When has a religion-based attack ad gone too far? Democrats are deeply divided over an ad run by Democratic candidate Jack Conway accusing opponent Rand Paul of mocking Christianity and leading a college prank that involved worshiping an "Aqua Buddha." There doesn't appear to be much middle ground: there are those who think the ad is inexcusable and something Democrats should unequivocally denounce, and those who think it's just fine.


So what's the source of these wildly divergent views? Those who are appalled by the ad seem to have two main objections: first, that the video reaches way back into college-era shenanigans, and, second, that it appears to suggest atheism is or should be a problem in someone running for public office. Those defending it also have two broad points: first, that the allegations in the ad are true, and, second, that politics is a hardball game--in other words, Republicans wouldn't have hesitated to run something comparable.

This Is Outrageous

  • I'm Sure It's True, I Just Don't Think It's Right  "The trouble with Conway's ad,"writes The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, "is that it comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office. That's a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign." He adds that he doesn't actually "doubt the implication of the ad, namely that Rand Paul harbors a private contempt for Christianity."
  • 'A Sickening Premise for Any Campaign Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway one-ups Chait's assessment, pointing out that, regardless of which party is doing the attacking, a campaign based on notion that atheists aren't fit for public office turns the stomach.
  • Slimy  "It takes thinly sourced college pranks and sells them as a calculated and conspiratorial assault on Christianity," objects The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. "This is why smart, decent people do not want to run for office." Also, he adds, there is no evidence that political "hardball" of this sort actually works. On Twitter, he adds that the ad is "dishonorable and ugly."
  • 'Very Dangerous Ad'  Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill dislikes it "because it reaches back to college ... I think the ad came close to the line," Politico's Meredith Shiner quotes her as saying.
  • 'I'm Not Saying It Won't ... Be Effective,' writes Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. "But it registered for me as somewhere between a hokey Tea Party ad and an SNL spoof." (His first reaction: "This ad ... man, this ad. Whew.")
  • 'Most Despicable Ad of the Year'  It's simple, argues Jason Zengerle, continuing the TNR pile-up:
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.
Actually, It's Not
  • But This Is True!  Harvard professor Theda Skocpol protests the "prissy condemnations coming from liberal commentators." The ad, she says, "is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them." It's not a "political sin," she argues, "to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul's extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows." And another thing:
Dems often lack conviction or the will to be eloquently honest (for example, on taxes). But an equal problem is that when someone does play hardball, the rest of the prissy liberal Mugwumps tut-tut them about it.
  • Sure, It's 'Ugly,' But Have You Seen the Other Ads?  "This ad has the virtue--not that common in politics--of being accurate," agrees Matt Yglesias at Think Progress. In any event, he adds, "what I find most striking about the Conway-related outrage is the lack of outrage over the torrent of xenophobic China-bashing ads we've seen from candidates of both parties throughout this campaign season."
A Response to the Ad's Defenders
  • We Need Lines  "Is Rand Paul misleading the electorate about his religion? Sure," writes Jonathan Chait, in a separate post. "But he's not running on a religious platform. It's Conway who's making religion an issue. I think an atheist, which is what I'm petty sure Paul is, ought to be able to run for office without having his belief system publicly interrogated." In addition, he says, though there is some virtue to the point that successful politicians need to play hardball, " even if Conway is right to kick Rand Paul in the groin, I'm also right for pointing out that's what he's doing." In conclusion:
Rand Paul may be a dangerous man and unusually dishonest about his beliefs. But there still need to be some lines.