The big lead story on the front page of The Washington Post Monday morning is the shocking news about what John Ashcroft has been caught doing in his office -- praying! Whatever next? Acts of loving kindness and mercy? And when you consider what some presidents have done in their offices ...
I am not among the Washington Post-hating right. Though it's a liberal newspaper, it isn't nearly as biased as its competitor (in the influence market), The New York Times. In some stories, you can almost hear the grunts of effort as it conscientiously attempts to present both sides.
But liberals, even liberals trying to be fair, do not make the same news judgments as conservatives. That's why the Ashcroft story is so revealing. They truly believe that a daily Bible study and prayer session is controversial -- and sufficiently newsworthy to merit front-page treatment! Would they have treated the story the same way if Ashcroft began each day studying Confucius? Or if Joe Lieberman were attorney general and began each day with morning devotions, as observant Jews do, would that be cause for front-page treatment?
As he did while a U.S. senator, John Ashcroft starts each day at 8 a.m. by reading a section of scripture. Between three and 30 staffers, including one Orthodox Jew, participate in what they call RAMP -- "read, argue, memorize and pray."
A number of Justice Department employees are offended. "It's alienating," one lawyer told the Post. "He's using public spaces to have a personally meaningful event to which I would not be welcome, nor would I feel welcome." Another was more strident, and more pompous, "The purpose of the Department of Justice is to do the business of the government, not to establish a religion. It strikes me and a lot of others as offensive, disrespectful and unconstitutional ..."
As far as the exclusion argument goes, Ashcroft has said that the prayer group is open to all. But the constitutional argument is a caricature of the liberal case against mixing church and state. In public, when their names are attached to what they say, liberals usually insist that they are all for religion. Some, like Barry Lynn of People United for the Separation of Church and State, insist that in their personal lives, they are quite pious. The only reason they oppose public displays of religion, they claim, is constitutional fastidiousness. But when offering anonymous quotes to The Washington Post, they reveal the truth, which is that they are getting pretty close to regarding religion itself, well Christianity anyway, as unconstitutional.
Now it is true that in a pluralistic society like ours a certain amount of tact among members of the majority religion is appreciated. I've been to countless meetings and dinners in which a prayer is offered "in Jesus' name." The ministers and priests who put it that way probably never consider that other believers cannot say "amen" when the prayer is concluded that way. Isn't it just as easy to speak of the almighty or the creator and leave no one out? (Atheists and agnostics are not left out when others are praying. They are not required to pray.)
But honestly, to suggest that Ashcroft is somehow compromising his position or offending the Constitution by praying every day -- as scores of senators, congressmen and judges also do -- really amounts to selective bullying. They are bullying the Christians and only the Christians.
The irony is that in the same week that The Washington Post broke the prayergate scandal, the Los Angeles Times issued a report on Ashcroft's tenure so far that suggests he's a man of his word. As he promised during his confirmation hearings, he has vigorously prosecuted the civil-rights laws (only committed left-wing ideologues ever doubted he would), aided black colleges, sent federal lawyers to Cincinnati to investigate white-on-black shootings, requested the extradition of a fugitive accused of murdering an abortionist and declared racial profiling a top priority.
But he's a dangerous fundamentalist if he cracks a Bible every day.