Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft before the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, Nashville, Tennessee, February 19, 2002 (NOTE: The Attorney General Often Deviates from Prepared Remarks)
Thank you. And congratulations on this, your 59th annual convention. I want to thank and acknowledge each of you here today for informing and enlightening a grateful nation. We are grateful for the indispensable role religious broadcasters play in connecting communities of faith to each other and to the issues of the day.
Although it has been my honor and pleasure to address this convention in the past, this year is unlike other years in that we gather today having lost a great friend and a great American. Dr. Brandt Gustavson died last May. Each morning I conduct a morning devotional for those who wish to begin their day giving thanks and praise to God. Dr. Gustavson attended this morning devotional on more than one occasion. I join you and all religious broadcasters in mourning Brandt Gustavson's death and praising his extraordinary life.
This year is also unlike other years because we come together in a time of war. The war against terrorism is now the single, over-arching priority of justice and law enforcement -- not just the men and women of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but of the 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies as well.
This war is unlike any other war we have fought. The men and women of justice and law enforcement are called to combat a terrorist threat that is both immediate and vast; a threat that resides here, at home, but whose supporters, patrons and sympathizers form a multinational network of evil.
The attacks of September 11 were acts of terrorism against civilization orchestrated and carried out by individuals living within our borders.
In response, we have launched a concerted campaign to defeat terrorism. We have pledged to use every resource in the law against terrorists -- every statute, however obscure; and every law enforcement officer, whether he or she serves in the cities, the states or in Washington, D.C.
Some have asked whether a civilized nation -- a nation of law and not of men -- can use the law to defend itself from barbarians and remain civilized.
Our answer, unequivocally, is "yes." Yes, we will defend civilization. And yes, we will preserve the rule of law because it is that which makes us civilized.
But the call to defend civilization from terrorism resonates from a deeper source than our legal or political institutions. Civilized people -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator. Civilized people of all religious faiths are called to the defense of His creation.
In the darkest hours of the Blitz in World War II, Winston Churchill said that when great causes are on the move in the world ... "we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty."
We are a nation called to defend freedom -- a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document but is our endowment from God.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
As God's gift, our freedom is not license to behave in anyway we choose. It is the ability to make choices with the understanding that what we choose has real consequences. We may be free to choose to act for good or for evil, but our's is not a freedom from consequence. Our choices will have consequences for good or evil.
For those who embrace a biblical understanding of creation, the difference between freedom and license echoes down the corridors of time in two voices, first heard in the Garden of Eden.
The first voice -- the voice of evil disguised as freedom -- whispers: just do it, it won't make a difference. The second voice, the voice of God, states plainly: make your choices but make them carefully because you make all the difference.
[Deuteronomy 30:19 "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and they seed may live."]
The voice of evil, posing as freedom, tells us that we are free to ignore the difference between life and death, and between blessing and cursing. But when you are told that your choices are without consequences you are not told that you are free, you are told that you are meaningless.
It is this freedom that is at the basis of the rule of law in America. Our system of government respects our freedom to make choices, to accept the consequences and to maximize the potential that God has placed within us. The purpose of our system of justice is not to crush that freedom or to override that freedom but to respect it, to nurture it and through it, to unleash the potential of every human being.
Terrorists have a different understanding of choices. Because they fear that people with freedom will reject their ideas, terrorists seek to deny us our freedom. They distrust personal choice because they have abandoned every value except their own lust for power. In a universe of choices -- a marketplace of ideas -- their way offers us nothing.
Our fight against terrorism, then, is a defense of our freedom in the most profound sense: It is the defense of our right to make moral choices -- to seek fellowship with God that is chosen, not commanded. This freedom is respected and nurtured in our society of laws. It is respected in our right to choose how or if we worship God. It is nurtured in our fundamental belief of equality before the law. By attacking us, terrorists attack not just the system of government that supports this freedom, but freedom itself.
The conflict that confronts us is not Christian versus Muslim, or Muslim versus Jew. Even as we seek justice in Afghanistan for those who attacked us on September 11, we extend our hands in aid and comfort to a war-torn people. As we pursue justice, we respect life. As we seek to reprimand the guilty, we also seek to give assistance to the innocent.
This is not a conflict based in religion. It is a conflict between those who believe that God grants us choice and those who seek to impose their choices on us. It is a conflict between inspiration and imposition; the way of peace and the way of destruction and chaos. It is a conflict between good and evil. And as President Bush has reminded us, we know that God is not neutral between the two.
Nor is our system of government neutral between good and evil. We are blessed to live in a nation that respects our freedom to live in a context of choice. The founders of our nation understood religion's role in promoting the virtues necessary for self government.
George Washington warned in his Farewell Address that our young republic would not survive if Americans indulged in the "supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. "
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,"said Washington, "religion and morality are indispensable supports."
Our Constitution does not call for the establishment of religion in the public square. Just as important, it does not call for the abolition of religion in the public square. It calls for the respect of religion in its indispensable role in forming a just and moral citizenry.
Today our freedom and this heritage is under assault from those who fear its capacity to unleash the potential that God has placed in each and every one of us. Our enemies hope that by portraying this as a religious conflict, they can disguise their own betrayal of religion. They hope that by calling America the aggressor, they can conceal their own lust for power. They hope that by denying America's tolerance and humanity, they can convince the world that they, not we, are the tolerant and the humane.
We must call these things what they are: lies -- lies designed to exploit differences among us. Lies designed to inspire hatred and to deny choice. Lies meant to extinguish freedom.
True faith is not built on a foundation of lies, nor is it supported by a framework of hatred. True faith unites us against evil. It calls on us to put aside small differences to pursue great virtues.
[Isaiah 1:18 "Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool."]
By striking at our heart, our enemies hope to destroy the virtues we value and the freedom we cherish. But they underestimate our strength and our national unity. We are strong, and we are united. You can see our national unity in places that are unanticipated.
[homeless flag story]
Today Americans are coming together, united against a common enemy. For people of all faiths -- be they Christians, Jews or Muslims -- it is impossible not to see the stark difference between the way of God and the way of the terrorists. It is the difference between a hero and a murderer, a fireman and a suicide bomber, a culture of life and a culture of death. It is the difference between those who would die to save the innocent and those who would die to destroy the innocent.
In a nation united, there can be no doubting which path we will choose. And in a world of freedom, there is no doubt which view will prevail.
Thank you very much. God bless you and God bless America.