2016-07-27
Should America be deeply, deeply shocked that a pro-life, conservative Christian president-elect has picked Cabinet nominees who are pro-life, conservative Christians? That seems the bottom line in the imbroglio regarding the choice of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft to be U.S. attorney general.

No ones doubts that Ashcroft is well to the right of most Americans politically. He favors banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest (he would allow it only to save the life of the woman), whereas polls show that only a minority, even of pro-lifers, takes this position. Ashcroft also backs school vouchers, decidedly rejected in this year's referenda in California and elsewhere. And he favors government "charitable choice" funding, not just for religiously affiliated social-service organizations but also for ones that openly discriminate against those who don't belong to their faith. He demanded Bill Clinton's resignation when polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans wanted Clinton to stay on.

In faith terms, Ashcroft is also well to the right of the mainstream: He is a member of the Assemblies of God church, a conservative Pentecostal denomination.

But although many Democrats and some Republicans may be uncomfortable about where Ashcroft falls on the political and religious continuum, why should it be a surprise that George W. Bush, a strong Christian with strong pro-life views, would pick someone with similar philosophies? Knowing what Bush believed, 49% of Americans voted for him. Now, it is only natural that Bush should offer appointments to at least a few others who share his beliefs. No one, after all, was shocked, shocked, when Bill Clinton, a pro-choice centrist, chose as his attorney general Janet Reno, a pro-choice centrist.

If we can set aside the theatrics of opponents claiming to be shocked by the choice of Ashcroft, then the issue becomes: Should he be confirmed?

First is the question of whether Ashcroft would enforce laws he disagrees with. Ashcroft has repeatedly said he would, though of course no nominee seeking confirmation would ever say anything else. In testimony Tuesday, Ashcroft added the intensifier that he would enforce the law "so help me God." In testimony Wednesday, he promised to give "priority" to enforcing a federal law that prohibits protestors from blocking access to abortion clinics, though in the past he has said that protestors ought to block clinics. Ashcroft sees no conflict: He holds that as a senator, his job was to argue about what law ought to be, and as an attorney general his job would be to enforce the law as written. He also says that as state attorney general of Missouri, he enforced laws he didn't agree with. Senators will simply have to decide whether to believe Ashcroft's promise here. Often government officials, liberal or conservative, are faced with a duty to do that which they do not believe in. By tradition, they either do it or resign, the way Republican attorney general Elliott Richardson resigned when Richard Nixon made what Richardson felt was an unethical demand that the Watergate special prosecutor be fired.

Next is the question of whether Ashcroft would try to use the Justice Department to pressure the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, or would use the attorney general's powers in other ways to skirt Roe privileges. In Wednesday's hearings, Ashcroft said that Roe was "settled law" and that as a legal official he would accept it. He further said he would not file test cases to give the court a chance to change its position on Roe, the way such test cases were created under presidents Reagan and Bush (an important one, the Webster case, involved Missouri when Ashcroft was attorney general there).

Considering that the court, even with a 7-2 Republican majority, passed on every test-case chance to upend Roe, and considering that the court as recently as last year strongly upheld Roe in a case involving a Nebraska late-term abortion stricture, Ashcroft says it would only antagonize the Supreme Court if he asked it for a ruling it appears to have no intention of making. This is a sound reading of the court and a sensible view for an attorney general to adopt. Again, senators will simply have to decide whether they believe that Ashcroft means what he says.

On faith issues, some have suggested that since Pentecostalism is a proselytizing denomination, Ashcroft would use the attorney general's post to try to impose his beliefs on others in some fashion. Ashcroft said earlier in the week that "it is against my religion to impose my religion," and that's a true reading of Christianity. One Ashcroft opinion many opponents cite is his backing of a proposed law that would allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in courtrooms. That may be a good or bad idea but wouldn't specifically promote Christianity, since the Ten Commandments are equally sacred to Judaism.

What of Ashcroft's appearance at Bob Jones University, where he called America "a Christian nation" and said of Americans that "we have no king but Jesus"? On Wednesday, Ashcroft told the Senate that the "no king but Jesus" statement was an historical reference: In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, when British tax collectors demanded money to show fealty to the crown, many colonists would declare in refusal that "in this land we have no king but Jesus."

On the other statement, it's simply factual that America is "a Christian nation" by majority numbers; politicians should not be bludgeoned for saying this obvious thing. Many, if not most, of the Framers assumed that what they were founding was "a Christian nation," though they also took pains to secure the freedom of religion that has since allowed many millions of Americans to be something other than Christian, or nothing at all. (Some scholars believe the Establishment Clause of the Constitution--"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion"--was worded in that way partly to protect Christianity, so that Congress would not be able to order Massachusetts to stop recognizing Congregationalism as its official religion.) Ashcroft noted at Wednesday's hearing, echoing the 18th-century theory of "natural law" popular with the Framers, that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence holds fundamental truths to be "self-evident"--derived from God rather than from human institutions. This is accurate theology.

In many ways, the ultimate question of the Ashcroft nomination seems to be whether someone who holds passionate, beyond-the-mainstream religious views should be allowed to take high public office in a nation based on separation of church and state. It's a reasonable question, but consider: If you conclude that Ashcroft shouldn't be attorney general because he belongs to an extreme religious denomination with aggressive views, then you must think Joseph Lieberman shouldn't be in the Senate and shouldn't have run for vice president.

Lieberman's Orthodox Judaism, after all, is an extreme denomination looked on askance even by most Jews, and it is an aggressive faith that damns others unlike itself. And how about Mormons--should they be allowed to hold high office? Maybe they'll try to impose polygamy. And how about Muslims--should they hold high office? Maybe they'd be secretly loyal to the Saudis (if Sunni) or Iran (if Shia). And so on, and so on.

John Ashcroft may not be your cup of tea. He's not mine. But to suggest that being a pro-life Pentecostalist disqualifies you from running the Justice Department seems just as narrow-minded as anything Ashcroft has been accused of. Bush won, and he's going to pick people who share his views. Those who don't like it should plan to turn out in 2004.

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