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John Ashcroft:
The Religious Right's Hand-Picked Attorney General

President-elect George W. Bush's nomination of former U.S. Sen. John D. Ashcroft of Missouri as attorney general is deeply troubling to Americans who support the separation of church and state.

Ashcroft is a favorite of the Religious Right who has taken every opportunity to advance its agenda. Religious Right organizations are, in fact, responsible for Ashcroft's nomination and are now working to ensure that he is confirmed by the Senate.

This report by Americans United for Separation of Church and State details Ashcroft's long-standing ties to the Religious Right and his extreme views on issues relating to the separation of church and state.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn says the Ashcroft nomination bodes ill for the First Amendment. "The attorney general must uphold the rights of all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs," said Lynn. "This nomination may please television evangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, but it's a disaster for anyone who cares about maintaining constitutional principles."

Ashcroft's Views: Straight Out of the Religious Right Playbook

Most of the discussion about Ashcroft's political views in the media has focused on his strident opposition to legal abortion and his opinions on race. If Ashcroft is confirmed as attorney general, what can the country expect as far as church-state relations go? Most likely, Americans 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 narrow views on social issues right down the line. In the Senate, he repeatedly sought to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and proposed a ban on abortions so sweeping that even some forms of birth control would be criminalized. He has also opposed efforts to enact civil rights protections to gay people.

Ashcroft's Religious Right approach extends especially to core church-state separation issues. He advocates religious school vouchers and official prayer in public schools and sees no problem with government endorsement, support and funding of sectarian enterprises.

During his sole Senate term, Ashcroft was best known for pioneering "charitable choice," a plan to use tax funds to underwrite faith-based social services. The concept of allowing religious groups to administer government programs is not new. However, Ashcroft greatly expanded the idea by arguing that religious groups that take tax money should be free from all but minimal regulation.

Ashcroft viewed church-state separation as an impediment to his plans. From his perspective, religious social services work precisely because they are religious. Therefore, he argued, government should never require churches to secularize programs as a condition of receiving tax aid.

What's often overlooked is that Ashcroft's stance 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 services. Many observers believe that religious groups will be permitted to pressure or even require needy people to take part in worship before receiving help. In the past, government attempted to make certain that separation of church and state was respected in this area. Ashcroft's "charitable choice" scheme deliberately wipes those safeguards off the books.

Ashcroft's cavalier attitude toward the separation of church and state reflects the open hostility many Religious Right organizations hold toward that constitutional principle. In 1998, while addressing a gathering of Robertson's Christian Coalition, Ashcroft blasted the Supreme Court for upholding the concept of a wall of separation between church and state.

Charged 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."

Americans United's Lynn charges that this statement reflects 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. "None of the decisions in any way constitutes 'oppression' of religion," asserted Lynn. "On the contrary, the rulings preserve the independence and integrity of religious institutions and guarantee the right of individual freedom of conscience."

This attack on the Supreme Court raises serious questions about Ashcroft's fitness to hold the office of attorney general. In that office, 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.

Would Ashcroft use the office of the attorney general to promote the Religious Right's theological and political views? He seems to relish the idea. In 1999 he told the Pentecostal magazine Charisma, "It's said that we shouldn't legislate morality. Well, I disagree. I think all we should legislate is morality. We shouldn't legislate immorality."

Ashcroft: The Religious Right's Favorite Politician

Ashcroft has long been a favorite politician among Religious Right organizations. He has close ties to men like TV preachers Pat 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 fundamentalist Christian worldview and his far-right political outlook appealing.

As Ashcroft mulled a presidential run throughout 1997 and '98, Robertson was his most enthusiastic supporter among the Religious Right. Robertson made it clear early on that he would support Ashcroft if the Missouri senator decided to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2000 and 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 support for Ashcroft's presidential bid, saying, "America needs a dedicated man of faith, experienced in government, who has displayed the integrity expected of those who would seek the highest office in the land." The signers were Robertson attorney Jay Sekulow, home schooling advocate Michael Farris, censorship proponent Donald Wildmon, longtime Religious Right activist Paul Weyrich and Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist pastor and coauthor of a series of best-selling pot-boiler novels giving his view of the end of the world.

On Jan. 29, 1998, Ashcroft appeared on Robertson's "700 Club" TV program, where he discussed ongoing tensions between the United States and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Ironically, Ashcroft was critical of former President George Bush and Gen. Colin Powell during the interview. The segment may have been an attempt to give Ashcroft an opportunity to address foreign affairs and "talk tough" about a rogue world leader in an effort to portray the Missouri Senator as a serious presidential contender in contrast to George W. Bush, who had been criticized for being weak on foreign policy.

Ashcroft remained active in the 2000 presidential campaign even though he decided not to run. During the primaries, Ashcroft worked to shore up support for Bush among the Religious Right, most notably in South Carolina, where Bush faced a stiff challenge from Sen. John McCain. He spent most of his time, however, focusing 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. (His wife, Jean, was later appointed to the seat.)

While fighting to keep his Senate seat in 2000, Ashcroft received broader financial support from the Religious Right than any other Senate candidate. Former Family Research Council head 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

Ashcroft received a 100 percent approval rating from the Christian 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.

Ashcroft's nomination was greeted with glee by the Religious Right. Falwell opined, "I pray that John Ashcroft is confirmed to lead the U.S. Justice Department....After the reign of Janet Reno – who frequently turned a blind eye to the massive corruption surrounding her – Mr. Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general will certainly be an exhilarating change of pace." (Falwell noted that Ashcroft has spoken at his Lynchburg church.)

Robertson, addressing viewers of the "700 Club" on Jan. 2, urged his TV audience to telephone members of Congress and demand that Ashcroft be confirmed. Robertson's legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice, has also backed Ashcroft, issuing a statement calling him "an excellent choice" and saying his nomination "sends an important signal that the new administration is committed to legal excellence and the rule of law." The ACLJ then began circulating an "e-mail petition" to support Ashcroft. (Like his boss Robertson, the ACLJ's Sekulow was an early support of Ashcroft's abortive presidential campaign. In September of 1998, Sekulow signed an endorsement letter that was circulated at a national Christian Coalition meeting.)

The Religious Right's Behind-the-Scenes Role

In recent days it has come to light that the Religious Right played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Ashcroft nomination. Ashcroft was apparently not Bush's first choice for the attorney general's slot. Names floated after the election was settled included Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. Racicot emerged as a favorite, only to abruptly withdraw his name from consideration on Dec. 20, paving the way for Ashcroft's nomination. At the time, Racicot cited "family reasons" for declining the Washington job. Inside-the-Beltway observers believed there was more to the story.

What really happened? Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have 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 decided he was not conservative enough and accused of him of being soft on the issues of abortion and vouchers.

The Religious Right campaign against Racicot had two key components. First, the group enlisted a sympathetic professor of constitutional law at Princeton University, Robert P. George, to research Racicot's record and circulate that information to Religious Right activists. Second, leaders of top Religious Right groups called Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and personally lobbied for Ashcroft.

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."

Religious Right leaders also lobbied key Bush aides, among them Karl Rove, a top Bush strategist. Rove reportedly worked to counter the effort against Racicot by assuring Religious Right of the Montana governor's anti-abortion, pro-voucher views but was unable to persuade him to keep his name in the pool.

Ashcroft's Ties to the Far Right

Ashcroft's endorsement of the Confederacy and the neo-Confederate Southern Partisan magazine have been reported in the major media. Less well reported, however, are Ashcroft's ties to groups on the fringe of the political right. To date, more than 100 Religious Right and right-wing organizations have endorsed the Ashcroft nomination. While the list includes familiar Religious Right organizations such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, several groups with extremist connections are also listed.

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 paranoia about the United States losing its sovereignty to the United Nations. (Citizen Solider is so extreme that its website blasts U.S. Sen. John McCain as a "turncoat" and "a disgrace" for supporting campaign finance reform and calls for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to resign for agreeing to share power with Democrats in that chamber. It also attacks Islam, deploring "the growing swarm of Muslims in America....")

Other endorsing groups include Concerned Citizens Opposed To Police States, a rabid anti-gun control outfit that attacks police who support gun control laws and Americans United for the Unity of Church and State, a group run by California minister Wiley Drake, who audaciously brags about how he prays for God to smite those who oppose him on political issues.

Ashcroft has ties to far-right groups that are paranoid about the United Nations imposing "one-world government." 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." Promotional material for the video notes that, "Senator Jesse Helms, U.S. Representative Helen Chenoweth, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Senator John Ashcroft join a long list of experts who form a disturbing picture of the 'global governance' movement."

Ashcroft has not been reluctant to exploit this paranoia for political gain. 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 spanking a crime.


The nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general may please the Religious Right, but it is an insult to just about everyone else. Ashcroft's views are extreme and far outside the mainstream. He shows open disdain for the separation of church and state, a core principle that has given this nation more religious freedom than any other in world history. He is the chief architect of a concept – which he calls "charitable choice" – that would knock gaping holes in the wall of separation between church and state by turning large portions of the federal treasury over to religious groups to use as they please.

Ashcroft's political advisers are not mainstream thinkers or even standard-issue conservatives. They are television evangelists and Religious Right leaders who inhabit the farthest fringes of American politics. These individuals mock the idea of religious diversity and pluralism, convinced that only their narrow understanding of Christianity, along with all of its attendant far-right political baggage, is pleasing to God.

As the nation's top law enforcement officer, the attorney general must represent all Americans. He must stand for the rights of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. He must advocate for those who are completely devout about religion as well as those who are totally indifferent toward it. He must understand certain things about America – that the nation was not founded on any one particular set of religious beliefs but rather was deliberately designed to extend freedom to them all and that our nation guarantees freedom to all faiths by erecting a wall of separation between church and state.

Ashcroft fails to appreciate that wall and in fact spent six years in the Senate trying to undermine it. He views it as a wall that fosters oppression, not freedom. By taking this position, he shows himself at odds with the early American statesmen who built that wall – men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Ashcroft has chosen to disregard the wisdom of these Founding Fathers, replacing it with the vituperation and extremism of a band of TV preachers.

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."

* * * * *

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.

January 9, 2001

Joseph Conn
Rob Boston

Related News:

AU Announces Opposition To Nomination Of Sen. John Ashcroft As Attorney General (12/22/00)



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