William Bennett is one of those figures who helps form the conscience of America. In his public service as drug czar and as secretary of education in the Reagan administration, he achieved a level of respect that transcended partisan politics. He wrote a best-selling book on how to recover values in what he perceived to be an emerging valueless nation. Recently, he was interviewed about the nomination of former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft to be attorney general in the new Bush administration.

It was a vintage Bennett performance. He was soft-spoken, reasonable, and appealing, or at least to those people who do not find this nomination a fearful prospect. Since the vast majority of our citizens never really see the effect of political decisions upon their lives, except in cataclysmic times of war and depression, his words were probably helpful to the inevitable confirmation of Ashcroft.

But it was clear to me as I listened why it is that people such as Bill Bennett, who look at all public questions from the vantage point of power and privilege, simply do not understand what is involved in this nomination or the deep wells of fear that spring from those who oppose it.

A white person who has never felt racial discrimination can hardly perceive reality from a black perspective. A male whose ability to make his own decisions and who takes his right to vote for granted can hardly understand life from the perspective of a female who has had to fight to achieve both of these symbols. A heterosexual person for whom the law has always been a source of protection can hardly comprehend how life looks to a homosexual person for whom the law has aided in his or her oppression.

I am sure William Bennett would protest this judgment, but his words betrayed his majority bias. He had the audacity to suggest that Democrats, who more often than not represent the majority of women, minorities, and homosexuals, should be willing to set aside those differences and support Ashcroft on the basis of his character and his intrinsic goodness. He indicated, quite accurately I believe, that no one has suggested that Senator Ashcroft was not a decent man possessing a good heart, as President Bush has so often said. As evidence that the vote should therefore be a matter of fairness, Bennett pointed out that in 1992 pro-life Republican senators had been willing to set aside their personal convictions in order to vote by a 98-0 margin for the confirmation of Janet Reno, a strong pro-choice person nominated for this same office. Now, he argued, Democrats in the name of fair play ought to do the same.

It was a clever ploy but an utterly false and deceiving argument.

John Ashcroft is clearly a man of courage and character, and his pro-life stance, based in large measure on his very conservative religious upbringing as the son of a Pentecostal minister, reflects his religious values. This nation should always be prepared to honor that, and no one should ever be put into a position in which his private values are publicly denigrated or deepest convictions compromised.

But that is not the situation that the Ashcroft nomination poses. The Republican senators in 1992 could vote for Janet Reno because there was never a concern that she might impose her beliefs on anyone. No one feared that any citizen of this land would be forced to have an abortion if that was against that person's principles. The law respects the right of every woman to make that choice for herself according to her values.

Therefore, the issue in the Reno and Ashcroft hearings is not fairness, as Bennett suggested. It is, rather, fear that someone who holds deeply religious convictions on such a volatile issue as abortion will use the power of the attorney general's office to impose that position on the rest of the nation.

Is that fear realistic? John Ashcroft in 1999, speaking at Bob Jones University, argued that the reason this nation shunned a king at its beginning was that we were a Christian nation and, as such, Jesus was our king. He seems to have forgotten such people as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and even George Washington--all of whom were more deists than traditional Christians. If the attorney general believes he is ultimately serving Jesus as the king of a Christian nation, and if he is convinced that abortion is murder, or that homosexuality is sinful, are the laws of our secular state safe?

No one can look at Western Christian history and pronounce those fears unwarranted. Christianity has given us rampant anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, and a consistent campaign against equality for women and justice for homosexual persons. The pro-life movement in this country has used grossly inflammatory rhetoric in its campaign to end abortion. Pro-life-related people have murdered those they call "abortion doctors." They have bombed family counseling centers where abortion is either approved or carried out. They have harassed women seeking abortions. Political leaders in high places have called not only for the overturning of Roe v. Wade but also for the criminalization of abortion. That is not a live-and-let-live attitude, or a debate in which reciprocity is extended. In light of this history, it is hard to take seriously Bennett's call to fairness.

If Ashcroft is to function as attorney general, he must be able to uphold the law of the land, which at this moment would violate his stated values. If he does not uphold the law, he would violate his oath as attorney general. It is because I trust his integrity about what he says he believes that I doubt his ability to set his convictions aside. I would support him as secretary of the Department of Defense, Treasury, Commerce, Interior, or Transportation, where his integrity would not be compromised and his competence would be recognized.

Ashcroft's record on civil rights and his sensitivity to minority struggles has also been questioned. The record is murky. Racism is hard to define, but black people know it, fear it and recognize it long before the conservative, powerful, straight, white males of the land ever will. Black organizations have been all but universal in their opposition to this nomination. What price will this nation pay if our minority population comes to believe the law will not be impartial in dealing with race? Will the Ashcroft confirmation be worth that price?

Senator Ashcroft has also expressed an attitude toward homosexuals that causes that segment of our population to think him untrustworthy. He appears to carry within his "good heart" a definition of homosexuality suggesting it is a sickness needing to be cured, a moral depravity needing to be confronted, or at the very least an abnormality needing to be contained. Can the chief legal officer of this nation fulfill the duties of that office if his definition of homosexuality reveals his uninformed prejudices?

No, Mr. Bennett, the vote on this nomination cannot be a matter of fairness. It is a matter of fear, born in a history of religious imperialism. It is a direct and appropriate response to the conservative religious mind-set of the Western world that Ashcroft represents, which has sought to impose its principles on the unconverted. That is why pro-life senators could vote for pro-choice Janet Reno without qualms, and that is why pro-choice senators could not vote for pro-life John Ashcroft.

Bill Bennett should not try to smoke-screen the airways with such ill-thought-out rhetoric, nor use his soothing voice extolling political fair play to seduce a poorly informed public into surrendering their constitutional rights. Ashcroft's opponents are not left-wing radicals or extremists, as some senators sought to portray them. They are the voices of those fearful that they are not powerful enough to be heard by the chief law enforcer of the nation.

He will obviously be confirmed. The straight, white, male power base of the U.S. Senate will be strong enough to provide the votes for one of their own. But the ultimate health of this nation will not be well served. Indeed, the Ashcroft nomination will be the first skirmish of campaign 2004. Let the campaign begin.

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