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ERLC endorses Ashcroft; Land cites abortion, religious liberty as reasons

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has endorsed John Ashcroft as attorney general in a letter to the members of the U.S. Senate.

ERLC President Richard Land urged confirmation of Ashcroft in a Jan. 15 letter to each of the 100 senators. The endorsement came on the eve of the start of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Some committee members were expected to grill Ashcroft, a former senator, regarding issues such as abortion, church-state relations and race relations. They were expected to question him especially on his ability to enforce laws with which he does not agree. Ashcroft is an outspoken evangelical Christian who is strongly pro-life and has rejected a separationist view of church-state relations for a more accommodationist approach.

President-elect George W. Bush’s nomination of Ashcroft ignited a campaign of opposition from abortion rights, homosexual rights, church-state separationist and civil rights organizations. Among the vocal foes of Ashcroft’s confirmation are Planned Parenthood Federation of America, People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest homosexual political group.

It marks the first time the ERLC has endorsed a cabinet nominee for confirmation by the Senate. It was called for this time, Land said, because there are “extremely significant issues concerning abortion and religious liberty itself” at stake.

“John Ashcroft is being opposed in the main because he is strongly pro-life and he is an open and avowed evangelical Christian,” Land said Jan. 16. “Many of his opponents are evidently attempting to construct a defacto, anti-evangelical test for office, which would at the very least require that people of evangelical faith declare that they would not allow their faith to impact their performance in office. That is unconstitutional and, more importantly, it’s wrong.

“What’s at stake here,” Land said, “is the ability of people of strong evangelical conviction, and who bring those convictions to bear on their public service, to have the opportunity to fulfill that call to public service by being eligible for confirmation. If the Democratic Party nominated someone like John Ashcroft and he was being challenged on these grounds, we would similarly support him or her.”

Ashcroft’s Christian faith “will make him a better attorney general, not a worse one,” Land said. “His long and distinguished record of public service testifies eloquently to the fact that he will provide protection for the constitutional rights of all citizens and enforce this country’s laws equally.”

The ERLC does not endorse candidates for elected office “because Southern Baptists and other Christians have every opportunity to express their own views on candidates for office at the ballot box,” Land said. “However, they do not have that same opportunity when it comes to nominees for cabinet positions or for the judiciary. So when there are issues of vital concern to Southern Baptists at stake and where Southern Baptists have made those concerns abundantly clear, either in their confessional statement or convention resolutions, we feel it is incumbent upon us to make certain that the people’s elected representatives are aware of those convictions and values.

“The vast majority of Southern Baptists would be upset with the ERLC if we were not expressing support for this man of sterling integrity and bedrock Christian faith,” Land said.

The ERLC has opposed presidential nominees in the past. It stood against President Clinton’s nominations of Joycelyn Elders and Henry Foster to the surgeon general’s post. Elders was confirmed. After she was fired by the president, Foster was rejected by the Senate. The ERLC’s opposition to both was based largely on their support of abortion rights and contraceptives for unmarried teenagers. The SBC also adopted a resolution at the 1995 convention opposing Foster’s confirmation.

The ERLC’s endorsement letter was sent to the Senate on the same day the Southern Baptist Convention’s previous church-state representative raised concerns about Ashcroft. In a Jan. 15 news conference, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs stopped short of opposing Ashcroft, but its executive director, Brent Walker, said Ashcroft’s record “reveals a hostility to, or at least a misunderstanding of,” church-state separation. The Senate should question the nominee on his ability to “put aside his personal, ideological predilections and enforce the law” in a manner that agrees with the separation of church and state, Walker said.

Meanwhile, Family Research Council, a Washington-based pro-family group, defended Ashcroft on the day his confirmation hearings began. FRC President Ken Connor called the former attorney general and governor of Missouri the “best-qualified nominee for attorney general of the past 30 years.”

Ashcroft was the chief sponsor of the charitable-choice provision in the welfare reform law enacted in 1996. Charitable choice enables religious groups to receive government funds to conduct social services.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN ASHCROFT.