Often and vehemently, Christians in public life bemoan the lack of respect--if not the outright scorn and persecution--they endure. The recent backlash against John Ashcroft, confirmed Thursday as President Bush's attorney general, is the latest embodiment of this phenomenon. We've heard the lamentation from the faithful, who seem convinced that they and their religion are being oppressed.

The Wall Street Journal's William McGurn, writes, sarcastically, "Any government effort that does not view organized religion, especially Christianity, as a Threat to Our American Way of Life risks breaching the hallowed Wall Of Separation that puts us, of course, on the verge of becoming Another Iran." Says Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, "John Ashcroft is guilty of one thing. He is guilty of having an inseparable love of the Lord." One would think crosses and thorn crowns were being stockpiled on the Mall.

Let's put aside for a moment the utter disrespect McGurn and Inhofe show for those who disagree with them and address the real issue: How does one respect a religion one doesn't accept? How would a well-intentioned secular humanist or Wiccan respectfully respond to a Bible-based argument against abortion or no-fault divorce laws?

On the one hand, dismissing Christian views is considered disrespectful, but the opposite--engagement and critique--are considered equally oppressive. The Washington Times editorialized: "[Ashcroft] has been caricatured by Senate Democrats, special interest groups and the media elite as one blinded by his faith to law and reason." McGurn agrees, "Reminds me...of all the people who find Ashcroft unbalanced because he believes in Revelation but subscribe to the [New York] Times because it is Authoritative."

McGurn may have been speaking facetiously, but the point lies between "believe" and "subscribe." I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times, but I don't live by them, or proselytize others to do the same.

When, in a 1995 book, Christopher Hitchens alleged that Mother Teresa was hypocritical and misused power and money, it endeared him to few of the faithful. But consider: He took her stated beliefs seriously enough to write about her translation of them into activism. To this day, Hitchens is roundly condemned--indeed, assumed to be getting W-2s from Beelzebub--but debated? Proved wrong?

Surely, Americans must be allowed, as rational human beings, to point out inconsistencies in the beliefs for which Christians demand respect. Otherwise, "respect" really means "sacrosanct," "unquestionable."

Hence, the emergence of "religious correctness": The implicit assumption, first, that religious dogma outranks the preferences of nonbelievers. Respect Revelation; sneer at The New York Times and the secularity it represents. Second, that religious beliefs, however directly inserted into public policy, are undebatable. "Gospel," so to speak. But no one is accorded this level of certainty in our system. Ashcroft must be equally ready to persuade as the rest of us.

Nonetheless, Senator Robert C. Smith (R-NH) deems Ashcroft a victim of "religious profiling." "There's a long line of people who on the basis of their position on life couldn't be attorney general," he notes. "We could start with Jesus Christ himself." Janet Parshall, of the Family Research Council, argues that, "To suggest that strong personal faith disqualifies someone from public office...represents a type of genteel bigotry."

Leave aside the notion that bigotry is ever genteel: Why is opposing a conservative evangelical seeking public office opposing his religion? Evangelicals are turning public scrutiny of beliefs--politicized by no one but themselves--into persecution. Rejecting Jesus Christ as our personal Attorney General makes Grand Inquisitors of us all.

It's often said that the nonreligious and liberals "can't understand" evangelicals. Odd, this argument, coming from a group that so often trivializes its own beliefs. So much energy is expended on ostentatious prayer at high school events, or in splashing the Ten Commandments across public spaces. One need only linger near the office fridge to be regaled with pious stories of how Jesus helped a co-worker get a good deal on a used car, or concerned Himself with the outcomes of sporting events. It is difficult not to hold such silliness against mature believers.

Ashcroft, meanwhile, trivializes his attachment to his beliefs by promising to countenance laws that directly contravene them. We often hear arguments about personal responsibility and deferred gratification from the Christian right. Must Ashcroft not accept that one must sometimes sacrifice for one's beliefs, including high public office, if that office would put one in mortal peril (never mind go against established policy)? Neither the Mahatma nor Martin Luther King had a government job, perhaps because each knew it would be impossible to serve both their religion and their worldly ambition.

American history is replete with examples of religion successfully injected into the public realm--abolitionism, the civil rights movement. Whatever the springboard of one's beliefs, by all means, let's hear them. But don't expect reverence, because, as we used to say when I was growing up a Southern Baptist fundamentalist expected to accept an assertion at face value, "Your lips don't flap like Bible leaves."

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