"Don't wear the spirit of Washington, which is arrogance," the elder Ashcroft warned his son. "Nothing of lasting value has ever been accomplished in arrogance. Put on the spirit of humility."
Perhaps to underscore the impact of that holy moment, Ashcroft's father died the next day. For most of his life, J. Robert Ashcroft had been a minister in the Assemblies of God--the leading denomination of white Pentecostalism--and he had served as a pastor and as president of three of the Assembly of God's Pentecostal colleges. But his crowning achievement had been to raise this favored son, the first Pentecostal in history to be elected to the U.S. Senate and, perhaps, the next attorney general of the United States.
Pentecostalism is a Christian religious movement emphasizing the "gifts of the Holy Spirit"--such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy--traditionally thought to have been bestowed on Jesus's followers on the day of Pentecost. Ashcroft grew up in Springfield, Missouri, a bastion of conservative Pentecostal culture and the headquarters for the Assemblies of God. As a boy, he attended Central Assembly, home church to most of the denomination's top officials, and there developed his Bible-belt morality and his love for Southern gospel music (he still performs in a gospel quartet). He does not smoke or drink, and once, on a political visit to Asia, he appointed some of his staffers as "designated drinkers" so he could abstain without offending dignitaries.
How will his personal spirituality affect his role as attorney general? For one thing, he disagrees with those who say we shouldn't legislate morality. "I think all we should legislate is morality," he says. "We shouldn't legislate immorality."
The father of three grown children, Ashcroft is staunchly pro-life and has opposed condom giveaway programs. Three years ago, he took a sonogram image of his unborn grandchild to a Senate hearing to underscore his opposition to abortion. He has fought needle-exchange programs and has been a pioneer in calling for channeling government money to "faith-based" charities. He has broken ranks with Republicans by fighting the tobacco lobby.
He has also stated publicly that he has been faithful to his wife of 34 years, Janet, and he told Charisma magazine that he thinks marital fidelity should be an important factor in choosing a leader. "This is not to say that people who have made a mistake or who have been exposed for having made a mistake should forever be banned," he said. "But I don't think individuals who have, as an active lifestyle, infidelity and the absence of integrity--I don't think that's a good leadership role model." He has in the past asked prospective judicial appointees whether they'd been faithful to their wives, according to The New York Times.
However, he is careful to say that while we can legislate morality, "what we can't legislate is spirituality. And not only can't we, but we shouldn't." As a senator, Ashcroft has not made his daily staff devotions mandatory. For those who fear he may force his Pentecostal Christianity on the rest of the country, he has issued a promise: "It's against my religion to impose my religion on others."
Most of Ashcroft's political career has read like a biblical narrative, full of tests, trials, and divine intervention. He says God has turned each humiliating defeat into a victory. He lost his first two statewide elections but ended up being appointed as Missouri's state auditor. He was bitterly opposed during his campaign for state attorney general (and went to bed on election night assuming he had lost) but won by a narrow margin. Never a quitter, he likes to quote a bumper sticker that was given to him by Assemblies of God pastor Fulton Buntain. It reads: "It's Never Too Late to Start Over Again."
Ashcroft's most unusual test of faith occurred in November 2000, when he was defeated in his bid for re-election to the Senate. In a fluke sympathy vote, Missourians chose Democrat Mel Carnahan to represent them in Washington, even after the governor was killed in a plane crash on October 16. Carnahan's widow agreed to serve in her husband's place, and Ashcroft gracefully accepted defeat. While George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore were fighting over election results in Florida, Ashcroft refused to contest his loss to a dead man, even though some of his supporters urged him to take legal action. "I'm a servant in this enterprise," Ashcroft told Charisma last month. "For me to try and grab the reins from the people I serve, and say, 'Your will will be set aside because I have legal rights,' would have been inappropriate and wrong."
So in his characteristic humility, Ashcroft bowed out of the race--and then he got a call from George W. Bush a few weeks later. Defeat once again was replaced by a stunning victory. This time, it led to a White House appointment. Ashcroft sees the hand of God in all of it.
"My theory about elections is mirrored in what I hold about all of life," he told Charisma in 1999--just after he decided not to seek the Republican nomination for president. "For every crucifixion, a resurrection is ready to follow--perhaps not immediately, but the possibility is there."
There is still the chance that Ashcroft's appointment to the Bush Cabinet will be derailed. Vocal opponents to his nomination accuse him of racism, and they vehemently object to his anti-abortion views. But his pastor in Washington, D.C., Mark Batterson of National Community Church, told Charisma last month that the charges of racism are ridiculous.
"People are trying to take a quote out of context or take one situation because they don't agree with his viewpoints," Batterson said, "but I think he's a person of integrity. You can't go wrong with a person of integrity in that kind of position."
The pastor noted that Ashcroft helped organize the five-year-old AG congregation, which meets in a movie theater near Union Station, only blocks from the Capitol. The 400-member church is composed mostly of singles under age 35--including many African Americans and Asians. On a Sunday morning, it is not uncommon to see members gathered at the altar near the end of a worship service, seeking a touch from the Holy Spirit.
And for Ashcroft, his touches with the Holy Spirit have left him feeling optimistic. Once, in 1997, while walking through a field on his 155-acre farm in Missouri and praying about the spiritual condition of the United States, Ashcroft says he saw some eagles flying across the dawn sky. The senator was discouraged about the national impact of President Clinton's moral problems, but the sighting of the eagles conjured an almost prophetic message. He was inspired to write a song about America's brighter future.
"Let the eagle soar,
Like she's never soared before.
From rocky coast to golden shore,
Let the mighty eagle soar.
Soar with healing in her wings,
As the land beneath her sings:
'Only god, no other kings.'
This country's far too young to die.
We've still got a lot of climbing to do,
And we can make it if we try.
Built by toils and struggles
God has led us through."
Ashcroft's opponents may have a strong lobbying apparatus. But, in Ashcroft's view, he has a lot more on his side.