Europeans tend to hold it as a maxim. The United States of America is a nation so self consciously committed to the future, that historical memoryif it exists at allis reduced to what happened yesterday. But this is a shallow and superficial view. The United States is a place where an eighteenth-century constitution stands at the core of the most intense contemporary disputes. And it is also a place where the deeply suppressed wounds of the past can transform themselves into black shadows over the present, more threatening precisely because their origins are only half suspected. George W. Bush has stumbled into this treacherous shadow land in his first two weeks in office, even if the occasion is innocent enough on the surface: the distribution of charity, the assertion of faith, and the improvement of education. The case of John Ashcroft demonstrates just how difficult and intractable the road can be where history, religion, and the constitution collide.
It began at the very beginning: George W. evoked Thomas Jefferson at his inauguration. But the words addressed to the 3rd president of the United States that the 43rd chose to cite on January 20, 2001, did not reflect the secular opinions of the most secular of Americas past leaders. President Bush used Jefferson to introduce a religious analogy in a civic ceremony opened and closed by two clergymen. Each explicitly called down the blessings of Jesus Christ about whose divinity in fact the highly unorthodox Jefferson was quite skeptical, being more Unitarian than Trinitarian in his private religious opinions. Jefferson was after all a man of reason more than faith, and like the enlightened savant he aspired to be, believed received wisdom and authority should be challenged by scientific experiment and free debate. He did not wear religion on his shirt sleeves. As he told John Adams in 1817: say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life. No one noticed: but George W. had used words spoken to Jefferson, not words Jefferson had himself uttered.
The Founding Fathers of the American Republican government preferred in their public declarations to evoke that Almighty Being. This was the term George Washington used in his first inaugural address in 1789 in New York City. In a new nation incorporating a multitude of competing and often mutually incompatible religious creeds, each fervently believing they had an exclusive lock on the truth, the Founders were acutely aware that a constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state was a fundamental pillar to the new civic order. In this the United States, as it institutionalized itself as a federal entity, was making a truly revolutionary declaration about religious toleration and pluralism in a world where almost everywhere else the state established and enforced religious practice.
The obelisk at Monticello, designed by Jefferson to mark his grave, bears his own selection of his three proudest achievements; listed there is the Declaration of Independence, but so too is the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, passed by the Assembly of Virginia in the beginning of the year 1786, declared: That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods In modern parlance, in other words, tax revenues levied on citizens by the state were not to be used to sustain a particular religious organization.
It is this philosophy which made the separation of Church and State the first great assertion of civil liberties contained in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Yet it is precisely to permit faith-based (in other words, religious) organizations to bid for federal tax revenues that George W. now proposes, by establishing a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. And in remarks reported in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 1, 2001; p. A24) that were picked up by reporters who the new president did not know were listening to him, George W. linked his faith-based social services initiative to his goal of curtailing abortions. See, this faith-based initiative really ties into a larger cultural issue that we are working on, Mr. Bush said, It begins to affect the life issue When youre talking about welcoming people of faith to help people who are disadvantaged the logical step is also those babies.
George W. might also have noted that Jefferson was the original education president. When Jefferson returned to Monticello in 1809 after his second term in office, he dedicated much of his attention to the founding of a model educational institution, and the third achievement he wanted listed on his obelisk at Monticello was the founding of the University of Virginia. But unlike President George W. Bush, who seeks to envelop religious organizations into the educational process, Thomas Jefferson banished religion from the enlightened academical village he planned in Charlottesville, and no proselytizing was to be allowed on the campus. The prospect of seeing a seminary for the American youth unshackled from the trammels of clerical influence and direction much gratified Jeffersons close friend and confidant the scholarly ambassador of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal in Washington, the Abbé Corrêa da Serra.
President Bush proposes to subject all schoolchildren from the third through eight grades to annual tests; to make schools accountable for performance; to remove federal regulations in exchange for improved results; and to let parents and children spend federal money in private and parochial schools. In effect he is suggesting minimum national standards. These are policy initiatives that can command wide bipartisan support, both in Congress and in public opinion. They reflect widespread concern across the country at the poor performance of American students in international comparisons, and the continuing crises of the big city systems where billions of dollars have failed to produce improvements. But his inclusion of a mechanism to support religious educational institutions with federal money, like his faith-based White House initiative, once translated into practice is a matter sure to be challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court as a violation of the First Amendment. The same narrowly divided and now highly politicized Supreme Court to which by one vote he owes his presidency.
These questions might have germinated slowly in the background had the new president nominated Montana Governor Marc Racicot to be his attorney general, as was widely expected. Racicot, a close advisor to Bush during the campaign, had encouraged him to run for the presidency as early as 1997 and had been an ever-present pointman during the post-election battle over ballots in Florida. But Racicot, no liberal, had instructed the Montana state employment guidelines to add sexual orientation as a class of protection from discrimination. Opposition to special protections for gays under law is anathematic to the Religious Right, whose mobilization had been critical to the defeat of Bushs major Republican rival, Senator John McCain, in the South Carolina primary, the time and location for George W.s infamous visit to the Protestant fundamentalist Bob Jones University, about which he later apologized to the late Cardinal of New York where he was again confronting John McCain, this time for New Yorks large Catholic vote. Racicot was never invited. George W. turned instead to John Ashcroft, a one-term Republican Senator from Missouri who had led the strident opposition to the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, James Hormel, and who as a Senator had blocked the appointment of Ronnie White, a black jurist from the Missouri Supreme Court, to the U.S. Federal Court of Appeal. Senator Ashcroft was awarded an honorary degree by Bob Jones University in 1999, which, unlike now President Bush, he has felt no urge to repudiate.
The U.S. attorney general is no minor official. He is the chief law enforcement official of the United States. Under his supervision falls the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the INS, the Bureau of Prisons, the Office of the U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals, and he represents and supervises the representation of the U.S. government in the Supreme Court. Ashcroft, a former governor of Missouri, became famous in November when he was defeated in his bid for reelection to the Senate by a dead man, Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, tragically killed in an airplane crash in the final weeks of the campaign. Ashcroft had a 100 percent conservative record in the Senate on most issuesbut not all. In 1998 Ashcroft had led the Senate fight to remove sanctions on food and medications to, among other countries, Cuba. A devout Pentecostalist, he is better known, however, for his vigorous upholding of fundamentalist Christian values on abortion, gay rights, states rights, gun rights, and other issues that split the American public opinion down the middle, a divide over social and cultural policy issues reflected in the closeness of the presidential election.
After a bitter debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the floor of the Senate, John Ashcroft was confirmed on February 1, 2001, by the U.S. Senate by 58 to 42 votes, the narrowest vote on a presidential Cabinet nominee in over a decade and a half, and the most votes cast against any nominee for attorney general since the Senate defeated Calvin Coolidges candidate in 1925. It was a show of strength, a shot over the bows in the words of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, which demonstrated that the Democrats in the Senate had the ability to mount a filibuster against the nomination of a person of Ashcrofts views to the Supreme Court of the United States. It takes 41 votes to maintain a filibuster.
The likelihood that President Bush might make one or two appointments to the Supreme Court in the near future, thereby tipping the courts balance to the right on many social questions, only emphasizes the pivotal role the Supreme Court plays at the fulcrum of all these sensitive and divisive questions. Not least of these of course is legalized abortion, upheld by the Supreme Court now by a slim majority. Opposition to legalized abortion is a matter of deep religious conviction for many, just as how for many others who favor abortion it is a fundamental issue of civil liberty. Abortion, like religion, is a polarizing matter that pulls both political parties away from the center where compromise and bipartisanship are possible toward the extremes precisely because both involve issues which are non-negotiable as the student radicals in the 1960s used to say.
John Ashcroft had shown also an odd affection for the old Confederacy in an interview with the magazine Southern Partisan (second quarter, 1998) which appeared under the headline Missouris Champion of States Rights and Traditional Southern Values. A similar nostalgia for the losing side in the American Civil War had been expressed by another Bush appointment to his Cabinet, Gale Norton, the new Secretary of the Interior. The Department of Interior is also no minor office. It is responsible for the management of close to a half billion acres of federal lands, mostly in the western regions of the country, including the National Park System, as well the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She will be a critical voice in the contentious question of mineral and natural gas and petroleum exploration in the remaining natural wilderness lands under federal protection. Norton had told the Independence Institute in Denver in 1996 that we lost too much when the South was defeated. Since Colorado was not a state at the time (it didnt join the Union until 1876), it is not clear who the we she is referring to is. But she added: We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives. Lest it be forgotten, the issue on which the southern states in the decade leading up to the Civil War were standing against the federal government involved the perpetuation and expansion of slavery.
Missouri, John Ashcrofts home state, had no small role in these turbulent times. The 1850s in fact had been a formative moment in the consolidation of the United States as a transcontinental nation. It witnessed the absorption of the vast land area seized from Mexico in 1848 in the West, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the admission of California to the Union in 1850. The 1850s also saw the great debate over slavery come to a head over the question of whether the western territories, as they became states, would be admitted to the union as slave or free, and the failure to resolve these questions by peaceful debate within the framework of constitutional practice, provoking thereby the titanic conflict of the 1860s when Americans fought with one another in civil war, which took more than 600,000 lives out of a population of 34 million.
The ruthless chaos of the Civil War brought to the western borders saw ferocious skirmishing on the frontier between the abolitionists in the free state of Kansas and confederate raiders from the slave state of Missouri. When I was being interviewed for my first teaching job at the University of Kansas in 1970, I was put up in an old hotel in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, where the bedroom door still bore the marks of the bullets left from the notorious guerrilla raid perpetrated in Lawrence in 1863 by William Clarke Quantrill, who massacred more than 150 citizens. For the new attorney general of the United States from Missouri to have evoked the Confederacy in these historical circumstances at the beginning of the 21st century is curious to say the least.
But the roots of the deep divide opened up by the Ashcroft appointment only emphasized how the election results on November 7, 2000 had thrown up one of those dark shadows from the past. The states where Bush won form a wide swath down the Rocky Mountains and across the South, too close for comfort to the geographical boundaries of the Confederacy and the then western frontier territories which the slave South had sought to incorporate into the Union as slave states. Mr. Gore won the coasts and the industrial upper Midwest. Mr. Gore took the cities by substantial majorities and black voters supported him overwhelmingly. He did well in those areas where new immigrant populations were concentrated, such as California and New York. White southerners, on the other hand, had voted for Mr. Bush by a 35 point margin. The new U.S. census in 2000 shows in fact that over the past decade the western states of Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Colorado, as a result of internal migration, have become whiter, and the white voting age population has been rising also across much of the South. Bush and Gore voters differed widely in their religious practice. Sixty percent of those Americans who go to church more than once a week supported Bush. Sixty-one percent of Americans who never go to church supported Gore. And on another key question there was a deep divide. Sixty percent of Bush voters have a gun at home. The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right to bear arms, is of course an amendment of which Ashcroft approves.
He also, it seems, strongly supports the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is not easy to find out exactly what John Ashcroft had said in his interview with Southern Partisan. Fortunately the New York Public Library still subscribes to virtually everything and I was able to find a copy there. The most striking part of the interview in 1998 with then Senator Ashcroft was his response to a question on states rights and the Tenth Amendment. Ratified in 1791, the Tenth Amendment holds that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. Ashcroft responded as an old patriot. He was most proud of his opposition to a federalized education testing system: For me, education is far too important a thing to cede to faraway bureaucrats. Being against federal intermeddling in education is perhaps one of the strongest things you can do in favor of student achievement in education.
The Democratic Senators who opposed Ashcroft did not do their homework. They should have read, not just cited the Southern Partisan interview. The more they criticized Ashcroft over Ambassador Hormel, over womens reproductive rights, over Judge Ronnie White, over guns and a multitude of liberal litmus-test causes, the better Ashcroft looked to Bushs core supporters. They should instead have asked him about the Tenth Amendment and the federal role in educational testing. Actually come to think of it, this is a question George W. Bush should also have asked Ashcroft, since along with faith-based community services funded by tax payers dollars, federalizing educational testing is just what George W. now wants to do. As one Democratic Senate aide cited by The New York Times put it, President Bush by choosing John Ashcroft has wacked a hornets nest.