Rand Paul has a problem.
The putative 2016 presidential candidate hopes to enter the White House as the nominee of the Republican Party, a political organization dominated by Bible-thumping Southern whites who don’t share Paul’s libertarian views.
Paul’s problem was on display last week during a speech he gave to the self-described, so-called Values Voter Summit. (An aside: I say self-described, so-called because the inference of those who have appropriated the term, “values voter,” is that these are the only voters who have values. I have values — as I am sure everyone who reads this blog does — only my values are not the same values as those of social conservatives. If it is considered a “value” to oppose gay marriage, then it’s a “value” to support same-sex marriage and to love whomever one wants.)
The Values Voter Summit, in the words of its organizers, “was created in 2006 to provide a forum to help inform and mobilize citizens across America to preserve the bedrock values of traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government that make our nation strong.”
In his speech, Paul made the expected nod to the concerns of the summit, especially its opposition to abortion. But the Kentucky Republican also attempted to weave in a defense of libertarianism and to demonstrate that libertarianism is not antithetical to social conservatism.
“Virtue” was the fulcrum Senator Rand used try to marry libertarianism and social conservatism. “Freedom is not a license to do as you please,” he said. “Freedom can only be realized when citizens know self-restraint. Or, put another way, virtue.” He cited George Washington on democracy requiring a “virtuous people.” It’s not laws, Paul claims, that restrain people from doing wrong: “Ninety-eight percent of the people will follow the virtuous course, with or without laws.” That’s because virtue derives not from government — “no law can force a people to be virtuous” — but is taught by parents, schools, and churches.
Paul moved easily between the language of the political arena and the language of the pulpit. “What America needs is not just another politician or more promises; what America really needs is a revival,” he said. “America needs to revive virtue.”
Virtue and liberty are intertwined. “Some seem to believe you must choose,” Paul asserted, “that it’s either liberty or virtue, that to be virtuous you can’t have too much freedom. This is exactly wrong. Liberty is absolutely essential to virtue. It is our freedom to make individual choices that allows us to be virtuous.”
Paul is persuasive in arguing the relationship of virtue to liberty; he has pointed out before that libertarian is not the same as libertine. But where Paul’s argument falls short, and where he is destined to fail in his appeal to social conservatives, is in the interconnection of virtue, liberty, and society.
Look at the words from the Web site of the Values Voter Summit about “preserving the bedrock values of traditional marriage… sanctity of life…” No social conservative, certainly not those who attended the summit, is likely to believe that only the virtue of the individual will preserve “traditional marriage… sanctity of life.” It’s a given that social conservatives are prepared to use government power to insure that marriage is between a man and a woman, not two people of the same sex, and to outlaw abortion (so much for limited government!).
The problem comes when one individual’s notion of virtue (or values) conflicts with another’s. Is someone who believes in the legitimacy of same-sex marriage not virtuous? Perhaps, to some social conservatives, but not to the rest of us. For most of us, choosing whom to marry — whether of the same or of the opposite sex — is one of those “individual choices” to which Paul refers.
Like the definition of values, the definition of virtue depends on who is doing the defining. Sure, most of us agree on what is virtuous in most instances, but not on those issues that are of primary concern to social conservatives who are not willing to leave the definition of virtue on these contentious issues to the individual. Hence, the emphasis on constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and abortion.
Social conservatives know this, which is why in the Values Voter summit presidential straw poll Rand Paul came in sixth, the choice of only seven percent of the attendees, most of whom favored such stalwart social conservatives as Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum.
Which is also why Rand Paul will never be the Republican nominee for president.