A month or so ago, in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters' annual convention, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the following: "Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator. Governments may guard freedom. Governments don't grant freedom. All people are called to the defense of the Grantor of freedom, and the framework of freedom He created." And with those words, Ashcroft encapsulated everything that is admirable, and everything that is awful, about the Bush administration's understanding of religion in the United States.
Conservatives seemed genuinely puzzled by the outcry over Ashcroft's words. "I think General Ashcroft was quite inclusive," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council. "He made reference to Christians, Jews, and Muslims all recognizing the Creator as the origin of freedom." And in a sense, Connor was right. Not long ago a conservative cabinet member from a conservative administration, speaking before a conservative Christian audience, might not have mentioned Jews and almost certainly wouldn't have mentioned Muslims. Ashcroft was being ecumenical in a way that, say, Ed Meese probably wouldn't have been.
One reason is that the United States is more religiously diverse than it was two decades ago--Muslims, for instance, played a role in George W. Bush's electoral considerations in 2000 in a way they never did for Ronald Reagan. Another reason, of course, is September 11. Respect for American Muslims is now a critical component of American foreign policy.
But I don't think Ashcroft's ecumenicism is purely instrumental; I think he genuinely believes it. As TNR's Gregg Easterbrook and others have noted, conflict between religious denominations has declined in recent years as traditionalists from various faiths have joined in solidarity against what they perceive as a growing secular threat. Conservative Catholics and Southern Baptists have put aside their theological hostility to make common cause against abortion. Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews have come together to push for government support of religious education. And the affinity isn't only political; it's cultural as well. Writing in TNR last January, my friend Tevi Troy, an Orthodox Jew and former Ashcroft aide, noted that Ashcroft probably employed more Orthodox Jewish staffers than any other senator. "[A]s a devout person," Troy wrote, Ashcroft "feels an affinity to other believers."