Ashcroft: a mix of piety and politics
As hearings begin, nominee's record points to flexibility, except on abortion.
John Ashcroft, the man who would be attorney general, combines a deep respect for the law with a profound reverence for God.Skip to next paragraph
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He begins each day with his "devotions." He has had himself anointed with oil, as Old Testament figures did, before taking a new political office. He has set such a standard of personal integrity and religious faith that friends and colleagues insist that knowing him has improved their lives.
Today, the United States Senate begins confirmation hearings that will decide how well personal piety and national politics mix.
To some degree, Mr. Ashcroft's nomination will test Americans' willingness to accept ardently evangelical Christians in high national office. In the past, politicians whose religion was an issue - such as John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, and Joseph Lieberman, a Jew - assured the public that their religious convictions would not overshadow their duty to uphold the laws of the land.
That's likely to be a key line of questioning for Ashcroft, who seeks high office at a time when the evangelical movement itself is debating whether national politics are too compromising of religious principles. Some influential evangelicals now suggest that the movement - and its adherents - should renounce politics altogether and go back to saving souls.
Ashcroft's record suggests that on most subjects he would offer a decidedly conservative but not extreme legal agenda. He opposes gun legislation and preferential hiring of minorities, but would continue the Clinton administration's aggressive pursuit of antitrust cases.
But on one subject he has proved unbending: He adamantly opposes abortion and even some forms of birth control. Such stands have led him to sometimes use extreme and partisan measures to block Clinton nominees - tactics that have provoked sharp dissent.
"It is difficult for a person to have a strongly held set of religious beliefs and represent the country," says Geoff Layman, a political scientist and author of "The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics." That's because the nation's great middle - mainstream Protestantism - is dwindling, while secularists at one pole and evangelical Christians at the other are both on the rise. "In the 1950s, we were still a Judeo-Christian nation," he says. "There was a common set of moral values in the country.... Obviously, we don't have that anymore."
One of Ashcroft's cherished childhood memories is waking up to his father's morning prayers. "Dad's prayers were not the quiet, whispered entreaties of a timid Sunday school teacher," he recalls in his 1998 book, "Lessons from a Father to his Son." "My father prayed as if his family's life and vitality were even then being debated on high as he bowed low."
J. Robert Ashcroft, an Assemblies of God minister, was a man ahead of his time. In the 1950s, when Pentacostals were marginalized by mainstream Protestants and looking inward, Robert Ashcroft saw the need to engage the world. He quoted Catholic priests and listened to black gospel music. Today, the Assemblies of God, the largest of the Pentecostal denominations, boasts 2.5 million adherents in the US.
John Ashcroft imbibed his father's outward-looking spirit, leaving Springfield, Mo., to earn degrees at Yale University and then the University of Chicago law school. By the time he returned to Springfield to practice law and teach business law, in 1967, he was already turning heads.
Friends and acquaintances remember a hard-working young man of energy and integrity. When Tom Fowler began teaching business law in 1972, a longtime family friend insisted he meet Ashcroft. "He told me he was of such high quality that he was someone who [I should] get to know," recalls Mr. Fowler, now a local bank president.
Bitten by the political bug