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Daily | 01.19.01
John Ashcroft, Moral Relativist
George Packer on the gentle new Ashcroft of the confirmation hearings

IN HIS CONFIRMATION hearings this week, John Ashcroft could have followed the example of Coriolanus, who, upon being named Consul-designate, refused to humble himself before the senate and citizenry of Rome as the price of getting the job. "Better it is to die, better to starve," Coriolanus roared,

Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this wolfish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear,
Their needless vouches?...Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honour go
To one that would do thus.

Ashcroft is one that would do thus. He wants the high office badly enough to thank Hob and Dick for their every churlish question and then assure them that the Second Amendment doesn't preclude gun regulation, that "discrimination is wrong" and "slavery was abhorrent," that he would have been at Grant's side at Appomattox, wincing as Lee was allowed to keep his sword. He swore that he would make a careful distinction between personal belief and enforcement of the law. He even admitted that some things -- for example, the fact that Jefferson was both the great apostle of human equality and also a slaveowner -- are "complex and complicated." He began the week a Pentecostal composer of gospel song lyrics that declare: "What God hath joined is asunder torn, Against His holy Word;/And lives are stilled that are yet unborn; Stone hearts remain unstirred." By Wednesday, he was admitting that reasonable people can disagree about abortion.

It was disappointing to hear him say so. One would have liked a little more Coriolanus in Ashcroft. From his point of view, it must have been galling to submit graciously to self-righteous lecturing from an adulterous drunk, a plagiarist, and five Jews. Ashcroft is nothing if not an absolutist. His temperament and worldview depend on fairly drastic and uncompromising simplifications. His text is not "Lord I believe; help though mine unbelief," but rather "He that is not with me is against me." Beyond his individual changes of position (which were remarkable enough to prompt Senator Dianne Feinstein to mutter zoologically about changed stripes and spots, "metamorphosis," and "mutation"), what's striking is the spectacle of John Ashcroft reduced to celebrating diversity and seeing several sides of every issue. In the very Senate caucus room where Joe McCarthy conducted his communist inquisition and Clarence Thomas denounced "a high-tech lynching," Ashcroft is forced -- at least for a week -- to sound like one more squishy moral relativist.

His testimony suggests that in the great culture wars of the past three decades, the left position is winning on almost every issue -- abortion, gender and racial equality, gun control. Social conservatism in its extreme Christian variety looks more and more like the true counterculture. Along with the loose anti-globalization movement that erupted in Seattle just over a year ago, Christian conservatism is the last stronghold of resistance to the dominant contemporary American ideology of what the journalist William Finnegan calls "liberal consumerism" and defines as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness plus more shopping time. Movement Christians offer a coherent rebuke -- though it happens to be an often intolerant, narrow-minded, repressive one -- to a society devoted as never before to individualism and materialism. Over the past two decades, their fervor has produced the kind of social activism or personal withdrawal from the larger community that used to be associated with the utopian Left: home schooling, "intentional communities" of believers, social programs run out of evangelical churches. Believers speak of a Third Great Awakening sweeping the country. Underlying it all is a basic belief that government laws and programs -- a change of structure -- are useless without a change of heart.

At their best, these efforts have risen above the historical racism of white evangelicals in America. The Southern Baptists apologized for slavery and segregation; the Promise Keepers (who have recently fallen into oblivion) emphasized racial reconciliation at their stadium rallies; interracial churches began to appear in old hardcore bastions of the South, like Birmingham, Alabama. Representatives of this side of Christianity recently met with President-elect Bush in Austin. Among them was a black Pentecostal minister from a street-front church in Boston named Eugene Rivers, a self-described "Christian black nationalist" who has had success reducing gang violence. In a figure like Rivers, one sees the social moralism of the Left and the Right mixed inextricably.

He ought to arrange a conversation sometime soon with his fellow Pentecostal, the attorney general-designate. For Ashcroft doesn't seem to have been moved by this utopian streak in evangelical Christianity. He articulates morality in entirely personal terms: His staff aides are vetted for fidelity to their spouses, but somehow school desegregation in St. Louis didn't come under the heading of justice. Nonetheless, it's a shame to see even this deeply imperfect example of Christian fervor swallowing his beliefs on Calvary hill. Shorn of conviction, what else does he have to offer?

George Packer is the author, most recently, of Blood of the Liberals.
Other articles by George Packer


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