February 2001 Church & State | Editorial

Attorney General nominee John D. Ashcroft has some decidedly controversial views on the relationship between religion and government in America.

In a May 1999 speech at Bob Jones University, he outlined some of them. "Unique among the nations," said Ashcroft, "America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus."

Ashcroft traced his assertion about the kingship of Jesus to Americans of the Revolutionary War period. Those early Americans, he said, rebuffed the king's tax collectors by declaring their reliance on Jesus, not George III.

But Ashcroft's speech troubled many because he seemed to see a Christian theological basis for American government today. Later in his remarks, he contrasted our culture to others and observed, "When you have no king but Jesus, you release the eternal, you release the highest and best, you release virtue, you release potential....If America is to be great in the future, it will be if we understand that our source is not civic and temporal, but our source is godly and eternal."

Ashcroft is, of course, fully entitled to hold whatever religious opinions he chooses. Our Constitution guarantees him the free exercise of religion. But that same Constitution also forbids the establishment of any religion by the government.

America is not an officially Christian nation, and we are founded on freedom of conscience, not the Christian faith. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and adherents of all faiths are welcome here, along with those who have chosen no spiritual path at all.

It is no surprise that many Americans including members of the Senate felt that Ashcroft's view on the church-state issue and many others disqualified him for the role of the nation's chief law enforcement officer. The nominee's resolute opposition to individual rights and his apparent indifference to religious and racial diversity raised warning flags in many quarters.

Just as troubling, however, is the fact that Ashcroft was apparently chosen by President-elect George W. Bush at the behest of Bush's cronies in the Religious Right. According to credible news reports, Bush had other men in mind for the post, but James Dobson and allied Religious Right leaders lobbied persistently for Ashcroft. At some point our new president unwisely caved in to this pressure campaign.

That surrender bodes ill for the new administration. Bush has said he wants to be "a uniter, not a divider." Yet he has chosen for a sensitive cabinet post a man whose views are incredibly divisive. And he seems to be listening to a segment of the religious community that is likely to steer him wrong in the future. Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and their ilk seem to have inordinate influence.

Similarly, when Bush gathered 30 clergy in Austin to discuss church-state partnerships to deal with social services, the gathering was heavily stacked with Bush supporters and those who favor government aid to religion.

Bush is already predisposed to ignore the separation of church and state. He strongly favors "charitable choice" aid to church-run social services, and he plans to open an Office of Faith-Based Action to advance that agenda. He enthusiastically supports voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools and intends to introduce a federal program. Indeed, on a whole range of issues from posting the Ten Commandments to teaching creationism in science classes Bush takes the anti-separationist approach.

The president needs to hear from the other side. As these issues arise in the coming months, Americans United and our allies will make sure that he does. Measures introduced in Congress will have to be carefully analyzed. If they contain constitutional flaws, they must be vigorously opposed. If enacted, they must be challenged in court.

The vast majority of Americans favor a healthy separation between church and state. Most religious leaders certainly appreciate the First Amendment and the freedoms it has guaranteed.

A recent Public Agenda opinion poll suggests that people are quite wary of coercive prayer or other religious practices in public schools, and they don't want tax money spent to pay for religious activity. The recent referenda in California and Michigan demonstrate clearly that vouchers are unpopular with all segments of our diverse society.

President Bush was elected as a "compassionate conservative," not as a Religious Right standard bearer. If he forges ahead with his church-state agenda, he will meet determined opposition.