America News Analysis

Senior Democrats attack the Knights of Columbus. Is a culture war brewing?


It’s difficult to think of an organisation more representative of mainstream Catholicism than the Knights of Columbus. Called the “strong right arm of the Church” by St Pope John Paul II for its charitable efforts, the Knights were actually founded in part as an alternative to Freemasonry. The Knights are perhaps better known in America for their life insurance wing, however: they hold more than $100 billion worth of contracts, placing them at number 878 on Fortune’s ranking of the world’s largest companies.

One would be surprised, then, to find an ordinary Knight held up as some sort of religious extremist. Yet Brian Buescher faced just that scenario in December when he app­eared before the Senate Judiciary Comm­ittee, having been nominated by President Donald Trump as a judge for Nebraska’s US District Court. According to Catholic News Agency’s Ed Condon, two Democratic members of the committee, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California (both pictured above), grilled him on alarming details about his membership to the organisation.

Hirono claimed that “the Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions. For example, it was reportedly one of the top contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage.” She then suggested it might be best if Buescher resigned from the Knights after he was confirmed in order “to avoid any appearance of bias”. Harris, meanwhile, took umbrage that the Knights are “opposed to a woman’s right to choose” and “marriage equality”. It’s true that the Knights oppose abortion and defend marriage as an institution between one man and one woman – but, then, so does the Church. Hirono and Harris attacked Buescher for holding two basic tenets of the Catholic faith.

This is the second time in recent memory that an ordinary Catholic nominee has been fiercely grilled for holding ordinary Catholic views. The first was in September 2017, when Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the 7th Circuit court. During Barrett’s hearing, another Democratic senator, Diane Feinstein, spoke those now infamous words: “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.” Feinstein never explained which particular “dogma” caused “concern”. In­deed, as the progressive media rushed to join in attacking Barrett, they could only think to condemn her for holding basic Catholic views about abortion, marriage and the like.

And, while it didn’t involve a Catholic, a traditional Protestant was also recently scrutinised by a prominent Democratic senator for expressing views consistent with his faith. Russell Vought appeared before the Senate in June 2017 after Trump nominated him for the position of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Vermont’s Bernie Sanders was appalled by a comment Vought gave reporters when his alma mater fired a teacher for saying that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology,” said Vought. “They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, and they stand condemned.”

The statement may have been artless, but Sanders’s response was truly extraordinary. At Vought’s confirmation hearing, he called the nominee’s comment “indefensible”, “hateful” and “Islamophobic”. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms,” Sanders continued. “We must not go backwards.” The Atlantic, a prominent progressive magazine, questioned whether Sanders violated Article VI of the US Constitution, which holds that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It is not, to say the least, a well-established point of American jurisprudence that one must believe that Muslims – or any religious group, for that matter – will go to heaven in order to hold public office. These are questions of theology, not law.

One could be forgiven for thinking that, to Hirono, Harris, Feinstein, Sanders and other progressives, no orthodox Christian is suitable for public office. According to this view, to believe that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman, or that non-Christians aren’t saved is automatically disqualifying. And these aren’t members of the Democrats’ radical fringe: Sanders came second in the 2016 presidential primary, and Harris’s name is being floated as a possible presidential candidate in 2020.

The Knights’ response to Hirono and Harris’s grilling was characteristically measured. They expressed their enduring commitment to their “three fundamental principles of charity, unity, and fraternity”. They also welcomed the senators to join the Knights for “charitable or social events”. They no doubt have bigger things to worry about: they are currently sponsoring a six-month tour of St John Vianney’s incorrupt heart.

Yet doomsayers have long heralded the advent of a “culture war”, when we will be forced to defend our right to hold the ancient beliefs of the Christian faith. Comments like these Democratic senators’ will inevitably fuel that fear. Not only are they accused of questioning the validity of traditional Christian theology (which would be alarming enough in itself, coming from the mouths of senior politicians) – they also call into question believers’ capacity to objectively execute public duties. That certainly won’t quell the culture warriors’ unease.