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Son of A Preacher, Quiet Pentecostal

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THE ROOTS OF HIS FAITH

On the day John Ashcroft was sworn in to the Senate in January 1995, he met with his ailing father and some friends in a home near the Capitol. After hymn singing and words of heartfelt advice, the Rev. J. Robert Ashcroft, a titan in the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination, knelt beside his son and anointed his forehead. He used some Crisco cooking oil from the kitchen.

As Ashcroft notes in his 1998 book, Lessons from a Father to His Son, Kings Saul and David were anointed in much the same way. So are England's monarchs. Yet the ad hoc ceremony hints at the kind of enthusiastic, free-wheeling worship that has historically marked Ashcroft's branch of evangelical Christianity. (Some Pentecostals anoint their houses and TVs.) It also happens to be a style his denomination has downplayed as it has moved into the mainstream, a move that no one exemplifies better than Ashcroft.

Pentecostalism first exploded onto the American scene in 1906, when a black Holiness preacher named William Seymour conducted a nightly, mixed-race revival in the humble Azusa Street area of Los Angeles. Participants fell into trances, spoke in tongues and otherwise experienced what they said were the gifts of the Holy Spirit, like those bestowed on Jesus' Apostles. Separate black and white denominations soon formed, but Spirit-soaked, "experiential" Christianity took off. Globally, it is the fastest- growing Western worship style, with up to 500 million adherents. Nationally, its largest white-majority denomination is the Assemblies of God based in Springfield, Mo., into which John Ashcroft was born a kind of upwardly mobile prince.

In its first half-century, Pentecostalism understood itself as the faith from across the tracks. Its members were poor, and its emotiveness put off some other conservative Christians. A millennial faith that believed the Second Coming was imminent, it frowned on political participation. "Why would someone meddle in this fallen world, which is going to be judged and displaced anyway when the Lord comes?" says Harvard's Harvey Cox, author of Fire from Heaven, a study of the faith, paraphrasing their argument. But the faith's isolation decreased as the century progressed, thanks in part to the exertions of J. Robert Ashcroft, a legendary church official who persuaded the denomination to give its Bible students a full liberal-arts education.

His son took the next step--into high-powered mainstream politics, sanding down Pentecostal edges as he went. The last Assemblies member to attain high government rank, President Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, once let drop that "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns"--a statement exploited by foes who claimed he had no reason to preserve natural resources. Says John Green, a politics-and-religion expert at the University of Akron: "I've never heard Ashcroft say anything like that. [His electoral experience] may not have moderated the substance, but it's certainly polished up the style."

In fact, Ashcroft's religious substance is also fairly smooth. As the Assemblies' members became more affluent, the group de-emphasized its more unusual practices, including the once central gift of tongues. Ashcroft has followed suit. Says his longtime friend, Assemblies official George Wood: "I have never in a service observed John expressing one of what we call the charismatic gifts." Nor does he mention them in his book, despite much talk of God and Christ. Instead, he is known as a writer of gospel songs and a punctilious churchgoer who once, while Missouri Governor, surprised a Sunday-school teacher in California by popping up in her classroom for tutelage--a profile that could fit any upstanding Evangelical. The same might be said of the role his faith plays in his politics. "If he's confirmed, the distinction will not be that he's Pentecostal," says Green. "It will be that this is the highest-ranking post a conservative, card-carrying Evangelical has ever had."

--By David Van Biema


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Cover Date: January 22, 2001

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