In the Manichean world of 21st-century Washington, the righteous and the pure-of-soul are in the ascendant. The Christian Right has never been so close to power as it is under the bible-brandishing regime of George W Bush. And within this earnest collection of the god-fearing, John Ashcroft sits closest to the throne.
The 58-year-old Yale graduate and former college football star is the US Attorney General, a key player in the Bush Cabinet. The strait-laced Ashcroft is the most powerful law-maker in the world's most powerful country - and the one who is driving the country's domestic 'war on terrorism'. A scary proposition, given his track record.
Ashcroft is a teetotal Christian fundamentalist, the son and grandson of Pentecostal ministers. His father was a travelling evangelist in the 1920s and John Jr joined the Assemblies of God movement - of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker fame - when he was a young man. His is an unambiguous, simple faith. After being sworn in as Attorney General he instituted morning-prayer sessions in his Washington office. Later, when he hung curtains around two Art Deco statues in the Justice Building, rumours flew that he was uncomfortable with the partially exposed breast of one statue.
Ashcroft sees public service as his Christian duty - not a bad thing in itself. But he is also a politician who feels that God is personally in his corner and on the side of the American people. He takes this intimate connection to the Lord seriously, even interpreting the ups and downs of his political career in Christian imagery. His electoral defeats he refers to as 'crucifixions' and his victories as 'resurrections'.
He's had a few of both. He was a two-term Governor of Missouri before being elected to the US Senate in 1994. When he ran for re-election in 2000 his Democratic opponent Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash three weeks before the election, but ended up winning anyway. Then came the resurrection: George W's offer of the Attorney General job.
Ashcroft was not welcomed with open arms. Liberals were aghast at his Senate record, which was dismally regressive: anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-aids funding, anti-gay rights, anti-public arts funding. In fact, 'anti' just about everything except those old-time, love-your-neighbour Christian issues: the death penalty and the freedom to bear arms.
There were also concerns about his ability to separate his personal beliefs from his job as the nation's top law-maker. In a 1998 interview he told the pro-confederate, pro-slavery magazine Southern Partisan that it helped 'set the record straight' by defending 'Southern patriots like [Robert E] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis.'
During his stint as Governor of Missouri he pleased anti-choice groups by dismissing both rape and incest as grounds for abortion. Later he declared: 'If I had the opportunity to pass a single law, I would fully recognize the constitutional right to life of every unborn child.' No wonder The Christian Coalition (a conservative lobby group) gave him a 100-per-cent rating in the run-up to the 2000 Senate race.
During his stint as Attorney General John Jr hasn't done much to calm his critics. Last February in Nashville, Tennessee, he told an assembly of religious broadcasters that American 'freedoms' are made in Heaven, 'not the grant of any government or document, but our endowment from God'. This must be worrying for Americans who believe the US Constitution was written by human beings and that the rule of law has something to do with ordinary mortals sorting out for themselves systems of self-government.
But it is Ashcroft's behaviour since last September that has civil libertarians in the US most upset. Once the Bush administration declared its 'war on terrorism' Ashcroft quickly pushed through the US Patriot Act - a wide-ranging, complex piece of legislation that threatens to overturn decades of advances in civil liberties. The new law gives the Government sweeping powers to monitor its citizens including expanded search-and-seizure, and wiretapping, the power to detain non-citizens indefinitely and the suspension of habeas corpus. FBI spooks can even seize library borrowing records to check out what those evil would-be terrorists might be reading.
When he was questioned about wanting to bring suspected terrorists before a secret military tribunal Ashcroft accused his opponents of being unpatriotic. He dismissed those concerned about civil liberties as weak-kneed bleeding hearts who 'aid terrorists' and 'give ammunition to America's enemies'. Such bullying in the emotional aftermath of 11 September brings to mind the closed-minded bluster of 1950s McCarthyism.
And that's just the beginning. If Ashcroft has his way (Gallup polls indicate he has 75-per-cent public approval) Americans could be in for a lot worse. What he and his cronies in the Justice Department really want is to stack the federal judiciary with right-wing judges. That's when they can begin their real work: rolling back 50 years of progress on social-justice issues in the US.
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