washingtonpost.com
Justice's Holy Hires

By Dahlia Lithwick
Sunday, April 8, 2007

Monica Goodling had a problem. As senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Justice Department liaison to the White House, she no longer seemed to know what the truth was. She also must have been increasingly unclear about who her superiors were. This didn't used to be a problem for Goodling. Everything was once very certain: Her boss's truth was always the same as God's truth. Her boss was always either God or one of His staffers.

Last week, through counsel, Goodling again refused to testify about her role in the firings of several U.S. attorneys for what appear to be partisan reasons. Asserting her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, she somehow thought she might be on the hook for criminal obstruction. Then on Friday, she resigned, giving no reason.

A 1995 graduate of Messiah College, an evangelical Christian school, and a 1999 graduate of Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School, Goodling is an improbable character for a political scandal. Her chief claim to professional fame appears to have been loyalty to the president and to the process of reshaping the Justice Department in his image (and, thus, His image). A former career official there told The Washington Post that Goodling "forced many very talented career people out of main Justice so she could replace them with junior people that were either loyal to the administration or would score her some points." And as she rose at Justice, a former classmate said, Goodling "developed a very positive reputation for people coming from Christian schools into Washington looking for employment in government, always ready to offer encouragement and be a sounding board."

Start digging, and Goodling also looks to be the Forrest Gump of no comments: Here she is in 1997 fielding calls from reporters to the admissions office of Regent's School of Government. Asked whether non-Christians were admitted, she explained that "we admit all students without discrimination. We are a Christian institution; it is assumed that everyone in the classes are Christians." Here, in 2004, she's answering calls at the Justice Department about whether then-Deputy Solicitor General Paul D. Clement knew about the abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison when he told the Supreme Court that the United States does not torture. Said Goodling, in lieu of taking the Fifth: "We wouldn't have any comment."

Goodling is one of 150 graduates of Regent University who have served in this administration, as Regent's Web site proudly proclaims. Pretty impressive for a 29-year-old school. The university says that "approximately one out of every six Regent alumni is employed in some form of government work." And that's precisely what its founder desired. The school's motto is "Christian Leadership to Change the World." Former attorney general John Ashcroft teaches at Regent, and graduates have obtained senior positions in the Bush administration. The express goal is not only to tear down the wall between church and state in America but also to enmesh the two.

Jeffrey A. Brauch, the law school's dean, urges that students reflect upon "the critical role the Christian faith should play in our legal system." Jason Eige (Class of '99), senior assistant to Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, puts it pithily in the alumni newsletter: "Your Résumé Is God's Instrument."

This legal worldview meshed perfectly with that of Ashcroft -- a devout Pentecostal who forbade use of the word "pride," as well as the phrase "no higher calling than public service," on documents bearing his signature. No surprise that, as he began transforming the Justice Department, the Goodlings looked good to him.

One of Ashcroft's most profound changes was to the Civil Rights Division, started in 1957 to fight racial discrimination in voting. Under Ashcroft, career lawyers were systematically fired or forced out and replaced by members of conservative or Christian groups or folks with no civil rights experience. In the five years after 2001, the Civil Rights Division brought no voting cases -- and only one employment case -- on behalf of an African American. Instead, the division took up the "civil rights" abuses of reverse discrimination -- claims of voter fraud or discrimination against Christians. On Feb. 20, Gonzales announced a new initiative called the First Freedom Project to carry out "even greater enforcement of religious rights for all Americans." In his view, the fight for a student's right to read a Bible in school is as urgent as the right to vote.

We may agree or disagree on that proposition, but it certainly explains how Goodling came to confuse working to advance Gonzales's agenda with working to advance God's. But while God may well want more prayer in public schools, it's not clear that He wanted David Iglesias fired on a pretext.

Is there anything wrong with legal scholarship from a Christian perspective? Not that I see. Is there anything wrong with a Bush administration that disproportionately uses graduates from Christian law schools to fill its staffing needs? Not that I see. It's a shorthand, no better or worse than cherry-picking the Federalist Society or the American Bar Association. I can't even get exercised over the fact that Gonzales, Karl Rove and Harriet Miers had their baby lawyers making critical staffing decisions. The baby lawyers had extremely clear marching orders.

No, the real concern here is that Goodling and her ilk somehow began to conflate God's work with the president's. Probably not a lesson she learned in law school. The dream of Regent and its counterparts, such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, is to redress perceived wrongs to Christians, to reclaim the public square and reassert Christian political authority. And while that may have been a part of the Bush/Rove plan, it was only a small part. Their real zeal was for earthly power. And Goodling was left holding the earthly bag.

In the end, Goodling and the other young foot soldiers for God may simply have run afoul of the first rule of politics, codified in Psalm 146: "Put not your trust in princes, in mere mortals in whom there is no help."

dahlia.lithwick@hotmail.com

Dahlia Lithwick covers legal affairs for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company