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.

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

That year also marked Ashcroft's first foray into electoral politics. He ran for US Congress, lost in the primary, but got appointed to state auditor. He was eventually elected state attorney general in 1976, then governor, and in 1994, US senator.

He compiled this electoral record by emphasizing the moderate parts of his agenda. As Missouri attorney general, for example, he joined with other state attorneys general to break up cartels (although he once used the same laws in an odd way to try to sue the National Organization for Women), says William Kovacic, a law professor at George Washington University who has studied Ashcroft's record. Ashcroft could also compromise. As governor, despite a strong distaste for gambling, he implemented a state lottery when voters signaled they wanted one.

But as the Republican Party shifted to the right after President Reagan's election in 1980, so did Ashcroft. While governor, he signed a bill declaring that life begins at conception and imposing numerous restrictions on abortions. The law was upheld by the US Supreme Court, leading to a wave of anti-abortion legislation around the country. In 1991, Ashcroft lobbied unsuccessfully for further restrictions on abortion, including no exceptions for rape or incest.

During his six years in the Senate, he repeatedly delayed or defeated Clinton nominees who didn't fit his moral code, including gay philanthropist Jim Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg and two surgeon-general nominees who backed abortion rights. The fight he led against Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, denying him a federal judgeship last year, has raised the most eyebrows.

The story surrounding that event is complex, but two facts stand out. First, Ashcroft distorted Judge White's record, calling him soft on crime. Second, as a state representative in 1992, White himself had used questionable tactics to defeat anti-abortion legislation that Ashcroft, then the governor, supported.

Some civil rights activists say the move was racially motivated. (Mr. White is black.) Others suggest he needed a political issue for his tough Senate reelection. Still others call it political payback for killing the anti-abortion legislation.

"I see [his opposition to White] as philosophical, but I think Ashcroft had a history of being a get-even politician," says state Sen. Wayne Goode, a liberal Democrat.

A different view of Ashcroft

None of these views squares with how friends and colleagues describe Ashcroft. Indeed, his record of appointing black judges suggests he is no more a racist than White is soft on crime (although he has shown a lack of sensitivity to blacks' concerns by calling Confederate leaders "Southern patriots"). And the charge of political payback does not jive with the gracious way Ashcroft conceded in November, after he barely lost a reelection campaign.

More likely, two of Ashcroft's most strongly held beliefs - his abhorrence for abortion and his distaste for judicial activism - made White unacceptable to him.

In opposing abortion, Ashcroft closely reflects the position of the Assemblies of God, which in 1985 called it "evil man's defiance of the Almighty." And he has consistently denounced the kind of judicial activism that he says legalized abortion in the first place.

If Ashcroft does become attorney general, he will inherit cases such as the antitrust suit against Microsoft - and very likely oversee many others with a sense of integrity that has marked his career. "My guess is that law enforcement will for the most part continue in the same manner," says Michael Seigel, a law professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

But in setting America's legal priorities, he's also likely to leave his own strong, anti-abortion stamp on the judiciary.

Tricia Cowen contributed to this story.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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