Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Preacher Joe", Religion in the News, Fall 2000

"Feeble Opinions on the House Chaplaincy,"
Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Montgomery Wars: Religion and Alabama Politics", Religion in the News, Spring 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism













































































Hit Counter

Faith in Justice: The Ashcroft Fight
by Mark Silk

In their campaign to make John Ashcroft attorney general of the United States, partisans of the former Missouri senator brought out a big gun. They accused the other side of opposing him because of his religion.

"The nomination of a passionate and devout Christian for attorney general set off the old liberal anti-religious reflexes as if Joe Lieberman had never existed," snorted syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. "This is pure unrestrained intolerance," Republican political analyst Daniel Evans declared on "Larry King Live" January 12. "Democrats are coming close to suggesting that John Ashcroft does not have the right to believe what he wants to believe in his personal life."

Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe’s resident right-winger, went further: "Ashcroft’s enemies want to bring him down because he is a religious conservative, but they lack the integrity to admit it."

Opponents did insist that it was not Ashcroft’s Pentecostal faith they had a problem with. "We respect his deep religious convictions, in which his personal values and many of his political convictions are rooted," the St. Petersburg Times asserted January 22. "But when his record is viewed as a whole, it raises disturbing questions about his regard for established legal and constitutional principles."

"Opposition to Ashcroft’s nomination does not imply concern about his deep faith," Indiana’s Democratic senator Evan Bayh wrote in a January 19 Washington Post op-ed. "It is possible for moderates to respect and even admire his religious devotion—I do—and still be alarmed by his secular views and the consequences of their implementation."

History suggests that such protestations should not necessarily be taken at face value. In the 1850s, members of the American Party habitually said they knew nothing about the party’s anti-Catholicism—and so are known to this day as the Know-Nothings. Anti-Catholic activities against Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 were called, respectively, the "whispering" and the "underground" campaigns, precisely because most participants didn’t want to do what they were doing out in the open.

Of course, the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for office does not prohibit anyone—even senators—from voting, or mobilizing votes, on the basis of religion. But the ban casts a moral penumbra such that doing so strikes most Americans as un-American or, at the very least, something not to be discussed in mixed company.

Nonetheless, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not get the answer he expected when he asked whether Ashcroft had heard any senator "suggest there should be a religious test on your confirmation." Replied the nominee, "No senator has said ‘I will test you.’ But a number of senators have said to me, ‘Will your religion keep you from being able to perform your duties in office?’" To which Leahy replied, "All right, well, I’m amazed at that."

Nor were senators alone in thinking out loud that Ashcroft’s religion might pose a problem.

Before the hearings began, the Interfaith Alliance, a seven-year-old liberal religious group designed as a counterweight to the religious right, urged senators to ask the nominee whether his faith might make him intolerant of "faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction." Coming out against confirmation on January 23, the New York Times charged Ashcroft with "a radical propensity for offering constitutional amendments that would bring that document into alignment with his religious views."

And in a blistering 1,500-word attack from the nominee’s native soil, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch charged that, animated by his religious convictions, Ashcroft opposed the "core" constitutional value of religious freedom. The evidence for this was his support for organized school prayer and public school vouchers, and his antagonism to "four decades" of Supreme Court church-state decisions. "How," asked the paper, "could a man swear to uphold constitutional values he rejects, without betraying his own core beliefs? And who would place his trust in a man willing to do so?"

Ashcroft’s ideological foes had hoped to discover a smoking gun in the speech he gave in 1999 when accepting an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist South Carolina school notorious for its opposition to Catholicism and interracial dating.

When the remarks were finally dug up and released, the closest thing to faith-based self-incrimination was this religio-political riff: "Unique among the nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus."

Barry Lynn, sound-bitemeister of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the statement "a grievous insult to religious minorities." Tony Mauro of Legal Times, writing in USA Today as a member of its board of contributors, opined that in "the venerable halls of the Justice Department, where he will work," it was not Jesus but "the Constitution that is king." Mauro argued that it was incumbent on the Senate to probe the policy consequences of Ashcroft’s faith, "even if it necessitates an intrusion into the usually private domain of a person’s religious beliefs."

Such reactions elicited cries of outrage from the other side. "The harsh criticism of his simple statement of faith is only the ugliest part of a campaign to paint him as an extremist," declared the Atlanta Journal. According to the Journal, the statement was merely intended to apply to the "audience of fundamentalist Christians he was addressing."

Such an interpretation requires a bit of a partisan leap of faith. Anyone could be forgiven for concluding that Ashcroft meant simply: America is different because Americans acknowledge Jesus as king. He himself perhaps could be forgiven for getting carried away in front of the Jesus enthusiasts at Bob Jones.

Were Ashcroft’s opponents, for their part, carried away by anti-religious enthusiasm? Without knowing what was in their hearts, it is difficult to say. What’s clear, however, is that in America it is more powerful politics to attack someone for attacking someone’s religion than to attack someone’s religion. The anti-Ashcroft forces coalesced around the idea that his policy positions were "outside of the mainstream," not that his faith was beyond the pale.

The more relevant question is whether it is kosher to ask would-be public servants if their religion would either keep them from discharging the duties of office or shape their public conduct in some particular way.

Sen. Leahy’s amazement notwithstanding, the answer appears to be yes. In a recent poll by the organization Public Agenda, Americans by 2-1 margins said they preferred elected officials who are deeply religious to compromise rather than vote their religious views on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, gay rights, and poverty and welfare. An inability to compromise strong religious commitments evidently worries us.

So when push comes to shove, politicians habitually take pains to make clear that their religion will not dictate how they behave in office.

To quiet fears of his Catholicism, Jack Kennedy famously told a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston that he believed "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." Likewise, Ashcroft repeatedly insisted at his hearings that he would not let his faith interfere with his enforcement of the law.

While the Bible tells him that homosexuality is a sin (as he said on CBS’s "Face the Nation" in 1998), he told the senators that he has not and would not "make sexual orientation a matter to be considered in hiring or firing." Although he apparently believes that abortion is tantamount to murder—having co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to ban abortion including in cases of rape and incest—he said he considered Roe v. Wade "settled law" and would not seek to challenge it.

All in all, Ashcroft denied that his religion would influence his conduct of his job in any way, other than to undergird his commitment to enforce the law. Just as, forty years ago, Kennedy pledged to resign the presidency if it conflicted with his conscience, so Bush’s would-be attorney general said that he would resign if performing its duties came into conflict with his "faith heritage." But also like Kennedy, he did not think he would ever be faced with such an eventuality.

For two decades, the religious right has prided itself on the principle that it is wrong for public servants to separate their faith from their working life. Whether out of prudence or principle, John Ashcroft, its paladin in the Bush cabinet, made his way by suggesting he would do just that.

Related Articles:

"Preacher Joe", Religion in the News, Fall 2000

"Feeble Opinions on the House Chaplaincy,"
Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Montgomery Wars: Religion and Alabama Politics", Religion in the News, Spring 1999