened Pandora’s Box with the results, today, of ISIS and the soon extinction of Iraqi Christians.

  • Joseph Lammers

    I’m pretty extreme right, but I’m no war-monger by any means, and I think there is a lot of wisdom in Rand Paul’s position. I’ve always thought that the decision to invade Iraq was a bad idea. One of the lesser known results of the war is that it is leading to the extinction of Iraqi Christians.