Since Sunday is a slow news day, Monday's newspaper often carries curious front-page articles, curious because it is so hard to understand their newsworthiness. On May 14, the Washington Post carried one such phony front-page article carrying a shocking news development.
The Attorney General has a prayer group!
This "scoop" isn't surprising when you remember it's coming from the feels-good-do-it agnostics at the Washington Post, long accustomed to looking down their sophisticated noses at the religious riff-raff. At a comparably early point in Clinton's presidency, reporter Michael Weisskopf insulted the Christian right, whose "followers are largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command."
Old habits, apparently, are hard to break. Now, Post reporter Dan Eggen breathlessly conveyed that these easily commanded, uneducated masses are staining the nation's halls of justice. "Bible Sessions with Staffers Draw Questions and Criticism," the headline blared. Of course, those officials so incensed about John Ashcroft's inappropriate reverence to God stepped forward and made themselves known, right? Of course not. One complained that Ashcroft should "do the business of the government, not establish a religion," but the "Justice attorney ... like other critics was unwilling to be identified by name." Another "career Justice lawyer" called the devotionals "totally outrageous.
If Ashcroft were such a menace, why wouldn't these cowardly devotees of the Anita Hill School of Anonymous Hit Jobs step forward and be named? They're career employees who could easily file suit at the slightest whiff of religious discrimination. Or perhaps these nameless Ashcroft-bashers aren't really the nonpartisan servants they're portrayed to be. Shame on the Post to offer their sneaky sources protection to make such flimsy and trifling charges.
Eggen's story explained that this fuss is an issue because a federal government manual issued in 1997 warned: "Because supervisors have the power to hire, fire, or promote, employees may reasonably perceive their supervisors' religious expression as coercive, even if it was not intended as such. Therefore, supervisors should be careful to ensure that their statements and actions are such that employees do not perceive any coercion."
The Washington Post should have devoted a front-page story to exploring how that stupid passage got into the federal manual in the first place. Eggen allowed Ashcroft's aides to explain that he's done these half-hour devotionals for years, and that no one is forced to join in, and his top aides don't participate, and feel no pressure. But if that's true, where's the news? If Eggen and his editors really believed that Ashcroft wasn't outrageous (or a juicy target for scare-mongering), why would it be on Page One?
It's one of two things. Either the Post didn't believe Ashcroft's aides or the explanation they gave simply wasn't sufficient.
What the forces that be at the Post story really believe is that prayer should be seen as a dangerous practice at the highest levels of government. The First Amendment's pledge to prevent a state-established religion has been ruthlessly twisted into a warning for top officials to avoid the appearance of personal religious belief anywhere near a government building.
Not every anti-Ashcroft voice in the Post story was anonymous. There was the boorish ringleader of the religion-haters, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "He's running the department like a church, complete with rituals and forbidden words." Eggen reported the example that Ashcroft's new style guide for correspondence bans the phrase "no higher calling than public service."
A-ha! There's Ashcroft's offense from the Washington Post's perspective. He's not a believer in the Church of Statism. How dare he believe in a higher calling than government? The highest calling in life is not to save men's souls, it's to offer them a prescription-drug benefit through the Medicare program.
The Ashcroft scoop is also marinated in a fear of Christian majoritarianism. Reporters hunger to find offended Jews, Buddhists, or Hindus to suggest that top officials shouldn't profess their love for Jesus Christ from a podium. But if we had Vice President Lieberman, do you think for a minute the Post would be protesting Lieberman's daily time-out for the Talmud? Would they be quoting from manuals about the perception of coercion? Fat chance. Just as they praised his faith on the campaign, so too would they have saluted him had he extended it to the White House.
Religious people of all stripes see the Attorney General's attempts at daily meditation and prayer and find a role model, not a menace. But perhaps reporters would prefer that the inner sanctums of Washington be preserved for more appropriate personal and non-religious behavior, like recreational sex with interns.