WASHINGTON--A senator is nominated for high office. He's been re-elected many times statewide. He has served admirably as his state's attorney general. He is devout, speaking openly and proudly about his religious faith. He emphasizes the critical role of religion in underpinning both morality and constitutional self-government. He speaks passionately about how his politics are shaped by his deeply held religious beliefs.
Now: If his name is Lieberman and he is Jewish, his nomination evokes celebration. If his name is Ashcroft and he is Christian, his nomination evokes a hue and cry about ``divisiveness'' and mobilizes a wall-to-wall liberal coalition to defeat him.
Just two months ago I addressed a gathering of the Jewish Theological Seminary arguing that the Lieberman candidacy--the almost universal applause his nomination received, the excitement he generated when he spoke of his religious faith--had created a new consensus in America. Liberals had long vilified the ``religious right'' for mixing faith and politics and insisting that religion has a legitimate place in the public square. No longer. The nomination of Lieberman to the second highest office in the country by the country's liberal political party would once and for all abolish the last remaining significant religious prejudice in the country--the notion that highly religious people are unfit for high office because they confuse theology with politics and recognize no boundary between church and state. After Lieberman, liberals would simply be too embarrassed to return to a double standard.
How wrong I was. The nomination of a passionate and devout Christian for attorney general set off the old liberal anti-religious reflexes as if Joe Lieberman had never existed.
Of course, the great anti-Ashcroft revolt is not framed as religious. The pretense is that it is about issues. Hence this exchange during John Ashcroft's confirmation hearing:
(BEG ITAL)Sen. Patrick Leahy: ``Have you heard any senator, Republican or Democrat, suggest that there should be a religious test on your confirmation?''
(BEG ITAL)Mr. Ashcroft: ``No senator has said `I will test you.' But a number of senators have said, `Will your religion keep you from being able to perform your duties in office?'''
(BEG ITAL)Sen. Leahy: ``All right, well, I'm amazed at that.''
At the clumsiness, perhaps. No serious politician is supposed to admit openly that Ashcroft's religion bothers him. The religious test that is implied is not just un-American, it is grossly unconstitutional.
The ostensible issues are abortion and racial preferences, both of which Ashcroft fundamentally opposes. But are they really? In a country so divided on these issues, can one seriously argue that opposing abortion and racial preferences is proof of extremism? It would be odd indeed if the minority of Americans who believe in racial preferences and the minority who believe in abortion-on-demand were to define the American mainstream.
In fact, under these issues lies a suspicion, even a prejudice, about the fitness of a truly religious conservative for high office. ``Christian Right'' is a double negative in the liberal lexicon. It is meant to make decent Americans cringe at the thought of some religious wing nut enforcing the laws. Torquemada at Agriculture perhaps. But not Justice, God forbid.
To the anti-Ashcroft coalition, the Christian Right--numbering at least 30 million, by the way--is some kind of weird fringe group to whom bones are thrown by otherwise responsible Republicans to induce them to return to their caves. Politically, they are a foreign body to be ignored, bought off, or suppressed. Hence the charge that the very appointment of a man representing this constituency is, in and of itself, divisive.
Hence the salivation when news broke that there was a tape of Ashcroft's commencement address at Bob Jones University. In it, he declared that Jesus is a higher authority than Caesar. That sent some fundamentalist church-state separationists into apoplexy. This proved, said Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that Ashcroft ``has little or no appreciation for the constitutional separation of church and state'' and thus is disqualified from serving as attorney general.
What Ashcroft did was not merely to state the obvious--that the American experiment has always recognized its source in the transcendent--but to restate in his own vernacular what Joe Lieberman had been saying up and down the country throughout the summer and fall.
It was a great day when Joe Lieberman was nominated. And it was even greater that he publicly rooted his most deeply held political beliefs in his faith.
It is rather ironic that we now need to go through that same process for Ashcroft's constituency of co-believers. When the Senate confirms him, we will have overcome yet another obstacle in America's steady march to religious toleration.