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Ashcroft Believes in Legislating Morality; Fine, but Whose Morality?
Steven Jonas

John Ashcroft tells us that he believes in "legislating morality." Is there anything wrong with that? Well, generically no. There is nothing wrong with the process of "legislating morality," in fact with our democratic form of government here in the United States, we do it all the time. In most cases, so doing carries with it a positive benefit. For example, most people consider murder to an immoral act, and indeed murder is not only illegal but carries criminal penalties. Taking other people's property without their permission, either directly or indirectly, is also considered immoral by most people. Thus so doing, from robbery and burglary to fraud and extortion are acts that are also criminalized. Even certain so-called "victimless" crimes, like prostitution and the use of certain addicting drugs, which many consider to be immoral acts, are also, well, crimes.

So what's wrong with Ashcroft's position on this question? Well, plenty. It's not that he believes in the process of "legislating morality" that is a clear and present danger to the social fabric of our country and Constitutional democracy in it. It's the substance of what he wants to criminalize and how he goes about making his choices on that substance. It's also about the substance of what Ashcroft would not criminalize, and how he goes about making those choices.

First of all, Ashcroft would criminalize certain acts, like the exercise of freedom of choice in the outcome of pregnancy within the time of viability of the fetus, which many in the country consider to be immoral but many more do not. And the basis on which he rests his case? His interpretation of a certain English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek translation of the original Aramaic in which the book called the Bible is written. And this book, John Ashcroft tells us, should he in office follow to the letter the rules of his Pentecostal faith, represents the literal word of God, a word that, in Pentecostal terms, is "inerrant."

That raises well-known problems. Many of us don't believe in a God or believe in a "different" God than John Ashcroft does, or don't believe that the Bible (at least as the text appears in a version four to five times removed from the original) represents the word of God, or don't believe that that word is "inerrant," or do believe that even if it is the "Word of God" and is "inerrant," it does not represent the only reflection of morality. But John Ashcroft wants to legislate morality in this instance based solely on his reading of the version of the Bible he uses and his belief as to its nature and significance. And he would do this without regard to the views of the majority of the nation's population as to what is moral and immoral in this regard.

Second, there are actions, considered by many to be immoral, that many think should be criminalized, that John Ashcroft thinks should not be. For example, there is the matter of "hate crime." A "hate crime" is one in which the victim is chosen by the perpetrator not on the basis of something that person has done, like lured away his or her spouse, or on the basis that the victim has property that the perpetrator would like to have and can get it in no other way besides killing.

Rather, in a hate crime the perpetrator chooses the victim on the basis of who that person is, a person of color, a homosexual, a member of a minority religion, and that hatred is one that is promoted through electronic, visual, and print media. Many think that that is an immoral act, one that seriously damages the social fabric of our society, one that is entirely inconsistent with the freedom and tolerance that are among our fundamental values in our country. Yet John Ashcroft does not think that hate crimes deserve special treatment through law enforcement, certainly in part because according to his religion (and we are told repeatedly what a man of "faith" he is), homosexuality not only should not receive civil rights protection, but also is a sin that should be punished.

And so, as his nomination is being considered by the Senate, it is John Ashcroft's views of what counts as "immoral" and "moral," and how he arrives at his positions that should be thoroughly explored in the Senate. It is the substance of his positions on what's moral, what's immoral, how he makes those judgments, and that he would criminalize acts he considers to be "immoral" even when there are widely differing views abroad in the land on them. It is not that in the abstract he thinks that "morality should be legislated." In a sentence, it's not the "whether" but the "what" that is so worrisome about this man.