WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (JTA) — In a confirmation hearing that focused attention on the role of religion in public life, Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft said Tuesday he would resign if he faced an insoluble conflict between the law and his religious beliefs.
“I don’t believe it is appropriate to have a test based on religion for a job,” Ashcroft said in response to a question from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “My faith heritage compels me to enforce the law and abide by the law.”
Ashcroft came before the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings on his nomination to President-elect George W. Bush’s Cabinet, and pledged to serve as the “attorney general of all the people.”
Ashcroft was criticized this week for comments he made at a Christian fundamentalist university in 1999.
On Tuesday, he told the Senate committee: “I well understand that the role of attorney general is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it.”
The committee will vote on whether to recommend Ashcroft’s nomination to the full Senate, which then makes the final determination.
Ashcroft’s comments came after a series of partisan opening remarks, in which Republicans emphasized Ashcroft’s career in Missouri politics and Democrats questioned his ability to separate his religious views from the duties of his prospective office.
“I have every confidence, based on his distinguished record, that as attorney general, he will vigorously work to enforce the law whether or not the law happens to be consistent with his personal views,” said Hatch, the ranking Republican on the committee.
“When you have been such a zealous and impassioned advocate for so long, how do you just turn it off?” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked in his opening statement.
Ashcroft’s religious views and conservative ideology concern some Jewish organizations, and his 1999 speech at Bob Jones University made groups uncomfortable about how Ashcroft’s religious beliefs might affect policy.
“Because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different,” Ashcroft said at the South Carolina school. “We have no king but Jesus.
“If America is to be great in the future, it will be if we understand that our source is not civic and temporal, but our source is godly and eternal,” he said.
The Anti-Defamation League called on Ashcroft to “assure the American people that his personal religious beliefs will not dictate how he will carry out his duties.”
In addition, Ashcroft’s remarks caused some Jewish organizations to oppose the appointment of the former Missouri governor and state attorney general for the Justice Department’s top spot.
Other organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women and Jewish Women International, oppose Ashcroft for his stands on affirmative action, gun control, civil rights and abortion.
But Ashcroft has found some allies in the Jewish community. The Republican Jewish Coalition will air television ads this week highlighting Ashcroft’s career in public service.
Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, said Ashcroft’s critics are engaging in “character assassination.”
Agudath Israel of America said Ashcroft, who has been criticized for his ties to the Christian Right and his alleged lack of support for civil rights laws, respects all people regardless of race or religion.
When Ashcroft refers to “Jesus,” it’s akin to a Jew using the word “God,” explained Rabbi Avi Shafran, the fervently Orthodox group’s director of public affairs.
People have long been aware of Ashcroft’s beliefs, Shafran said, but no applicant should be disqualified from consideration for a job just because he’s a religious Christian.
But some organizations are concerned that in running the Justice Department, Ashcroft would adhere more to his religious teachings than to the law.
“In the United States, it is the Constitution that serves as the basis for laws and national life, not one faith tradition,” Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in a statement.
Lynn called Ashcroft’s speech at Bob Jones University “an insult to religious minorities.”
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said both Ashcroft and vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman have made speeches that addressed the importance of faith in the lives of individual Americans. Lieberman was criticized by organizations like the ADL for referring to God in campaign speeches when he was running for vice president last year.
Hatch said Tuesday that many left-wing groups have not been as supportive of Ashcroft’s religious beliefs — he is a member of the Assembly of God — as they were of Lieberman’s. Both Hatch and Ashcroft noted their support for Lieberman’s expressions of faith.
But there was a difference between Lieberman’s comments and Ashcroft’s, according to Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Lieberman’s comments on faith must be viewed in the context of his career, where he has practiced religious pluralism and promoted religious liberty, Pelavin said.
A year before his Bob Jones University address, Ashcroft sounded different ideas and distanced himself from the themes of the religious right in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club.
“We must embrace the power of faith, but we must never confuse politics and piety,” he said. “For me, may I say that it is against my religion to impose my religion.”
Ashcroft is far outside the mainstream on issues like abortion, gun control and civil rights, according to Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Ashcroft is also known as an architect of charitable choice, which allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts. Though charitable choice is expected to be expanded under Bush — he has promised to establish an Office of Faith-Based Action — many Jewish groups oppose it on the grounds of church-state separation.