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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Conway ‘Lying’ About ‘Aqua Buddha’?

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul said his Senate Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, has "descended into the gutter" after making a personal attack on Paul’s college days in a recent ad. Paul even refused to shake Conway’s hand after a debate the two had at the University of Louisville on Oct. 17. During the debate, Paul called his opponent out multiple times saying, "You just out and out lie because you have nothing to stand on. …You demean the state of Kentucky." Paul said: "You know how we know when you’re lying? Your lips are moving."

This is the ad that caused the fuss:

So what are the facts? Is Conway "lying" or not?

The ad says that during his student days, Paul was a member of a secret society at Baylor University that "called the Holy Bible a hoax" and "was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ." And it asks: "Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, and tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his God was Aqua Buddha?"

Those allegations stem from a GQ story published in August. A former classmate of Paul’s at Baylor — speaking anonymously — told a reporter that 30 years ago Paul and a friend tied her hands, asked her to smoke marijuana and then took her to a creek where they blindfolded her and told her to worship an "Aqua Buddha" as her God. Several media outlets repeated the GQ story, calling Paul a kidnapper. But it now appears that the incident was just a weird prank, not a kidnapping, at least according to the woman involved. Still speaking anonymously, she told the Washington Post that she was merely being "hazed" by her friends.

Washington Post, August 11: "I went along because they were my friends," she said. "There was an implicit degree of cooperation in the whole thing. I felt like I was being hazed." …

"[They] came over to my house as friends that I knew," she told me. "They immediately said, `We’re going to tie you up and go for a ride.’ " …

Though the GQ piece never used the word "kidnapping," (and quoted her saying the whole thing was a "joke"), subsequent media coverage has characterized the allegations this way, seemingly allowing Paul to keep the conversation focused on this one charge. He hasn’t responded to questions about the blindfolding or the Aqua Buddha.

Paul doesn’t deny the incident. He does deny that he engaged in a criminal kidnapping, though the Conway ad doesn’t specifically accuse him of that.

There is support for the ad’s claim that Paul’s college group, the NoZe Brotherhood, "mocked Christianity." According to Politico, for example, "The group’s work often had a specifically anti-Christian tone, as it made fun of the Baptist college’s faith-based orientation." As for calling the Bible a "hoax," that was done in a satirical article in the NoZe newsletter. The article, titled "Fishy Bibles," claimed that the Bible’s true author was a Clement Updike, 83, of Victor, Calif., and quoted him as saying, "I wrote it as a lark."

Politico also reports that the group was indeed formally banned at one point by Baylor on grounds of "sacrilege." But that happened two years before Paul arrived. "They had ‘made fun of not only the Baptist religion, but Christianity and Christ,’ " Baylor President Herbert Reynolds told the student newspaper, The Lariat, according to Politico.

So the ad’s most dramatic claims are well documented. Whether it’s fair to dredge up irreverent college hijinks from 30 years ago is another matter, which we’ll leave to our readers to judge. Paul is out with a counter advertisement accusing Conway of "attacking Rand Paul’s faith," and saying that "Rand Paul keeps Christ in his heart."

The ad also claims that Paul wants to "end all federal faith-based initiatives," created under President George W. Bush. That’s based on remarks that Paul made in June 2008 on the public affairs program "Kentucky Tonight." Paul said Bush’s initiative was a "horrible mistake" and added: "We shouldn’t have tax money flowing into churches, and we should let churches do charity work, and that’s wonderful, but they shouldn’t be corrupted with government money."

The Conway ad does contain a claim we find to be misleading. It claims that Paul wants to "end the [tax] deduction for religious charities." That’s based on Paul’s supposed support for the FairTax proposal, which would replace the federal income tax with a broadly based sales tax on nearly all purchases — and thus eliminate the need for any deductions. And Paul’s campaign is now denying that he supports the FairTax anyway, according to The Associated Press.

Correction, Oct. 19: The original version of this story mistakenly said that Paul refused to shake Conway’s hand before an Oct. 17 debate, but that happened after the debate. 

— Joshua Goldman