Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (Melina Mara/Pool/The Washington Post)
Kevin Butterfield is director of George Washington’s presidential library at Mount Vernon and author of "The Making of Tocqueville’s America."

On Dec. 21, the Catholic News Agency reported that two Democratic senators — California’s Kamala Harris and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono — had asked Brian Buescher, a U.S. District Court nominee from Nebraska, whether his membership in the Knights of Columbus would prevent him from being an impartial judge.

Harris expressed concern that the Knights of Columbus — a Catholic fraternal organization founded in 1882 that she called “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men” — had taken public positions on issues of reproductive rights and same-sex marriage that might compromise Buescher’s judicial decision-making. Hirono wondered if Buescher would quit the organization if he was confirmed.

These are troubling questions, but not, as some have asserted, because they represent a 21st-century version of America’s centuries-long tradition of anti-Catholicism.

Instead, these questions hark back to another troubling phenomenon in American politics: an anxiety that membership in any private, partial organization can impede the unbiased administration of justice. Harris and Hirono seem to doubt that members of a fraternal society like the Knights of Columbus could play a role in public service without renouncing their affiliation, thereby ensuring their independence. And while that particular uneasiness is as old as the republic itself, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of American civic life.

Since at least the 1790s, many Americans have found themselves anxious and uncertain about what George Washington famously called “self-created societies.” He deeply distrusted groups like the Democratic-Republican Societies, political clubs that appeared during his second term as a grass roots resistance to what some saw as unwelcome trends in American government. Many Americans would even blame these clubs, without evidence, for instigating the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

It was also in 1794 that a Massachusetts minister, David Osgood, put his finger on the source of this suspicion: “The moment a man is attached to a club, his mind is not free.” Organizations like this, he said, produced a rank-and-file with blind attachment to a particular set of political principles, compromising the political and even the mental autonomy of members.

Even as America became a nation of joiners, those fears never abated. In fact, they reached a fever pitch a generation later, when the first third-party movement in American history formed around the idea that Freemasons posed a serious threat to the American justice system and democracy itself, because it appeared that Masonic jurors, sheriffs, judges and even voters simply couldn’t be trusted.

The spark for the new party was the kidnapping, and likely murder, of William Morgan in 1826. Morgan planned to publish “secret” Masonic rituals, and when the courts failed to convict anyone for his disappearance, a movement arose around the idea that membership in the Masonic fraternity constituted, in itself, evidence of partiality and bias. As Timothy Fuller told an Anti-Masonic crowd in Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1831, Freemasonry exercised “extensive authority over the minds, and actions, and resources of its members,” influencing elections, corrupting judges and juries and keeping otherwise well-meaning Americans from thinking and acting freely.

So intense was suspicion of Masons that, even though Washington had been dead for 30 years, the question of whether he was really a Mason came up often, on both sides. The hysteria even prompted court challenges asking whether Freemasons could be removed as jurors simply because of their membership.

The Anti-Masonic furor had run its course by 1840, but the popularity of similar fraternal organizations in the decades following the Civil War reopened the same kinds of questions. The Knights of Columbus, formed in 1882 to provide Catholic men with a fraternal order they could join (the Church had long prohibited membership in most such societies), was itself an expression of what has been called a “golden age of fraternalism.”

Millions of men flocked to voluntary associations like these as a way to come together for mutual aid, friendship and charitable projects. Within 25 years of its founding, the Knights of Columbus would have 230,000 members and local “councils” in every state. Such fraternal orders were a critical counterbalance to the era’s flaws: the rapacity of robber barons, the struggles of organized labor, the deep ethnic tensions in an age of large-scale immigration.

The Knights were more exclusive than some other groups. Whereas Freemasonry was open to all but atheists, the Knights of Columbus sought only Catholic men as members, because it was intended to be, among other things, a tool to work for the dignity and fair treatment of Catholics, a religious minority, in American culture. Organizing around Christopher Columbus was an effort to portray the New World as a place where Catholicism had a legitimate presence long before Protestant Christianity.

Not everyone, though, was a fan of this new fraternalism. Organizations like the National Christian Association were formed to combat this trend toward joining clubs and societies that held secret meetings and had complicated initiation rituals. They claimed such orders damaged families, competed with churches and degraded public spiritedness in favor of private, fraternal obligations. The NCA was a pale shadow of the Anti-Masonic crusade of a half-century earlier, but the anxieties were the same.

While free association remains a protected American right, the national commitment to the belief in the freedom and value of association is still joined by a lurking skepticism about affiliations of this sort, as Harris’s and Hirono’s concerns expose.

It is true that the Knights of Columbus has taken positions on public issues that align with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, such as those on reproductive rights. And it is unsurprising that Harris strongly disagreed with the contention of Carl Anderson, supreme knight and CEO of the Knights of Columbus since 2000, that safe and legal abortion is “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale.”

But as Buescher explained to Sen. Hirono, fears that membership in such organizations compromise the independence of a potential judge bely the reality that the Knights of Columbus simply “does not have the authority to take personal political positions on behalf of all of its approximately two million members.” He assured the senators that, if confirmed, his decision-making would be shaped by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges and by his oath of office, not by any “policies or positions” taken by the Knights of Columbus.

This explanation should be sufficient. Since long before the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” in the 1830s, Americans have been aware that one of the defining characteristics of their democracy is its vibrant civil society — that Americans are, indeed, “forever forming associations” for every conceivable purpose. Tocqueville, astonished by this trait, realized that because people in the United States were basically equal and thus equally powerless to do much alone, they found association to be the best means to make their world a better place to live.

Tocqueville’s reading rings true for a group like the Knights of Columbus, a group that does good deeds on the local, national and even international stage. In 2017 alone, the fraternity gave more than $185,000,000 and 75,000,000 hours of service to philanthropic causes. We must recognize the way that such groups have formed an essential part of American society for centuries, and erase our long-standing uneasiness over how they might affect justice and democracy in America. The Knights of Columbus — and the vibrant, transformative, pluralistic civil society that they represent — deserve nothing less.