February 2001 Church & State | Featured

As far as former U.S. senator John D. Ashcroft is concerned, the highest political and legal authority in the country isn't the president, the Supreme Court or even Congress it's Jesus Christ.

"Unique among nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal," he said on May 8, 1999, during a speech at Bob Jones University (BJU) in Greenville, S.C. "And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus."

Ashcroft recalled the New Testament story of Jesus' confrontation with the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. He noted that when Pilate offered to release a prisoner to the crowd, they chose a thief named Barabbas over Jesus, rejecting Christ as their leader and crying out, "We have no king but Caesar!"

Asserted Ashcroft, "There's a difference between a culture that has no king but Caesar, no standard but the civil authority, and a culture that has no king but Jesus, no standard but the eternal authority. When you have no king but Caesar, you release Barabbas criminality, destruction, thievery, the lowest and the least. When you have no king but Jesus, you release the eternal, you release the highest and the best, you release virtue, you release potential."

Ashcroft's comments at BJU a controversial, ultra-fundamentalist university known for its racial and religious intolerance provide valuable insight into the thinking of the man chosen by President George W. Bush to be the nation's attorney general. Critics say it also renders him unfit for the office.

"Clearly, John Ashcroft's speech shows that he has little or no appreciation for the constitutional separation of church and state," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "For a nominee for U.S. attorney general to state that we have 'no king but Jesus,' is completely unacceptable. In the United States, it is the Constitution that serves as the basis for our laws and national life, not one faith tradition.

Continued Lynn, "This speech demonstrates that John Ashcroft is completely unqualified to serve as attorney general. Ashcroft obviously believes the United States is a Christian nation. He is woefully misinformed. Our Constitution guarantees unqualified religious liberties for each of us, regardless of our beliefs."

Ashcroft's critics at Americans United cited the BJU transcript as further proof of the nominee's extreme views, but it was by no means an isolated example. In 1998, while addressing a Washington, D.C., gathering of TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, Ashcroft blasted the Supreme Court for its rulings upholding a wall of separation between church and state.

Thundered Ashcroft, "A robed elite have taken the wall of separation designed to protect the church and they have made it a wall of religious oppression. They may try to take prayer from our schools, but they can never steal God from our hearts. I believe that we must continue across this land to fight for our God-given constitutional right to acknowledge and affirm our Creator."

The crowd reacted with enthusiastic applause.

Because of the nature of Ashcroft's views, a number of national organizations, including Americans United, swung into action to oppose his nomination shortly after it was announced Dec. 22. The day Bush tapped Ashcroft, Americans United issued a press statement outlining its opposition to the former Missouri senator.

Americans United is one among many organizations concerned about Ashcroft's elevation. Women's rights groups are worried about his extreme anti-abortion views. (He opposes virtually all abortions and once sponsored a constitutional amendment so sweeping it would have outlawed not only abortion, but also some forms of birth control.) In addition, gay rights groups believe that Ashcroft's close ties to the Religious Right and extreme views will make it difficult for him to enforce laws protecting gay Americans.

Civil rights organizations are also concerned, pointing out that Ashcroft once gave a favorable interview to Southern Partisan, a neo-Confederate magazine that celebrates the segregated South of the pre-Civil War era. The Missouri senator also killed a federal court nomination for Ronnie White, a prominent African-American judge.

These hot-button issues have been the focus of most of the media reporting about Ashcroft. His church-state views have attracted far less notice. If Ashcroft is confirmed as attorney general, what can the country expect as far as church-state relations are concerned? Observers at Americans United say most likely, the nation will see the highest law enforcement official in the land promoting the Religious Right's policies at every turn.

Ashcroft parrots the Religious Right's view of church-state relations right down the line. He advocates religious school vouchers and official prayer in public schools and sees no problem with government endorsement, support and funding of sectarian enterprises. In the Senate, he repeatedly sought to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

But the church-state issue that Ashcroft was most closely connected with in the Senate was "charitable choice." The concept first appeared in 1996, when it was inserted into a welfare reform bill signed by President Bill Clinton. In the wake of that victory, Ashcroft and his congressional supporters vowed to include tax funding for religion in every social service bill and even extend it to education.

Critics say Ashcroft's plan opens up a whole host of problems. For example, under his approach, religious groups are permitted to take tax money and discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff for their programs. Many observers believe that religious groups will be permitted to pressure needy people to take part in worship before receiving help. Ashcroft's "charitable choice" scheme deliberately wipes legal safeguards off the books.

Americans United and other First Amendment defenders are also concerned about Ashcroft's pattern of attacking the federal courts and distorting their rulings. AU's Lynn said he was troubled by Ashcroft's assault on the Supreme Court's school prayer rulings during the 1998 Christian Coalition meeting, asserting that it indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the high court said.

"Ashcroft's statements reflect a gross misreading of the Supreme Court's school prayer decisions and indicates contempt for the church-state jurisprudence of the nation's highest court," said Lynn. "None of the decisions in any way constitutes 'oppression' of religion. On the contrary, the rulings preserve the independence and integrity of religious institutions and guarantee the right of individual freedom of conscience."

Lynn said Ashcroft's attack on the Supreme Court raises serious questions about his fitness to hold the office of attorney general. In that position, he would be expected to uphold the religious neutrality of the public schools and protect the rights of religious minorities. His comments to the Christian Coalition strongly suggest an unwillingness to perform this essential role.

In the Senate, where Ashcroft chaired the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, he led the Religious Right's charge throughout 1997 and '98 to brand federal judges as "judicial activists." In a March 1997 speech delivered before the Conservative Political Action Committee, Ashcroft asserted, "People's lives and fortunes [have] been relinquished to renegade judges, a robed, contemptuous intellectual elite. Judicial despotism... stands like a behemoth over this great land."

Ashcroft seems to relish his role as a far-right conservative. While many politicians at least give lip service to political moderation, Ashcroft had little good to say about that concept in his 1998 book Lessons from a Father to His Son.

"The labels 'moderate' and 'conservative' are sometimes abused in today's society," Ashcroft wrote. "By some jaundiced standards, moderation is good under virtually any circumstance. And extreme means 'undesirable,' no matter what values are at stake. In reality, there are some things we must be strongly, even passionately, committed to."

For example, Ashcroft said he doesn't apologize for being "unyielding" when it comes to "protecting the lives of unborn children."

Concerns have also been raised that as attorney general, Ashcroft would use the post to further his ultra-conservative religious views. Ashcroft denies this and has told many interviewers, "It's against my religion to impose religion on people." That statement also appears in Lessons from a Father to His Son.

His critics argue, however, that another passage from that same book seems to say the opposite. On page 135 Ashcroft writes, "Many people paralyze themselves trying to figure out the will of God, but Dad taught me that where's God's will is clearly laid out in Scripture, we do not have to figure it out; we just have to do it. And in less clear-cut situations, God expects us to use mature reason and judgment, guided by values expressed in His Book and by His Son."

Further evidence that Ashcroft would use the office of the attorney general to promote the Religious Right's theological and political views appears in a 1999 interview he granted to the Pentecostal magazine Charisma. "It's said that we shouldn't legislate morality," Ashcroft opined. "Well, I disagree. I think all we should legislate is morality. We shouldn't legislate immorality."

Views like this have helped Ashcroft secure a position as the Religious Right's favorite politician. He has close ties to TV preachers Robertson, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy as well as radio counselor James Dobson of Focus on the Family. These Religious Right leaders find Ashcroft's ultra-conservative Christian worldview and his far-right political outlook appealing.

Ashcroft is a member of the Assemblies of God denomination, which believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and practices speaking in tongues, faith healing and words of prophecy from God. The denomination, headquartered in Springfield, Mo., has about 2.5 million adherents in the United States.

(Church members also believe in anointing with oil. In Lessons from a Father to His Son, Ashcroft recounts how family and friends anointed him with oil before he was sworn in as a senator in 1995 using a bowl of Crisco cooking oil.)

Several Religious Right leaders urged Ashcroft to seek the presidency in 2000. As Ashcroft mulled over a run throughout 1997 and '98, Robertson emerged as his most enthusiastic supporter. The Virginia Beach televangelist donated $10,000 the legal limit to Ashcroft's Spirit of America political action committee. (It was only after Ashcroft decided to skip the race that Robertson transferred his allegiance to Bush.)

In June of 1998, five prominent Religious Right leaders signed a joint letter urging Religious Right activists to support Ashcroft's presidential bid. The signers were Robertson attorney Jay Sekulow, home schooling advocate Michael Farris, censorship proponent Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, longtime Religious Right activist Paul Weyrich and Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist pastor and coauthor of a series of best-selling pot-boiler novels about his view of the biblical "end times."

Even after he decided to skip the race, Ashcroft remained active in the 2000 presidential campaign. During the primaries, Ashcroft worked to shore up support for Bush among the Religious Right, most notably in South Carolina after U.S. Sen. John McCain began eating into Bush's base of support. But Ashcroft was soon forced to focus on his own Senate race in the face of a tough challenge from Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan. Carnahan died in a plane crash during the campaign but still defeated Ashcroft. (Carnahan's widow, Jean, was later appointed to the seat.)

While fighting to keep his seat in 2000, Ashcroft received broader financial support from the Religious Right than any other Senate candidate. Gary Bauer's Campaign For Working Families gave Ashcroft $2,500. Farris' Madison Project Fund, school prayer booster William Murray's "Government Is Not God" political action committee and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum also contributed financial support

Religious Right groups worked in other ways to promote Ashcroft. The Christian Coalition trumpeted the fact that the candidate had received a 100 percent approval rating from the Coalition every year he was in office. In 1996 he was named "Christian Statesman of the Year" by TV preacher Kennedy. Said Kennedy, "[Ashcroft] makes his Christian commitment to Christ and the guidance of the Word of God determinative in the kind of legislation that he will promote."

At a banquet accepting the award, Ashcroft lauded Kennedy, one of the most extreme of the television evangelists, for establishing a Center for Christian Statesmanship in the nation's capital.

Religious Right groups were disappointed with Ashcroft's narrow defeat on election night, but they quickly regrouped. When the post-election chaos was resolved by the Supreme Court's refusal to allow any more recounts in Florida which effectively handed the White House to Bush Religious Right leaders began lobbying the president-elect to name Ashcroft to the attorney general's slot.

They even helped scuttle Bush's preferred candidate for the job: Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. Racicot emerged as a favorite, only to abruptly withdraw his name from consideration on Dec. 20.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that Racicot was nixed by an aggressive campaign against him conceived and put into action by Religious Right organizations. Although Racicot has solidly conservative credentials, these groups accused him of being soft on the issues of abortion and school vouchers. But perhaps what infuriated the Religious Right most was that Racicot had proposed amending Montana's hate-crimes law to cover sexual orientation.

The Times reported that many Religious Right leaders began lobbying Bush just days after the November election. Key among them was Dobson, whose Colorado Springs-based empire is regarded as a Religious Right powerhouse. Dobson told Bush, "If I were president-elect, John Ashcroft would be one of the people that I would be trying to find a spot for."

Once Ashcroft was nominated and it became apparent that his appointment would face stiff opposition, the Religious Right unleashed its grassroots troops. "I pray that John Ashcroft is confirmed to lead the U.S. Justice Department....," wrote Jerry Falwell in a Jan. 4 fax alert to supporters. (Falwell noted that Ashcroft has spoken at his Lynchburg church, Thomas Road Baptist.)

Robertson, addressing viewers of his "700 Club" Jan. 2, urged his TV audience to telephone members of Congress and demand that Ashcroft be confirmed. FOF's Dobson also joined the fray. On Jan. 10, the group's Citizen Issues Alert fax bulletin noted that "a who's who of left-wing advocacy groups" had targeted Ashcroft for defeat and accused the coalition of unleashing an "arsenal of distortions" against the nominee.

Dobson and company are well aware of how much is at stake. In a special e-mail bulletin to supporters, FOF staffers noted that as attorney general, Ashcroft "could play a key role in the selection of nominees to fill judicial vacancies, including any on the U.S. Supreme Court. He would also be responsible for choosing what Supreme Court cases such as a possible challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act the administration would weigh in on, and what position it would take."

Robertson also believes Ashcroft will play an important role in urging Bush to nominate federal judges favorable to Religious Right positions. Urging Ashcroft's confirmation on the Jan. 2 "700 Club," he asserted, "We have laws that say it is in the Constitution that you can kill babies. It's not in the Constitution. We have a law that says you can't pray in school, you can't post God's commandments. And that's not in our Constitution either. Those things will get rectified in the next four years."

Continued Robertson, "We're going to see some dramatic shifting in the court system. Last count I had, there were about 180 vacancies in various federal courts. And if Mr. Bush fills them rapidly with conservative judges, there'll be...a light shift in America. So, I think...frankly, I'm optimistic."

Ashcroft's allies formed a coalition of 110 right-wing groups to press for his nomination. The Washington Post reported that the organizations were pulled together by the Free Congress Foundation, a group founded by far-right strategist Weyrich.

The pro-Ashcroft coalition included familiar organizations like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum and others. But more obscure groups from the farthest fringes of the political right also appear, including several groups with extremist connections.

Among them is the Council of Conservative Citizens, a transparently racist organization that grew out of the "White Citizens Councils" of the old, strictly segregated, South. Also included is Citizen Soldier, one of many far-right organizations that spreads fear about the United States losing its sovereignty to the United Nations. (Citizen Soldier is so extreme that its website blasts Sen. McCain as a "turncoat" and "a disgrace" for supporting campaign finance reform.)

Ashcroft's ties to far-right groups that are paranoid about the United Nations imposing "one-world government" have been virtually overlooked in the media. Yet this is a topic that is apparently of more than passing interest to him. He once appeared in a video produced by Phyllis Schlafly titled "Global Governance: The Quiet War Against American Independence," which is described as a "compelling program [that] documents the treaties and UN conferences that are undermining American independence and paving the way for global control."

During the 1998 Christian Coalition gathering, at a time when Ashcroft was still considering a run for the presidency, his staffers handed out material noting the senator's hostility toward "globalist institutions like the United Nations." The material asserted that the UN's Treaty on the Rights of the Child would make it a crime for parents to spank their children.

Given the current political situation in Washington and the 50-50 tie in the Senate, Ashcroft's opponents knew they faced an uphill battle to stop him. Complicating matters is the fact that traditionally, members of the Senate are quick to defer to one of their own.

However, groups opposed to Ashcroft fought on several fronts. On Jan. 9, a broad cross-section of organizations held a press conference in Washington to announce formal opposition to the nomination. This coalition, which included Americans United, featured dozens of national organizations representing issues such as First Amendment rights, reproductive freedom, gay issues, civil rights and women's rights.

In early January, leading Democratic senators began to express concerns about the Ashcroft nomination and said the nominee could expect tough questioning during confirmation hearings. Americans United worked to make sure that Ashcroft's views on church and state were closely scrutinized.

Concluded Americans United's Lynn, "It would be more than a tragedy to elevate such a man to the attorney general's office, it would be an insult to our founding principles."