Deconstructing John Ashcroft
By Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly

A speech by Ashcroft in which he praises an instance of religious intolerance suggests that, as Attorney General, he would pursue a supremacist ideology, threatening the civil rights of many Americans.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
U.S. Court of Federal Claims photo.

In the wake of published reports quoting Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft as proclaiming "we have no king but Jesus" to students at Bob Jones University, Republican defenders have been quick to insist that Ashcroft was only stating his personal convictions. They have gone so far as to call Ashcroft's critics intolerant for allegedly suggesting that he has no right to his personal beliefs.1

While a simple expression of religious faith alone should never disqualify a candidate for public office, statements of intent, and past legislative actions providing exemptions to civil rights laws raise the legitimate question of whether or not Ashcroft is capable of enforcing the nation's secular laws. These questions are all the more important when some have observed that Ashcroft's ideological beliefs may run so deep that though he may think he is enforcing the law, to observers he very well may not.2

This is not a merely theoretical concern. Every citizen must consider whether or not a candidate for government office may be willing under any circumstances to deny another individual their constitutional rights. It is especially important when considering candidates for the position of Attorney General, who is ultimately responsible for the enforcement of laws protecting those rights.

John Ashcroft, like every other American citizen, is entitled to believe whatever he wants to believe in his personal life. For the purposes of this discussion, we hold that to be true; that absent any expressed intent to act against other people outside one's own religious group, discussion of belief in this context is off limits. The only real point of discussion here is a basic question: does such intent to act to impose his religious beliefs in the civil sphere in violation of our laws and the Constitution exist in Ashcroft's mind? Such intent, carried out in practice from the position of Attorney General, would ultimately infringe upon the civil rights of all who disagree with his religion, and violate the historical reality of the separation of church and state.

Today Ashcroft said under oath, "Injustice in America against any individual must not stand. No ifs, ands or buts, period."3 And later, "Well, I don't believe it's appropriate to have a test based on one's religion for a job."4 Both of these statements contradict his involvement in creating legislation which would create a privileged class of employers that would be allowed to discriminate at will against those who they might think were unsuitable for employment solely on the basis of religious belief. He even went as far as to give a specific example of a firing of one person justified by this kind of policy, which he has used to support consideration of an employee's religious beliefs as a prerequisite to employment.

In March of 1999 Ashcroft gave a speech before the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Pittsburgh. He spoke in favor of so-called "charitable choice" programs, in which public funds were distributed to private, "faith-based" organizations as part of welfare reform. Some organizations, he says, were afraid to participate because compliance with First Amendment concerns, protecting freedom of religion, made it "difficult."

He then goes on to describe one specific instance, involving an employee working for the Salvation Army in Mississippi:5

The Salvation Army in Mississippi in one case found one of their workers Xeroxing witchcraft materials. They said this isn't consistent with the Salvation Army. We're going to have to fire this person. We can't have this individual working in our program. This was several years ago. Of course, firing a person because they were in witchcraft from the Salvation Army, because the Salvation Army was doing some work in conjunction with a public agency, a lawsuit alleged that they didn't have the right to discriminate based on religious faith.

Now let's consider what he said here in the light of the basic assumption that we started with: that absent any intent to act against other people, an expression of faith or religious belief, no matter how unusual, is off-limits. Here he has recounted a case where all that this employee expressed was a religious identity, personal belief and religious conviction labeled by many Christians to be satanic, and a threat to them by the mere existence of people who identify in that way.6 These labels are false, and run in conflict with the legal protection of religious expression historically afforded all faiths in this country. We no longer burn witches, nor are their civil and religious rights ever to be denied, and Witchcraft (Wicca) has been held to be a religion in a number of Federal court cases.7

Here is one defining intersection between religious faith and governmental decisions, as Ashcroft would have them be made. He defends creating a class of privileged businesses, which may discriminate at will, solely on the basis of an expression of religious belief. He continued:

We had to build the framework that said to the Salvation Army, "We'll let you hire people of like faith and be involved in the program of helping individuals, even a team member with the state, but you don't have to comply with laws that would require you to have people working for you that undercut the purpose of your organization." It was that kind of liberation that we could bring to a community that was willing and eager to help us really solve our problems, but the federal mandate of one size fits all, the absence of the tailoring concept, and the presence of stifling uniformity, had made most difficult.

The fact of the matter is, that if as he says, "injustice in America against any individual must not stand," there is no "liberation" in allowing excepted classes of people to discriminate. This is not defensible under any rationale. It is, furthermore, the application of a supremacist ideology, that holds that membership in a particular social group defined by religious belief is a defense for the injustice of discrimination based on religion.

Let's play a little "thought experiment" in a fortunately alternate universe that states the circumstances a little differently. Let's suppose that a person of African-American descent was hired by an organization, without somehow knowing in advance of that person's ethnic heritage. Suppose then that they were caught carrying or copying information pertaining to African-Americans.

Perhaps Ashcroft's speech would have, in our alternate universe, sounded like this:

The Aryan Army in Mississippi in one case found one of their workers Xeroxing Black social materials. They said this isn't consistent with the Aryan Army. We're going to have to fire this person. We can't have this individual working in our program. This was several years ago. Of course, firing a person because they were Black from the Aryan Army, because the Aryan Army was doing some work in conjunction with a public agency, a lawsuit alleged that they didn't have the right to discriminate based on race.

We had to build the framework that said to the Aryan Army, "We'll let you hire people of like race and be involved in the program of helping individuals, even a team member with the state, but you don't have to comply with laws that would require you to have people working for you that undercut the purpose of your organization." It was that kind of liberation that we could bring to a community that was willing and eager to help us really solve our problems, but the federal mandate of one size fits all, the absence of the tailoring concept, and the presence of stifling uniformity, had made most difficult.

Farfetched? Perhaps. The point is, that a supremacist ideology is a supremacist ideology, whether that ideology differentiates based on a fixed attribute like race, or a flexible personal attribute, changeable through conversion, like a religious belief or affiliation. Such a thing is impermissible in either case. This creation of legislation is rationalized by an inherently supremacist position; we shouldn't hesitate to call Ashcroft and his charitable-choice legislation which allows this form of discrimination inherently supremacist.

The individual chiefly responsible for the enforcement of our civil laws must not be influenced by his religious faith in such a way that he uses that faith to justify discrimination. Here, John Ashcroft has done exactly that; he has spoken against the basic concept of civil rights for all people in employment, and later, under oath, has contradicted that. Having now watched him apparently contradict himself, we must seriously question how he plans in practice to enforce the laws of this country, in any area where his religious faith and our secular laws conflict.

Injustice in America against any individual whose beliefs contradict Ashcroft's religious views must not stand. No ifs, ands or buts, period.

Postscript

Mere days after John Ashcroft's confirmation hearing, the Bush Administration created the "Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives," the continuation of Ashcroft's work as the Senatorial sponsor of the first federally funded faith-based initiative.

Ashcroft served as Attorney General of the United States from 2001 until 2005. His term was punctuated by several efforts to expand the powers of the U.S. government and erode individual rights. After his resignation, he started a consulting firm and joined the faculty of Pat Robertson's Regent University.

Endnotes

  1. "Ashcroft Backers Defend Bob Jones University Speech," Associated Press, January 15, 2001.
  2. "Ashcroft Confirmation Hearings Open Tuesday," Reuters, January 15, 2001. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY): "It may be that his philosophical and ideological beliefs are so deep that even if he believes he is enforcing the law, he isn't."
  3. "Ashcroft Pledges to Enforce Laws," Washington Post, January 16, 2001.
  4. Text: John Ashcroft's Senate Confirmation Hearing, Day One. Provided by The Washington Post. Day Two and Day Three are also available.
  5. "Technology and Values in the New Millenium," speech by John Ashcroft delivered to the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy Fundraiser, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1999. Also available from Vital Speeches of the Day.
  6. For one such example, see: "The Dark Side of Halloween," Logos Resource Pages
  7. "The Legal Basis for Wicca." Alternative Religions Educational Network.

Posted 2001-01-16 - updated 2006-07-21

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