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COUP WATCH: Theocracy -- From Red Rock Eater News Service

by Phil Agre / Sean Wilentz Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001 at 2:09 PM

John Ashcroft's critics are divided over whether his address to Bob Jones University in May 1999 might jeopardize his confirmation as attorney general. Historians, however, will find much to criticize in the transcript of Mr. Ashcroft's brief remarks…. The Bob Jones transcript shows that Mr. Ashcroft holds erroneous and equally dubious views about the American Revolution, with troubling implications about his understanding of the separation of church and state.

COUP WATCH: Theocracy -- From Red Rock Eater News Service COUP WATCH:  Theocracy -- From Red Rock Eater News Service

Published By Phil Agre, Article On Theocracy By Sean Wilentz

Thu, 18 Jan 2001 10:47:21 -0800

[Why haven't the Republicans accused John Ashcroft of perjury?  Those same Senators issued such accusations against Clinton Cabinet members who made less much clear-cut misstatements to Congressional committees and investigators than those that Senator Ashcroft has made.  Have they decided that the politics of personal destruction is a thing of the past?  We'll have to see what happens.

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Thanks to everyone who contributed.]

This message was forwarded through the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE). You are welcome to send the message along to others but please do not use the "redirect" option.  For information about RRE, including instructions for (un)subscribing, see

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 2001 10:26:28 -0500
From: Sean Wilentz <swilentz@Princeton.EDU>

     John Ashcroft's critics are divided over whether his address to Bob Jones University in May 1999 might jeopardize his confirmation as attorney general.

     Historians, however, will find much to criticize in the transcript of Mr. Ashcroft's brief remarks, recently released by the Bush-Cheney transition team.  Mr. Ashcroft has already drawn fire from Civil War historians for an interview he gave in 199tk to Southern Partisan magazine, in which he defended Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy.  The Bob Jones transcript shows that Mr. Ashcroft holds erroneous and equally dubious views about the American Revolution, with troubling implications about his understanding of the separation of church and state.

     Mr. Ashcroft began his Bob Jones speech by citing what he claimed was "a slogan of the American Revolution", supposedly directed by the patriots at George III's emissaries -- that "we have no King but Jesus".  He repeated that view under questioning by Arlen Specter before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 17.

     Which is all very interesting but highly misleading.  The line Mr. Ashcroft quoted is best known as the slogan of a radical religious sect of the 17th century English Revolution, the Fifth Monarchy Men. The Fifth Monarchists took their name from the biblical prophecy in the Book of Daniel that four successive monarchies would precede the coming of an eternal kingdom.  Like other millenarians of the time, they believed that, following the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Fifth Monarchy was nigh, and that its King would be Jesus.

     "The Fifth Monarchists", writes B. S. Capp, the leading scholarly authority on the group, "were a political and religious sect expecting the immanent Kingdom of Christ on Earth, a theocratic regime in which the saints would establish a godly discipline over the unregenerate masses and prepare for the Second Coming".

    Crushed by the royalist restoration in 1660, the Fifth Monarchy Men faded into oblivion.  Their beliefs survived in the radical plebeian English underground, and popped up here and there in the colonies.  But their battlecry -- "No King but King Jesus" -- was hardly "a slogan of the American Revolution", along the lines of "no taxation without representation", or "give me liberty or give me death".  No major patriot leader took the Fifth Monarchist line. In his Bob Jones address, Mr.  Ashcroft confused his centuries, his slogans -- and his revolutions.

     He also mistakenly implied that the Declaration of Independence was a Christian text.  The "no king but Jesus" motto, he said at Bob Jones, eventually turned up in what he called our nation's "fundamental documents".  After all, he noted, the Declaration spoke of rights "endowed by [the] Creator".

     The uncomfortable historical fact is that the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a deist, who doubted the divinity (let along the kingship) of Jesus.  But no matter: to Mr. Ashcroft, the Creator could only mean Christ.  "America has been different", he explained.  "We have no king but Jesus."

     No one, anymore, expects our public officials to be well-versed in history (although maybe we should).  But for a prospective attorney general to endorse the motto of an old English theocratic sect -- to proclaim it, mistakenly, as a motto of our Revolution and, indeed, of our nation -- is troubling.  And it is no less troubling for that same man to suggest that Jefferson's Declaration conveyed some deep Christian message.

     In America, we have no king.  Period.  That is what the Revolution achieved -- not the vaunting of Jesus Christ.  In his speech at Bob Jones University, Mr. Ashcroft asserted the opposite view.  Senators considering Mr. Ashcroft's nomination as attorney-general should ask him to explain himself.

Sean Wilentz is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.

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