Attorney General John Ashcroft told graduates at Catholic University on Saturday that bedrock values such as truth and freedom are under assault from terrorists who try to force people toward conclusions they never would embrace on their own.

"In the midst of this assault, we have learned that our values are neither self-executing nor self-sustaining," Ashcroft, a lay minister and the son of a Pentecostal preacher, said in a commencement address. "They must be defended, not just with military might, but with deeper devotion."

Ashcroft received an honorary degree in the ceremony on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Weaving religious references throughout his address, he told graduates that freedom is "not the grant of any government or any prince or any king, but it is in fact the gift of God."

Terrorists, Ashcroft said, "distrust the decisions of free people, afraid of what free people would choose. Instead, the terrorist, rejecting persuasion, decides to rely on extortion to force people to a conclusion that they would never embrace on their own."

"Instead of hope and reason, the terrorist offers fear," he said. "For those who seek truth and think rigorously, the way of the terrorist offers nothing."