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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2001 / 24 Teves, 5761

Eric Fettmann

Eric Fettman
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A double standard on faith

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FOR nearly two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, the state of New York was unable to enact a death-penalty law, despite tremendous public support and overwhelming backing in the state Legislature.

Two successive governors - Democrats Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo - personally opposed capital punishment on moral grounds. So, even though the highest court in the land had sanctioned its use, Carey and Cuomo vetoed every death-penalty bill.

They did so legally: Overriding any veto required a two-thirds majority in both the state Senate and the Assembly, and the bills were invariably a vote or two short. But both men made clear that they were acting because their personal views would not allow them to sign such a measure into law.

Carey even declared that he would commute every death sentence rather than see it enforced; Cuomo implied pretty much the same thing.

Yet no Democrat ever denounced Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo for putting their religious and moral beliefs ahead of their obligation to follow the will of the people. On the contrary - both were hailed by the left as moral beacons who represented the triumph of political virtue.

Fast forward to John Ashcroft: Critics claim he's not qualified to serve as U.S. attorney general because his strong conservatism and deep religious convictions mean he can't be depended on to enforce laws with which he disagrees.

Never mind Ashcroft's up-front, unequivocal statement in his opening statement: "My primary personal belief is that the law is supreme," he said. "I don't place myself above the law, and I shouldn't place myself above the law. So it would violate my beliefs to do it."

Indeed, said the former senator, "I'd have to say that my faith heritage compels me to enforce the law and abide by the law rather than to violate the law."

Nor are these particularly new sentiments. In a 1998 speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Ashcroft declared: "We must embrace the power of faith, but we must never confuse politics with piety. For me personally, may I say that it's against my religion to impose my religion.

(For the record, Christian conservatives like Gary Bauer and Paul Weyrich roundly condemned that '98 speech; the latter called Ashcroft's remarks "a recipe for disaster" and said he'd "damaged his reputation among conservatives.")

And in this week's hearings, Ashcroft answered critics who claim he believes that certain laws are exempt from enforcement with a laundry list of assurances about their pet concerns: Roe v. Wade is "the settled law of the land. The Supreme Court's decisions on this have been multiple, recent and emphatic." He added, "No woman should fear being threatened or coerced in seeking constitutionally protected health services."

But that didn't satisfy the traditionally hysterical voices of political overkill.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn) said he doubts Ashcroft's ability to "execute the duties of his office," citing his "lack of concern over the mixing of church and state." Rep. Carolyn Maloney said confirming Ashcroft would "bring us to the precipice of the end of reproductive freedom in America." And the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume still insists that Ashcroft "has not proven he will enforce laws with which he disagrees."

Where was all this uproar back when Jimmy Carter was declaring that "my decisions as president [will] be guided by the religious principles in which I believe"? For that matter, did Jerry Nadler denounce Al Gore for proclaiming last year that "I turn to my faith as the bedrock of my approach to any important [political] question"?

Let's be honest here: This has nothing to do with Ashcroft's suitability for the job of attorney general. In fact, the Democrats are likely praying for his confirmation; the party desperately needs a political demon to spur its political fund-raising.

Demonizing Republicans - all Republicans - as out-of-the mainstream extremists is what the Democrats are all about. For the new administration, it began this past summer, when Dick Cheney - with a 25-year record of respected conservatism - was branded as "too outside the American mainstream."

It's hard to blame the left: Demonizing Republicans on Capitol Hill - from Newt Gingrich to Dick Armey to Bob Livingston to Bob Barr - has reaped enormous political dividends. If the tactic works, use it.

Just don't also claim you're eager to tone down the divisiveness of today's political discourse, or to work toward the bipartisanship that Democrats insist they want.

John Ashcroft said it best in that '98 speech: "Today, too many would-be leaders look to divide rather than unite, to build themselves up by tearing others down."

The thought wasn't original: Ashcroft publicly credited the former governor whose words he borrowed: A man named Mario Cuomo.


JWR contributor Eric Fettmann is a columnist for the New York Post. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2000, Eric Fettman