Republican presidential hopeful Senator John Ashcroft gave an important
speech Monday night to the Detroit Economic Club. It followed on the heels of a Wall Street Journal article, entitled “GOP Hard-Liner Ashcroft Parades His Pragmatic Side,” which suggested that John Ashcroft
is now reading the tea leaves in the wake of the recent election, and deciding that he needs to be more “pragmatic” and “moderate,” and putting
some of his social conservative views on the back burner. The Journal said that Ashcroft has spent 1998 “courting,” as they say, the “social” conservatives — that’s a code word for moral conservatives, the people who care about the country’s moral crisis and destiny — but that a strategic shift appears to be on tap, in which “Mr. Ashcroft and his aides plan to tailor his public persona to emphasize the sort of mainstream political successes he enjoyed as governor.” The Associated Press reported that in his speech Monday, the senator “didn’t mention abortion or Lewinsky … focusing instead on his tax cut plan, free market ideals and fiscal record as governor.”
Monday’s speech does indeed appear to have been the launch of a full-throttle strategic shift for Senator Ashcroft, and I find it very disturbing. The reports that I have seen suggest that, consistent with much of the post-election media and liberal spin, the senator has formed
the totally wrong interpretation that that any serious Republican presidential contender must move to the left and begin to prove that he doesn’t care nearly as much about moral matters as he might have said he
He appears to have made only one remark in the speech that had reference
to his moral conservative views: “We must embrace the power of faith, but we must not confuse politics with piety. It is against my religion to impose my religion.”
There are several things seriously wrong with this statement. First, it
validates the impression that by giving priority to moral concerns he would be “imposing his religion.” Coming from somebody who is presenting himself as a moral conservative statesman, this statement seems to confirm and legitimize an underlying — and untrue — assumption
of the liberal elite about moral conservative views. Liberals assume that because we want the country to address moral priorities and get its
moral house in order, we are somehow aiming to “impose our religion.”
This is utterly false. All such moral conservatives are trying to do is remind America of its moral heritage — a moral heritage enshrined above all in our great Declaration of Independence, that is clear, public, and that has been understood throughout our national history to have clear implications for our national life and politics.
If you say what John Ashcroft said, you are in fact making the case for
the other side. One of the major mistakes often made in public discussion is to formulate your views in such a way as to inaccurately validate the false premises and assumptions of your opponent, and Senator Ashcroft’s statement does just that. This is a significant and destructive mistake to make in a speech specifically crafted to establish the basis of one’s claim to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate.
I also have difficulty understanding what he could mean by the statement
that “we must not confuse politics with piety.” I often have recourse to the dictionary to see what people’s statements are intended to mean, because what they actually say may not be entirely what they mean. So because Senator Ashcroft’s statement struck me as quite strange, I looked up the word “piety.”
In my copy of Webster’s Dictionary, “piety” is defined as follows:
- Fidelity to natural obligation, as to parents.
- Dutifulness in religion; devoutness.
- A pious act. Allegiance; devotion; loyalty.
Now, I have to admit that in the Clinton era there are many people who
think that we should not confuse politics with dutifulness, allegiance, devotion and loyalty; or with fidelity to natural obligation, such as the obligation to one’s spouse. They certainly do not want us to confuse politics with all of these things, because then we might actually come to the conclusion that Bill Clinton is violating the fundamental moral premises of our political life with his lying, his adultery, and his disrespect for his oath of office.
These are some of the reasons that I think that politics could do with a
dose of confusion with piety! Maybe we should confuse some of the vicious and corrupt cowards in the Congress into doing what is right by the Constitution. So what exactly did John Ashcroft mean when he said that we must not confuse politics with piety?
In my own opinion, piety chiefly refers to respect for God. Does John
Ashcroft mean to say that when we get involved with political questions we should show no fidelity or dutifulness to God? If we show respect for God in dealing with political issues, is that “imposing our religion”?
This question is particularly important because the basic principle of
America is that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. If we don’t carry respect for God into politics, how do we propose to sustain respect for those basic rights? Senator Ashcroft’s statement on piety and politics has all the markings of a superficial phrase crafted to please his secular audience, but made
with no real thought about whether it makes sense, and no profound concern with its implications for the deepest questions of our political
Another striking thing about Senator Ashcroft’s performance is that he
went in front of the Detroit Economic Club to make this statement. I have gained the decisive impression in recent times that a good part of the money-powers in America are actively contributing to our moral corruption. Many of them are actually mouthpieces for moral indifference, and appear to have a stake in the survival of this corrupt
president. So if you go before the Detroit Economic Club, is that the time to leave the challenge of our national moral crisis on the shelf while you talk about economic issues?
I don’t think so. I have often said that I believe that the test of one’s commitment to the moral agenda and the moral priorities is not what you say to the Christian Coalition; it is what you say to those who
are going to be made to squirm in their chairs when they hear it, because they don’t want to hear it. In the present moral crisis of the country, we need leaders who are going to stand firm in every wind — even the wind of presidential ambition — and speak the truth to the American people. We need to hear about, and deal with, what our moral corruption means to our liberty and to our prospects — even to our economic prospects.
In his speech to the Detroit Economic Club, John Ashcroft decisively failed this test. He said what they wanted to hear, instead of what they needed to hear.
This doesn’t mean that he should not address economic issues; I do it
all the time. But I put it in the context of the moral crisis, making clear what must be the priority in this nation’s life right now if we are to survive. Before the Detroit Economic Club it would be perfectly appropriate to talk about the economic effects of America’s moral crisis, and how it is the case that this moral corruption raises the specter of economic destruction in this country.
But why would you leave out the important moral message when you go before a group that has as much influence on things as financial elites have in this country? They are the ones who actually need to hear the moral message again and again and again — to be told that it is wrong right now for us to ignore the moral priorities in favor of “money-is-God” priorities.
So if you are not willing to go before such a group and be clear about
these priorities, then you are not carrying the banner — you are not carrying the moral standard. You are putting the standard in the closet when it counts. Among the “practical” questions that we should be asking ourselves as the jockeying begins in earnest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 should be the question, “What good is a standard-bearer who leaves the standard behind when it counts the most?”
To put it plainly, the failure to carry this banner wherever and whenever it is needed represents a failure of statesmanship that disqualifies one as the spokesman for moral conservatism.
So often in the last couple of years I have been approached by people
who say with real heartbreak, “Alan, why is it that we vote for people, and they sound so good, and then when they get in there they don’t perform?” It is partly because of this syndrome — this belief that somehow or other it is okay to leave the truth behind when you go to talk to the Detroit Economic Club, because they want to hear about money
issues, and you have to tell them what they want to hear.
That sounds great … as a political calculation. As leadership, it is gravely lacking.
It is also quite revealing. And if moral conservatives don’t pay close
attention to what their would-be leaders do at such carefully crafted moments of self-promotion, we will deserve what we get in 2000.