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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2000/ 27 Teves, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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Disqualified by His Religion? -- A SENATOR is nominated for high office. He's been reelected 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:

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "Have you heard any senator, Republican or Democrat, suggest that there should be a religious test on your confirmation?"

John 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?' "

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.

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12/18/00: Defenders of the Law
12/08/00: Myths of chad
11/27/00: No more rule rewrites
11/17/00: Not by hand
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11/06/00: Why Bush will win
10/30/00: Realities of war
10/23/00: Arafat's strategy
10/16/00: The Sleepwalkers
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09/25/00: A Political Lite-Year
09/18/00: Barak's Last Chip
09/11/00: When Liberals Get Religion
09/05/00: Humbled by the Hayden
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08/14/00:... Back to the Future
07/31/00: The WWII Memorial: Inadequate and Out of Place
07/19/00: Camp David: Finality
07/12/00: The Oslo Interlude
07/10/00: Buchanan's Gift To Bush
07/03/00: Hafez Assad's Mourners
06/19/00: Hafez Assad's Mourners
06/12/00: Missile Defense Destiny
06/05/00: Let Peacekeeping Rest in Peace
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05/22/00: A Palestinian 'Peace'
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05/08/00: Regis Rules!
04/28/00: The Picture
04/24/00: Beware a Clinton Arms Deal
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04/10/00: Our Russian payload
04/03/00: The Path to Putin
03/27/00: Red Cross Snub
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03/13/00: McCain in 2004
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02/28/00: Profile in Courage
02/16/00: Europe's Austria Hypocrisy
02/14/00: A Winner? Yes
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01/31/00: Why Elian Should Stay
01/21/00: A Network Sellout . . .
01/14/00: Screwball Psychologizing
01/07/00: Desperately Seeking a legacy: Peace of the Anti-Semites
12/10/99: Born to Run
12/03/99: Keep Bubba home --- and his mouth shut
11/29/99: Not for Moi, Thanks
11/19/99: Where's the 2000 Buzz?
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11/08/99: Federalism's New Friends
10/29/99: The Phony Battle Against 'Isolationism'
10/25/99: Still With the Soul Of a Candidate
10/18/99: Nixon On the Couch
10/11/99: Slouching Toward The Center

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