In a speech that never surfaced during his confirmation hearing but reveals much about his agenda as attorney general, John Ashcroft clearly laid out his dream of government-sponsored social programs helping convert people to Jesus. Behind the scenes, his Justice Department is now helping make that possible.
Government “gives only half a gift when it doesn’t give the spirit of Christ,” Ashcroft, then a Missouri senator, told the dinner crowd at the Washington Court Hotel on September 18, 1996, as he received the Christian Statesman of the Year Award. “It doesn’t give the spirit of God, it doesn’t give the spirit of forgiveness, it doesn’t give the regeneration of healing with its gift.”
Those sentiments, captured on tape and obtained by the Voice, don’t surprise Ashcroft’s critics. “That is a statement saying the government must evangelize,” said Barry Lynn, the liberal minister who’s the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “He views the goal of a politician to be an active agent of religious conversion.”
What threw Lynn and others was Ashcroft’s insistence during the Senate hearings last January that he could keep his well-known religious beliefs from affecting his performance as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. “In the past, unlike during the confirmation hearings, he couldn’t separate the secular from the religious,” said Lynn. “He never even suggested that he could. And I couldn’t believe him when he told the Senate that he could.”
For good reason. In the summer of 1996, Ashcroft managed a last-minute insertion to a welfare “reform” bill that authorized the government to recognize “charitable choice.” That key provision, Section 104, encouraged states to use faith-based organizations to serve the poor and needy, prying open a door that the religious right had always found closed.
But the Justice Department under Janet Reno dragged its feet on writing regulations that were necessary to turn “charitable choice” into reality. With Ashcroft at the helm, however, the Justice Department, with no fanfare, is now writing those regulations for five major federal agencies, said Lynn, and activists are quietly, but vigorously, lobbying members of Congress to slow down the process.
Ashcroft’s critics brought up several of his past speeches during the confirmation hearings, including his 1999 statement at Bob Jones University that Jesus is “king” of the country. No one brought up this 1996 speech, which minces no words in its basic criticism that government social programs don’t work because they don’t carry the message of Christ.
“I think the nature of God is giving, the nature of God is sharing,” Ashcroft told the Washington crowd. “That’s what the redemptive, forgiving, healing mission of Christ is, that he would share with us his nature. And when we turn the nature of God, which is our responsibility to respond to need, over to government and we say we put that behind us, and we contain it in a secular vessel and we expect government to do it, the giving isn’t the same. The Bible says that if you give a cup of cold water in my name, it makes an eternal difference.
“Water isn’t just water. It needs the value with it; it needs the spirit with it.”
There was no doubt which “spirit” he was talking about. Ashcroft received the award from D. James Kennedy, who runs a worldwide evangelistic empire out of his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kennedy stated flatly in his introductory remarks that America is a Christian nation and approvingly quoted John Jay as saying that it was “a duty and a privilege of Christians in the Christian nation to vote for and prefer Christians as their rulers.”
The future A.G. couldn’t have agreed more, effusively praising Kennedy and saying, “I want to thank all of you for your support of the concept and the understanding that we serve more than our fellow men when we serve in government. Government is indeed ordained of God, and Jesus came that people might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Unfortunately, he said, America is wallowing in sin and secularism and in what he called “governmentalism.”
“Yes, we are a Christian nation,” he intoned, “but we are found wanting.”
The goal of faith-based welfare, said Ashcroft, is not just to get government off religion’s back but to make government help evangelicals spread the Word. “We need to provide a basis for unleashing the community of faith to do what it does well, to share and manifest the love of Christ in all that we do and say.”
Reverend Lynn pointed out the seeming contradiction that Ashcroft “has contempt for government, yet he now wants to enmesh this ‘corrupt’ institution with churches.”
And not all faiths, but only an evangelical Christianity. Kennedy is well known by religious-liberty watchdogs for his strident preaching against homosexuality and abortion and for his active political involvement. His massive church features stacks of voter registration information, detailed instructions on how to lobby politicians, and brochures filled with tips on how to campaign for office. His connections with the Republican elite are solid. Among the buildings on his sprawling campus is the DeVos Chapel, named for Amway cofounder Rich DeVos, one of the biggest soft-money donors in the history of American politics—all of it going to Republicans. Ashcroft also counts DeVos as an ally, so the Missouri senator was all but preordained as Kennedy’s first Christian Statesman of the Year. The list of politicians who have since been honored includes Kansas senator Sam Brownback and House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
“It’s one thing for Kennedy, a preacher, to talk about Christianity and government,” said Lynn, “but it’s another thing for an official to come down and be honored and to talk the way Ashcroft did. It ought to make people very nervous.”
And in fact, it did make Ashcroft’s ex-colleagues skittish last January. Initially, the criticism of him as a potential attorney general was harsh. But as Lynn pointed out, “politicians are always nervous about bringing up religion. They don’t want to be seen as making fun of a person’s religion. And then the right started throwing around the phrase ‘religious profiling.’ After that, the Senate just shut down. Members of Congress get terrified by the topic.”
Kennedy’s propaganda machine, the Center for Reclaiming America, wants some credit for that. Incensed that Dubya’s first three Cabinet nominees were pro-abortion, the center lit a “Grassfire Petition Drive” that it claims produced 20,000 petitions to Bush in just two weeks. As the Ashcroft nomination went forward, “anti-family forces wasted no time launching a smear campaign against him,” according to the center’s Christian Alert Bulletin. Kennedy’s troops responded with a petition drive aimed at the Senate.
“In a God-sized answer to our prayer,” center director Janet Folger wrote in her Bulletin, “over 6000 petitions were submitted on the first day alone and were coming in at the rate of more than 600 petitions per hour. In just a few days, more than 60,000 new petitions were received, proving once again that, with God, all things are possible.”
Listen to audio clips from Ashcroft’s speech:
Gone astray: How faith in the “the altar of government” has led to social calamities.
Liberation theocracy: Why the government should withdraw and let churches fill the void.
Redeeming Bablyon: How Washington, D.C., can serve as “holy ground.”
Read a transcript of Ward Harkavy on Fox News:
Harkavy discusses the Ashcroft tape he uncovered, “Hannity & Colmes,” Feb. 16, 2001.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 10, 2001