Institute on Religion and Democracy
January 16, 2001
A left-wing religious coalition is denouncing nomination of John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General. He is, suggests the Interfaith Alliance, a foe of religious liberty and a threat to religious minorities in America.
The evidence offered was long on sound bites but short on plausible specifics.
The Interfaith Alliance was founded 6 six years ago, with seed money from the Democratic Party, to organize religious people for liberal Democrats as the Christian Coalition organized for conservative Republicans. But the Alliance, led largely by liberal mainline Protestants from declining denominations, failed to achieve the same level of political potency.
Still, the Alliance serves as a useful prop for the secular left by enlisting clergy to denounce religious conservatives. At its anti-Ashcroft press conference in Washington, the Alliance offered a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, and two liberal Baptists to warn of the impending threat to their freedoms posed by Ashcroft.
Ashcroft is a Pentecostal, a Christian movement that has often been snubbed and stereotyped by even other conservative Christians. Socially ostracized frequently in America, severely persecuted under the old Soviet Union, and still victimized today in places like Sudan and China, Pentecostals are unlikely ayatollahs. But the Alliance sees Ashcroft as threatening a new inquisition.
"I have grave concerns about Senator Ashcroft's ability to serve as Attorney General of the United States, a position in which he would be charged with upholding and fully enforcing the constitutional rights and liberties to faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction," opined Interfaith Alliance Executive Director C. Welton Gaddy.
Gaddy offered no details as to what faith groups Ashcroft could be expected to suppress or coerce.
"Any individual who cannot place public protection ahead of personal conviction is simply not qualified to hold the position of Attorney General," reiterated Rabbi Jack Moline at the Alliance press conference. "Jews and other minorities…who rely on the law to guarantee their Constitutional rights need such assurance now more than ever."
Moline did not cite how Ashcroft would substitute "personal conviction" for "public protection." Implicitly it was the nature of Ashcroft's personal faith convictions that makes him unqualified for high office, according to the Alliance's spokespeople.
"The highest post in the land dedicated to protecting the rights of all citizens should not be offered as a reward to religious political extremists," warned a statement from John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Buehrens is worried about the "legitimacy" that Ashcroft's "stridency and moral righteousness" might give to the "radical fringe." Buehrens seemed unaware of the irony that many people would call the far-left leadership of his own tiny, denomination a "radical fringe."
Most strident was Ghayth Nur Kashif, a Muslim imam and a a frequent spokesperson at Alliance events. He insinuated a connection between Ashcroft's "extremist religious rhetoric" and the "religious-right wing Oklahoma bombing of a Federal Building, the series of bombings and killings at health [i.e. abortion] clinics and the past history of lynching and killings by the Klu Klux Klans and other religious extremist groups."
When other Alliance press conference participants were asked by reporters to disassociate themselves from the Imam's remarks, not one expressed any public disagreement. "This is a reality, not a charge," the Imam said, not backing down at all.
"The issue is the willingness to provide constitutional protections for faith groups with which Ashcroft is in basic disagreement," responded Gaddy, dodging the question. One of Gaddy's chief emphases as head of the Alliance has been the importance of "civility" in political discourse, an expectation he apparently does not have for his own spokespeople.
The headline of the Alliance's news release trumpeted, "Ashcroft Claims 'America has no King but Jesus,'" citing a 1999 speech in which the then U.S. Senator cited the early American colonists who, when fighting the American Revolution, rejected the English king in favor of King Jesus.
"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," Ashcroft explained in his speech. He was trying to differentiate between a society that acknowledges a transcendent moral power, and one that is captive only to force or fashion.
(Ashcroft gave the speech at fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which is also a cause for ire by the Interfaith Alliance. But the Alliance failed to mention that the university has been critical of Ashcroft's own Pentecostal movement, which did not deter him from speaking his mind.)
The Alliance claims it is defending "religious liberty" by condemning Ashcroft. Leaders of the Alliance are largely politicized liberal clergy, like Clinton pastor J. Philip Wogaman and former National Council of Churches chieftain Joan Campbell. Their vision of religious liberty is one in which liberal religious leaders may aggressively promote their political agenda, based on their own faith interpretations. But conservative religious people are declared to be "extremist" and therefore illegitimate and even dangerous.
If it were truly interested in religious liberty and civility, the Alliance would defend the right of free religious expression for all individuals, even for conservatives such as Ashcroft.