The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Anti-Catholic bigotry is alive in the U.S. Senate

Members of the Knights of Columbus participate in a Columbus Day ceremony Oct. 10, 2016, at the National Columbus Memorial in Washington. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Those who want to understand how Democrats manage to scare the hell out of vast sections of the country need look no further than the story of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and the Knights of Columbus.

In considering the confirmation of Brian Buescher to a federal judgeship last month, Harris and Hirono submitted written questions that raised alarms about his membership in “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men.” “Were you aware,” Harris asked, “that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” And: “Have you ever, in any way, assisted with or contributed to advocacy against women’s reproductive rights?” And: “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?”

For those who know the Knights of Columbus, this is a bit like accusing your Aunt Harriet’s knitting circle of being a Mexican drug cartel. In most of the country, the Knights of Columbus is a respected fraternal organization consisting of men who hand out coats to needy children, promote devotion to the Virgin Mary, support crisis pregnancy shelters and protest doggedly each year in the March for Life.

Hirono regards the traditional moral views of the Knights as “extreme positions.” The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that they are exactly the same positions of the Catholic Church itself. So why wouldn’t a judge’s membership in the Catholic Church — with its all-male clergy, opposition to abortion and belief in traditional marriage — be problematic as well?

The difficulty with a reductio ad absurdum comes when people no longer find it absurdum. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has made the argument bluntly. In raising concerns in 2017 about appeals court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith, Feinstein said, “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”

So is it fair to say that Harris, Hirono and Feinstein would want judicial nominees to quit religious organizations that hold “extreme positions” or recuse themselves from all matters of morality that the senators regard as tainted by religious dogma? That sounds like an exaggeration. But here is a question that Hirono asked both Buescher and Paul Matey, another appeals court nominee: “If confirmed, will you recuse yourself from all cases in which the Knights of Columbus has taken a position?”

This is not just a liberal excess; it is a liberal argument. Religious liberty, in this view, reaches to the limits of your cranium. You can believe any retrograde thing you want. But you can’t act on that belief in the public square. And you can’t be a member of organizations that hold backward views and still be trusted with government jobs upholding the secular, liberal political order.

The comparison of this view to the United States’ long history of anti-Catholic bigotry has been disputed. Actually, it is exactly the same as this history in every important respect. A 19th-century bigot would have regarded Catholicism as fundamentally illiberal — a backward faith characterized by clerical despotism — and thus inconsistent with America’s democratic rules. The same attitude seems currently present in the U.S. Senate.

And there is a strange twist to this argument in American evangelicalism. Evangelical Christians have largely gotten over their anti-Catholic bias. But many believe that Islam is fundamentally illiberal — a backward faith characterized by clerical despotism — and thus inconsistent with the United States’ democratic rules. Little do they realize that an evangelical institution in Massachusetts is increasingly viewed like an Islamic institution in Mississippi. With suspicion.

The answer to all of this is a great American value called pluralism. The views and values of Americans are shaped in a variety of institutions, religious and nonreligious. No one is disqualified from self-government by a religious test. So people who are members of the Knights of Columbus and members of the American Civil Liberties Union can participate on an equal footing.

There are limits, of course. Membership in a terrorist group or the Ku Klux Klan is disqualifying, because they are motivated by hate and seek the violent subjugation of their neighbors. But if liberal Democrats want to compare the Catholic Church to a hate group, good luck with that. They will offend the last religious traditionalists they haven’t already and alienate a good many others besides.

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