Attorney General John Ashcroft raised continuing suspicions about his dedication to the separation of church and state this week during a speech before the National Religious Broadcasters Association. In it, he announced that "the guarding of freedom that God grants is the noble charge of the Department of Justice."
We all knew that Ashcroft is a seriously religious man-a member of the Assemblies of God, a leading Pentecostal sect. In fact, he's well-known for his devout eschewal of such earthly vices as drinking, gambling, and even dancing. He frequently makes news for bits of religiously motivated moral pettifogging, like his recent covering of statues in the Justice Department's Great Hall because their nudity offended him.
But criticisms of Ashcroft just for believing what he believes and stating it imply that it just isn't permissible to be a sincerely religious man and hold government office in this country. The slow assimilation of religions that aren't mainstream Protestantism into American public life has been one of the more important-and liberating–trends in America over the past century. But relative newcomers to the public square need to reassure that they don't intend to do any casting down-or propping up-of idols. John F. Kennedy, for example, avoided making public comments about how everyone needed to lean on the spiritual authority of the Pope.
And it is here that Ashcroft hasn't exactly been calming, with his daily prayer meetings and speeches like this one before the religious broadcasters. Both Ashcroft and his secularist critics need to mind their manners, and their mores-the freedom of America, whether God granted or not, allows for even government officials to talk about their beliefs, as long as they aren't using government power to force them on the rest of us.