Hours before taking his U.S. Senate oath, John Ashcroft knelt before his elderly father.
The Rev. J. Robert Ashcroft sat on a deep couch, while others stood to lay hands on his son's head in an ancient dedication rite. The frail Pentecostal patriarch -- whose journey included studies at New York University and the presidency of a liberal arts college in the Ozarks -- began swinging his arms, trying to get up. Ashcroft later wrote that he urged his father to stay seated.
"John," he replied, "I'm not struggling to stand, I'm struggling to kneel."
Evoking another biblical symbol, the father anointed his son's forehead with oil. In place of the traditional olive oil, someone provided vegetable oil.
The father gave his son a final blessing and then died the next day.
Media gossips offered a twisted take on this scene last week. Here's the Washington Post's spin on one of the holiest moments in the senator's life.
"Clinton White House wags have dubbed controversial attorney general nominee John Ashcroft 'The Crisco Kid'," said the "Reliable Sources" column. "We phoned the folks at Proctor & Gamble ... to ask their reaction to Ashcroft's unorthodox use of the product." A spokesperson said, "Crisco is a great moisturizer for dry skin, and people have used it as a lubricant. ... (We) prefer that people cook with it."
Cue the laugh track. Obviously, Ashcroft's supporters have not been amused as his faith has been dissected and ridiculed in the public square. But they should not have been surprised, said theologian Gabriel Fackre, of the liberal United Church of Christ.
Cruel things happen when the poetry of faith gets jammed into political headlines. Some of Ashcroft's enemies would rather talk about holy oil, speaking in tongues and Bob Jones than about his work in the U.S. Senate, the National Governors' Association, the National Association of Attorneys General or at Yale and the University of Chicago.
"Ashcroft's critics didn't like it when he told people at Bob Jones University that here in America we can say, 'We have no king but Jesus,' " said Fackre. "Of course, when he said that, he was echoing the words of the early Christians who declared that 'Jesus is Lord' and refused to say that 'Caesar is Lord.'
"So far, so good. But the problem is that when someone like John Ashcroft says that, he also feeds ammunition to all his critics who say that he wants to wed that Christian confession to his own political agenda."
Truth is, two different conversations need to take place about legal and religious issues in public life. The first is rooted in the public's right to expect officials to follow what Fackre called "universally discernible norms" of law and moral conduct. It's one thing to say the president is sinning. It's something else to say he is lying, stealing or cheating.
But Christians may "conduct a second conversation with a president who professes to be a believer," said Fackre, writing in Christianity Today. "This conversation draws upon biblical teachings to which both parties give allegiance, such as matters of repentance and forgiveness, the grace of God, Christian vocation and its responsibilities, the temptations that come with power, and the like."
Americans may be confused about all this, since these "two conversations" overlapped so often during the Clinton era that they created a bitter cacophony.
Some conservatives unintentionally aided Clinton by acting as if he could be impeached for bad theology. Clinton's team then accused his critics of neopuritanism, noted Fackre, even if their calls for his resignation were clearly part of a doctrinal debate between an evangelical president and other born-again believers. And through it all, Clinton used emotional religious language to respond to waves of legal accusations, skillfully suggesting that repentance and pastoral counseling equaled public accountability and justice.
It was a mess. Now, the war of words over Ashcroft is blurring these lines again.
"I do not know his soul," said Fackre. "But John Ashcroft must realize that the religious words he speaks to other Christians will sound totally different when his critics turn around and use them against him. This may not be fair, but that's the reality of it."