Columnist Eric Burns is on vacation this week. In the meantime, we are rerunning some of his greatest hits from the past 12 months. The following column first appeared in January 2001.
I am not afraid of Christians. I do not cower when they approach. I do not snicker when they speak. One reason is that I am old enough to remember when calling someone a Christian was to compliment him, not to apply tar and feathers. Another is that I recall how the term became a pejorative.
Briefly, this is what happened: In the sixties and seventies, thanks to people who hadn't the slightest idea what the Founding Fathers meant by the separation of church and state and would not have cared if they did, Christianity lost its foothold on American public life.
Piety was dismissed as hypocrisy, faith as a mask for prejudice. The public schools evicted prayer. Municipal buildings stopped putting up Nativity scenes. Civic oaths dropped any reference to God. As late as 1996, teachers in Pittsburgh were instructed to wish their students a "happy sparkle season" instead of "Merry Christmas."
As a result, Christians organized themselves into the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition and other such groups. Their militancy — and attempt only to win back lost territory, not to add to previous holdings — made them enemies among liberals of increasing illiberal temperament.
I am aware of this. I understand it. So I am not afraid of Christians.
Nor am I afraid of John Ashcroft, probably their most controversial member these days. Why should I be? He is no more Christian than Joseph Lieberman was Jewish, and I was not afraid of him, either. In fact, I am comforted by both men, by the strength of their religious convictions.
But Ashcroft is the story at present, and I have come to an easy decision. I trust him. I will rely on his judgment when it agrees with mine, and his integrity when I believe him in error.
He has already, as the Attorney General of Missouri, shown himself willing to enforce laws with which he does not agree for religious reasons. He has shown himself, in other words, capable of striking a balance between being a public servant and a servant of his Lord. He has shown himself to be more broad-minded than many of his foes.
Some of those foes, identified on the January 10 edition of NBC's Today show by correspondent Lisa Myers only as "[h]andgun opponents," are apparently vituperative. They "went so far as to claim," Myers reported, "that Ashcroft has the same view of the Second Amendment right to bear arms as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh."
I am sure they did. But of all the facts and opinions available to Myers in preparing her story, and considering how few of them she could actually include because of time constraints, why did she choose this one?
Because there are so many people out there who compare Ashcroft to McVeigh that Myers could not help but paraphrase their views? Unlikely. Because the view is one that she holds herself and by attributing it to others she could editorialize without actually appearing to? Possibly.
The comparison of one person to another because of a common position on a subject can be the dirtiest of tricks. Politicians are often guilty. Pundits are often guilty. Both should vow to abstain.
Had the Third Reich succeeded, it was Adolf Hitler's intention to prohibit his subjects from eating red meat. Does this mean that today's vegetarians have something in common with the odious Führer? Yes. Does this mean the former can be categorized with the latter in any meaningful way? Of course not.
Stalin liked to read Victor Hugo. So do I. I have no plans to execute my political opponents.
The consensus seems to be that although John Ashcroft's faith is being questioned in Congress and the media — questioned more than Joe Lieberman's was, in fact — Ashcroft will be confirmed as Attorney General of the United States. It's okay with me. I am not afraid.
Lisa Myers shouldn't be, either.