By the time this is published, I assume, John Ashcroft will be Attorney General of the United States, despite the most strenuous efforts to derail his nomination.
Ashcroft has been accused of racism, but anyone who pays close attention recognizes that this is a cover story for the real issue, which is abortion. As the new administration takes office, President Bush is told repeatedly that he can do just about anything he wants, provided he does not interfere with a “woman’s right to choose.”
Liberalism used to be defined by its commitment to the welfare state—government programs to eradicate social evils. But during the past twenty years most people have lost faith in such programs, and liberalism is now defined precisely by the “social issues.” Abortion is the chief of these, and any politician who supports abortion is forgiven a host of other failings.
For years commentators told us that pro-lifers were myopic, giving central importance to an issue that ought not to be in politics at all and certainly ought not to determine anyone’s vote. But in 2000 these wise counselors suddenly reversed themselves, and abortion now inspires more passion, more fanatical zeal, than any other issue.
The election just past was one more example of how the “seamless garment of life issues” has no political relevance. Some people who say abortion is wrong justified their vote for Vice-President Gore on the grounds that capital punishment is also a life issue. But Gore himself is in favor of capital punishment, and there was little to distinguish the two candidates on that point. Thus it is hard not to think that those who voted for Gore were doing so precisely because of his support for abortion.
Stirred up by the abortion issue, there is a growing lobby that, directly contrary to the Constitution (Article VI), is trying to impose a “religious test” for public office. Thus Ashcroft is denounced as someone who will “impose” his religious beliefs on society, a warning based on the fact that he actually has strong beliefs.
This lobby insists that it does not disqualify candidates simply for having a religion but only for violating the principle of separation of church and state. But President Gerald Ford once decided not to nominate a respected Mormon lawyer to the Supreme Court because he estimated that the nominee would be rejected solely on religious grounds.
Ashcroft has been accused of being anti-Catholic because he spoke at Bob Jones University, an anti-Catholic institution, and I think that both he and President Bush should have shown more sensitivity in that matter.
But as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has pointed out, those (e.g., the National Organization for Women) who most loudly accuse Bush and Ashcroft of being anti-Catholic have for many years been themselves virulently anti-Catholic because, once again, of abortion.
If Ashcroft uses his office to work towards restricting the specious constitutional “right” to abortion, he will be accused of “imposing” his religion. In the meantime those whose beliefs are contrary to his continue imposing them on the rest of us.
—James Hitchcock, for the editors
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Imposing Beliefs?” first appeared in the April 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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