A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Theocracy: John Ashcroft and Culture Wars
by Jack Bresee
MANY STORIES ARE told about John Ashcroft here in his home town of Springfield, Missouri. Some of them are no doubt true.
My personal favorite concerns John after we went to the same high school, but before his actual political career began. He was then acting as attorney for Southwest Missouri State University, located here.
A student celebrating his baccalaureate ceremony received a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) and the school withheld his diploma for reasons uncertain. A DWI was no small offense, even then. But as time went on and the diploma wasn't forthcoming, the student engaged his own legal counsel.
His lawyer, a Republican and political conservative in his own right, explained the student had done everything required by law and the university to satisfy the state, school and city: paid his fine, completed driving school, been bonded by an insurance company for extra liability, and done volunteer work as the judge had required.
In short, the student's attorney explained to John Ashcroft, the young man had fulfilled all the requirements necessary to accept responsibility for his actions and get right with the law. "But," John is said to have asked the attorney, "has he repented?"
Is this story true? I can't be certain. But the salient point is that it could be true!
Indeed, anyone who knows Ashcroft would be shocked if he hadn't made some such sanctimonious remark. That would be news-and this behavior pattern is what's driving so many to wonder whether Ashcroft as Attorney General will be allowed to become a contemporary fundamentalist version of the Spanish Grands Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada and England's puritanical Oliver Cromwell rolled into one. John and I were freshmen the same year at Central High School. That same year, to our south in Little Rock, Arkansas another Central High was in the news because of Governor Faubus' effort to stop integration of public schools.
In comparison our Central had little problem with integration, because our state government treated the 1954 Supreme Court ruling as the law of the land-period. Our school's relative peace led Linda Brown's family (Brown v. Board of Education) to relocate to Springfield from Topeka, Kansas, and she joined our class as well.
Rise of the Pentecostals
John Ashcroft and I did not know each other well. We did not travel in the same circles. He wouldn't have been any more comfortable with me and my friends, most of whom were mainstream Protestant (a few of us were Catholics or Jews) than we would have been with him.
John belonged to the Assemblies of God (AG). He was a Pentecostal, a so-called holy-roller, and AG was considered a sect that appealed only to the undereducated and overly emotional-at least, that was the community assumption.
The AG had their beginning in Wichita, Kansas on New Years Day 1901. The local newspaper noted the event and observed there were "queer" goings-on. Cops often showed up at Pentecostal meetings, many of which were held in storefront churches.
Assembly members did not drink, smoke, wear makeup or go to school in secular theaters. Dancing, except "in the Spirit" at church meetings, was very bad. Rock & Roll music was evil, and Elvis Presley the personification of that evil: His very name was an anagram (Elvis =Evils). And when the movie "Elmer Gantry" was shown, theater owners received bomb threats and pickets paraded before the box office much of the time.
Hillcrest High was open for the 1958-59 school year; John went there and graduated the next year. Hillcrest was good for him, being on the north side of Springfield, surrounded by Bible colleges and mostly white families of modest income and education.
I finished at Central and joined the military: The draft was a fact of life, and I joined to "get it out of the way" and avoid ROTC during my college time. John went to Yale and then the University of Chicago Law School.
We both came back to a changed place, and far removed from each other politically, culturally and in regard to the Vietnam "experience."
The so-called holy-rollers were no longer driving beat-up pickups and jalopies. These had been replaced by newer, some high-end, cars. Sedate three-piece business suits were worn instead of neon-colored polyester sports jackets and white shoes.
The women's fashions were more mainstream and small amounts of tint started showing up on their lips and cheeks. Some of the largest buildings were related to Assemblies of God matters, and even their places of worship were bigger than those of other faiths.
In fact, many of these changes so alarmed many of the old-timers that Bible students referred to the main church near the international AG headquarters building and publishing house as "the Vatican."
John Ashcroft's father was an important part of this AG governance and business. John, very bright, rode the wave, whether from convenience or conviction. He began his political ascent with a huge local faith-based voter following, not all of whom were Pentecostals.
This area, Missouri's Seventh U.S. Congressional district, has always been conservative-to-reactionary. U.S. Representatives elected here included O.K. Armstrong, nationally known anti-smut crusader in the '50s and early '60s; Dr. Durward G. Hall, whom Barry Goldwater described as the only man in Washington more conservative than he was; and Gene Taylor, who campaigned on his record of "never voting a single penny for foreign aid, except for military assistance."
Indeed, many Springfield residents choose to call it the Buckle of the Bible Belt (a fitting appellation, in our eyes, since many of us feel we have been "whipped" by the same belt many times). Springfield is home to Baptist Bible College (whose most famous alumnus is Jerry Falwell).
Central Bible College-the AG theology college-is here, and turned out such notables as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. (Students joked that the gates of Heaven didn't open so easily anymore because they had been "jimmied" too many times.) With its multimillion dollar a year publishing house also located here, Assemblies of God is Big Bucks and big influence in our fair city. These are John's roots, and he fit the bill.
Hate Disguised as Love
But what about the question of John Ashcroft using the office of United States Attorney General to force his political and religious beliefs on others?
I think he would, if allowed to do so. Abortion would go, as would women's rights in general.
Race is/was an issue for John. In fact it was for anyone, including myself, who was reared in a segregated and racist society like Springfield.
From an early age, John Ashcroft was taught the same Old Testament scriptures about the "mark of Ham" and "curse of a race's servitude" that slaveowners had used to rationalize their evils. Most of us got beyond most of this misinformation, but it certainly echoed in Ashcroft's praise of Southern Partisan, the infamous pro-Confederate journal, or his honorary degree from Bob Jones University, where Catholicism is demonized along with interracial dating.
The Pope is the Anti-Christ, the "whore of Babylon," and the suffering of Jews and all non-Christians is because of their rejection of Jesus-I know. I've heard it from street-corner preachers stationed outside my church when I was on my way to Mass as a youth, and I hear the hate message disguised as "Brotherly Love" every time I'm in town.
Yet his supporters ask rhetorically, if he's so awful and extreme, why did the voters of Missouri elect John Ashcroft to the offices of State Attorney General, Governor and U.S. Senate? In fact, most Missouri voters don't know that much about him, nor much at all about the southernmost part of the state (Districts 6 and 7).
Most people who live in St. Louis, Kansas City or the northern corn belt imagine that the hill country and cotton fields of the lower part of the state has something to do with Li'l Abner or "has-been-lounge-lizards" in Branson. They ignore the recent influx of Militia and survivalist types, as well as the relocated Klan groups forced out of other states.
Besides, North Carolina isn't so very backward, yet they elect Jesse Helms over and over. What's the difference?
The Balancing Act
On the other hand, it is doubtful that John Ashcroft will have a free hand. As Mr. Athel Ransom, president of the local NAACP, stated, he has many questions about Ashcroft's record in many areas, but expects John to have been sufficiently hurt by the confirmation procedure and ongoing scrutiny as to be limited in his actions.
Others in the chapter disagree. But here are some points to consider.
First, the powers-that-be want a limit on what the government can do by force. They want to keep up the appearance of liberty, because with that "liberty" comes responsibility, the individual's responsibility, the "family's" responsibility. Government is therefore responsible for little, except of course the National Defense (read: Military-Industrial Complex).
Likewise, a measure of "religious freedom" (the Pilgrims, the Faith of the Founding Fathers, etc.) shores up the liberty ideal and must be retained. Should a real "Spiritual" awakening occur, however, that'll probably be squashed.
Then there is the Two-Party system to consider. Liberals are still in the game; they must have some input. Those who make the inane assertion that "there is no difference between the two parties" ignore important facts that must be addressed if change is to happen for the better.
The two parties have the same goal, the fundamental preservaton of a system of capitalist relations and corporate profit, but they are not identical in how they go after it. No difference? Nonsense! It is their differences that make the two parties work, and therefore, indispensable.
This difference will come into play while John Ashcroft is Attorney General, and maybe slow him down. In any event, it seems John has learned how to play the role of a good GOP company man. After all, there is still the Supreme Court-and Presidency. And if he gets close to these offices, we the people of the USA will deserve it.
If we really want something or someone else in positions of power, we can do something about it. But as people in this state say, "Sho-Me." Amen.
Jack Bresse is a Springfield activist around community and Native American issues. He is a longtime supporter of freedom for Leonard Pelltier.
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