John Ashcroft's nomination survives, but the Senate hearings concerning him were revealing. Critical senators appeared to equate his Christian faith with hard liquor: OK to use evenings and weekends, but it clouds judgment during the workday. By contrast, nine out of 10 Americans-most with a Christian heritage-say religion is important or very important in their lives. Many of those surveyed probably believe we should think about God only at 11 a.m. on Sunday, but others wouldn't mind an attorney general taking a swig from the Bible once in a while during working hours.
Senator Ted Kennedy was among those who ignored the stats about American religious belief and complained that Mr. Ashcroft is "so far out of the mainstream" of American thinking. That's not true, but what's truly significant is that the AG-to-be is far out of the mainstream of TeamBush. Mr. Ashcroft is not a longtime Bush friend or even a Texas crony. Democrats who fear misuse of authority in a Republican White House should love a man willing to stand up to power, even White House power, because he obeys above all a higher authority, God.
What a refreshing change that is! Forty years ago Ted's brother John F. Kennedy gave the Justice job to brother Bobby, and everyone took it for granted that a president would want in that sensitive post a person who would cover his back and other body parts, if need be. I don't think George W. Bush will need such protection, but if he wanted it from John Ashcroft, he wouldn't get it, so it speaks well of the new president that he would place a man of integrity in such a spot.
The only person who should fear Mr. Ashcroft is that someone in the Bush administration who will, at some point, act like Bill Clinton. Sad as that is to contemplate during TeamBush's opening week, it will happen sometime, and at that point the only Texas connection I think of when contemplating John Ashcroft will come into focus. His high standards remind me of the theme song from a TV show during my childhood: "Texas John Slaughter/ They did what they oughter/ Or if they didn't they died."
Those standards, by the way, are not ones Mr. Ashcroft came by while surveying the wreckage of Hurricane Monica. The one time we had lunch, in 1995, he talked about the importance of senators being scandal-less. Democrats who want a watchdog ready to growl at any White House impropriety could not do better than John Ashcroft, who is marred in a way Shakespeare described: "Every man has his fault, and honesty is his." Democrats were happy to have a malleable Janet Reno on their watch, but they should be delighted with a Texas John Slaughter watching their opponents.
Why aren't they joyful? Ashcroft critics have emphasized what they perceive as a fault: the faith that makes him honest. The New York Times emphasized concern over the nominee's "deeply religious background" and his "deep religious commitment." Mr. Ashcroft noted during his interrogation that some senators had asked him, Will your religion keep you from being able to perform your duties in office? That sounds like a push for exactly the kind of religious test for office that is banned by Article VI of the Constitution.
Some folks even seem ready to dismiss Christians from public life generally. Charles Lewis, director of the nicely named Center for Public Integrity, noted that the nominee in recent years has spoken to various Christian organizations; Mr. Lewis then snorted, "If there is a separation between church and state, what is his official duty in talking to all these religious groups?" Senators regularly consider it part of their jobs to talk to constituents and get the pulse of the nation, but it now seems that some Americans are worth talking with and others are to be excommunicated.
During the nomination hearings Mr. Ashcroft had to calm ravenous senators by downplaying the relevance of his beliefs for his on-the-job conduct. But, once confirmed, I'd like him to respond to some hostile inquiry as does the lead character in I, Mouse, one of my favorite children's books: "I like to eat cheese. Is that a crime?"
These days, maybe. It's wonderful that anti-Semitism is virtually gone from American life now, as indicated by Joe Lieberman's warm reception. The bad news is the rise of Christophobia-the fear of Christianity and the desire to run from it. This fear is most common on many college campuses; as a headline in the Miami (Ohio) University student newspaper put it, "MU Christophobia runs rampant." But it is present wherever people fear that behavior they know is wrong will be measured against biblical standards. For, as chapter 21 of Proverbs notes in a verse that should be etched over John Ashcroft's door, "When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers."