At his speech to the conservative Values Voter Summit on Friday, Sen. Rand Paul made a somewhat obscure literary reference. And no, it wasn't Ayn Rand.
He was talking about The Moviegoer by Walter Percy—a book about a man's struggle to find spiritual redemption as he feels increasingly alienated in his everyday life. It's about rejecting the routine of everyday life and opening yourself to "the search" for self-actualization. "The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life," Percy's narrator writes.
Paul echoed that sentiment in a considerably more philosophical speech than the two preceding ones from Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst. "Walker Percy laments in The Moviegoer that we've left no room for the seeker," he said. "Maybe, our country's revival depends on seeking and rediscovering the synthesis of freedom and tradition."
That idea—that we must reject everyday life to find our bliss—is as poignant for those seeking to open an artisanal apiary in Portland as the conservative voters who feel America is losing its very soul.
"We have arrived at a day of reckoning," Paul then told the crowd soberly. "Will we falter? Or will we thrive and rediscover our mojo?"
But the literary criticism was just the appetizer; the entree was the same brand of red meat being served all day at the summit. In his speech, Paul launched into a tirade against the Obama administration, saying America is in a "spiritual crisis" and that Obama "acts like he's a king."
Paul called Obama "arrogant" for saying, "If Congress will not act, then I must."
"These are not the words of a great leader," Paul said. "These words sound more like the exclamations of an autocrat."
Paul also blasted the president for not seeking congressional approval before dropping bombs on members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"We must act but we should act within the rule of law," Paul said. "The Constitution states that only Congress may declare war, yet this president has, in Libya, and then again this week in Syria, committed our sons and daughters to a war that is not authorized by Congress."
Of course, this is the Values Voter Summit, not a foreign policy panel at the Brookings Institution, so Paul eventually pivoted back to government oppression of religious people, focusing on the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.
"The First Amendment is not about keeping religious people out of government, it is about keeping government out of religion," Paul said. "Obamacare tries to force us to separate our faith from our business. Fortunately, the Supreme Court thought otherwise."
"Across the globe, Christians are under attack as if we lived in the Middle Ages or as if we lived under early pagan Roman rule," he continued. He cited two cases of Christian women being persecuted for their faith: Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to denounce Christianity, and Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman who was beaten in the street and faces charges of blasphemy.
"Until Asia Bibi is freed, Pakistan should not receive a penny of U.S. aid!" Paul said, in the first big applause line of his speech. "Not one penny should go to any nation that persecutes or kills Christians!"
Paul doesn't apply his religion as thickly as Cruz or Dr. Ben Carson. In his public appearances, Paul sounds more like he's delivering a poli-sci lecture than a homily. But the religious undercurrent was there, even if the crowd didn't testify as loudly as they did for Cruz.
While Cruz can win over a crowd with sheer rhetorical vigor, Paul's appeal is more subtle. "No U.S. aid!" is a more nuanced take than "it is our job to kill terrorists." So while Paul may be able to weave religion into his foreign policy agenda more deftly than Cruz, that sort of talk was hardly the main attraction for the crowd on Friday.