The Gospel Of John

Why Ashcroft Shouldn't Be Attorney General

I don't agree with Jerry Falwell very often. However, I concurred with his view the other night on "The Edge with Paula Zahn" on the Fox News Channel that Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft is a man of deep religious conviction. That's where the agreement ended, though.

Indeed, it is the very fact of Ashcroft's clear commitment to his understanding of God's will that makes it impossible for him to enforce laws with which he disagrees. In his commencement address to Bob Jones University in 1999, he did not merely say that the American colonists used the phrase "No king but Jesus." He did not merely say that he personally believes that Jesus is king of his life.

Rather, Ashcroft said, "If America is to be great in the future, it will be if we understand that our source is not civic and temporal, but our source is godly and eternal." That is a contemporaneous statement of belief that the ultimate authority is God's will.

Personally, I am opposed to capital punishment, in part based on my religious beliefs and in part on other factors. I should not run for attorney general in a state where I might be asked to order an execution. If John Ashcroft is true to his moral standards, I'd submit he couldn't faithfully administer laws that lead to what he sees as the murder of innocent unborn children.

Ashcroft cannot turn off a theological belief system that he has said has led him during his Senate career to "only legislate morality" and that he has said should lead governments "closer to God's heart." This is true even if he wants a job in the cabinet. He cannot serve both God as he understands God and the laws of man that seem far removed from God's heart as he hears it beating.

Ashcroft also seems to have serious lapses in judgment and integrity. Again, at the Bob Jones University commencement, he did not merely thank the university for its approval of his work, he said: "I thank God for this institution." He may offer thanks for anything, but it is astonishing that he would implicate God in creating an institution that has promoted both racial discrimination and religious bigotry against, among others, Mormons and Catholics. If God is OK with intolerance, why should we expect the attorney general to care much about those pesky laws that try to eliminate such bias?

By the way, Ashcroft has said that he wasn't aware of the policies of the university. Curiously, he was the attorney general of Missouri in l983 when the Supreme Court of the United States decided a case in which it denied tax exemption to Bob Jones University for its racist policies. How could such a well-publicized case have flown past a state attorney general without notice? It is literally incredible.

Similarly, Ashcroft has condemned homosexuality as a sin. People in this country have a right to believe this, but Ashcroft has a history of basing public policy on his personal religious beliefs about gay people. He opposed an effort to extend employment discrimination protections to gay people, apparently reasoning that this particular "sin" could serve not only as a potential disqualification for getting into Heaven, but for working at the local factory as well.

Additionally, he held up the nomination of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg for no other reason than Hormel's homosexuality. Although Hormel's philanthropic, scholarly, and business background put him a cut above the average ambassador, he had been upfront about his sexual orientation, and that admission was enough to put Ashcroft into an anti-gay fervor so strong he wouldn't even let the nomination come to the Senate floor.

Not only does Ashcroft support vouchers for religious schools, he was also the grandfather (or should I say "godfather") of "charitable choice," the concept that faith-based organizations, including individual houses of worship, can receive tax dollars to run their social service ministries, from welfare to substance-abuse counseling.

In his version of this approach, a religious group can take the funds and then discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring the people to administer the programs. Federally funded religious discrimination is alien to every other statute in our legal code, but again, because it is consistent with his religious beliefs it does not trouble the would-be attorney general.

Ashcroft's views mirror his most extreme supporters among the Religious Right. Indeed, his contempt for the very legal system before which he and his solicitor general and United States Attorneys will practice is couched in nearly apocalyptic religious terms. Ashcroft told the Christian Coalition in 1998, "A robed elite have taken the wall of separation...and have made it a wall of religious oppression."

In discussing federal judges more broadly, he once said their "judicial despotism stands like a behemoth over this great land." We expect this sort of rhetoric from Religious Right TV preachers; we should not tolerate it from the man who would be the nation's top law-enforcement officer.

As I write this, there has been no vote on his nomination and no one is quite sure how this will turn out. But I have heard Ashcroft say repeatedly during his confirmation hearing that he would not let his religious views impede his enforcement of laws. I repeat: when you see the world as Ashcroft does, serving "God and Mammon" in this role is simply impossible.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.