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A Christian, a Citizen

Some of the objections to the John Ashcroft nomination for attorney general hint that the problem with his conservative politics is that it is rooted in his Christian faith.

It is true that Mr. Ashcroft has made it clear that he is Christian and that his religious beliefs Inform his judgment of the world, But why shouldn't someone who holds this particular belief be qualified to lead the Justice Department?

We must remember our country's progressive tradition of religious tolerance. In our nation's history, certain states subjected public officeholders to certain religious tests. For instance, in 1961, the Supreme Court struck down a Maryland law that required public officials to swear to a belief In the existence of God. Progressives fought valiantly against these religious tests, and it would be a grave error to promote a new religious test that would in effect block committed Christians from public service.

And yet some understandable questions remain. From the time of ancient Israel and the early church, believers have held that there is a law higher than those Issued and enforced by government. Its source is transcendent and binds people's souls in a way in which statutory law cannot. Indeed, the idea of a natural law that transcends the political process is a powerful argument against tyranny.

Every serious believer and every conscientious person in public office must balance respect for law with the dictates of conscience. Many have disagreed profoundly with certain policies and wondered whether their religious commitments permitted them to cooperate in enforcing those policies.

Surely, as attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft would also have to struggle with this conundrum – particularly when it comes to abortion, which he opposes. But it is perfectly within Christian belief that one can participate in an essentially just system that sometimes produces unwise laws that must be enforced, as Mr. Aslicroft would do. That is at least as principled a position as that of those Catholic politicians who personally oppose abortion but vigorously support Roe v. Wade,

George W. Bush's response to the attacks on Mr. Ashcroft hints at the distinction between administering the law and advocating legislation. He says that as attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft will enforce, not interpret, the laws, until such time as Congress changes them. Presumably that also includes the nation's laws on abortion.

The Bible, In Chapter 13 of Romans, tells Christians that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” That passage has never been held to mean that every regime governs according to God's will. But the phrase does imply that Christians face no moral obligation to flee from public' life merely because a nation's laws do not always perfectly conform to the highest moral standards.

We are a nation that holds firm to the conviction that a person's religious commitments, or lack thereof, need not bar him or her from public life, The Ashcroft nomination provides an opportunity to reaffirm the best of this old liberal virtue of tolerance.