With some noteworthy exceptions like the Morgan period, membership in long-established fraternal groups really hasn't come under fire in America the way it has in Europe and other countries when it comes to public life. Americans have historically been proud of our voluntary associations and admired for them ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote so glowingly about them in the early 1800s. Associations have been vital to the functioning of our democratic society almost from the start - they are, in fact, classrooms where Americans learn the basics of running our republic. But the culture is shifting around us now to a startling degree, and what affects one or two fraternal groups today may become a larger issue for us all in the very near future. Which is why I've been wrestling for two weeks over how to report this story.
|Something sinister must be going on here|
In December, a nominee for the U.S. District Court in the District of Nebraska, Brian Buescher of Omaha, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his conformation hearing. In the course of being questioned by the various senators over his past judicial record, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) specifically called into question Buescher's membership in the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus. Specifically citing the KofC and the Catholic Church's official positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, these two senators demanded to know if his membership in this male-only club would prevent him from hearing cases “fairly and impartially.”
And they wanted his assurance that he would resign his membership if confirmed as a justice of the court.
Think about that for a minute.
It's not a perfect analogy to Masonic membership for a whole raft of reasons, but it's close enough to ring some alarms for us. Up until just a few years ago, citizens involved in civic life were proud of their voluntary associations (arguably, at times, obsessively so, back when Babbitry was all the rage). Harry Truman often said his greatest honor in life was not being president, but being Past Grand Master of Missouri. As for the Knights of Columbus, John F. Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy and Jeb Bush have all been proud members who weren't shy about their memberships. But now, fraternalism itself seems to be one more item on the chopping block when it comes to scrutinizing the resumés of potential public servants.
The Knights of Columbus, a voluntary men's fraternal group for Catholics, was started in 1885 at the height of the Golden Age of Fraternalism. One of the reasons for their formation was that so many other fraternal groups at that time would not admit Catholics as members (or the Church would not permit parishioners to join them, as with Masonry). Late 19th century America was overwhelmingly Protestant, and Catholicism was considered a religious minority that was paired with a huge influx of Irish and Italian immigration. Like so many other fraternal groups, the KofC patterned itself after Freemasonry's basic structure, with three principal degree ceremonies (along with a fourth that was optional, similar to the Knights Templar of Masonry, complete with their own patriotic drill teams featuring similar uniforms, swords, and plumed chapeaux). In time, they also created an insurance benefit program (like the Woodmen of America), their own women's auxiliary, and youth groups for boys and girls. Today they have over two million members worldwide. And unlike Freemasonry, their membership since the 1960s has only increased, while other older groups like ours have plunged in size. They seem to be doing something right.
The grotesque rise of instantaneous social (or really anti-social) media shines a spotlight on the minutest of subjects these days, and this back and forth exchange between the senators and Buescher is no exception. As soon as the session ended on CSPAN and their written questions were made public, the story went out across the web. Various Cathlolic groups decried it as a return to the anti-Catholic discrimination of the 1920s. Abortion rights and LGBT groups declared Buescher unfit for the bench because of his Catholic faith. Truly horrific (and totally uninformed) knee-jerk commentary spewed forth on news sites and discussion groups, amping up the level of hatred for one point of view or the other, and naturally degenerating into "What if he belonged to the Nazis?! Huh? Huh?!" And when the week was over and the dust finally settled on the story, the average American was once again left with the exasperated feeling that only an escapee from a madhouse should ever bother to take part in public life. Normal men and women with any shred of civic duty left rattling around in their heads should apply only at their peril. But certainly not if they had any sort of openly declared religious conviction of any kind, attended a church or synagogue, or belonged to any private clubs.
I made several starts and stops and retries of this post over the holidays, beginning with the very imperfect feeling that Masons should speak up and show some solidarity with the Knights of Columbus in this, because it could be a Brother Mason getting grilled next week. My feeling when the story first broke was that, if fraternal groups don't stand by each other, we're in danger of reenacting the tragic, old Martin Niemöller poem, "First they came for the socialists... but I was not a socialist." I still feel that way. Quite honestly, single-sex associations like the Freemasons are being not-so quietly assaulted all over the Western world these days, and we are foolish to ignore it (read up on the latest activities attempting to wipe out single-sex clubs, fraternities and 'secret societies' at Harvard University, and the surprising reactions of sororities in response). But the real truth is that, in the current hyper-sensitive atmosphere of today, no one can adequately plan or defend against being blindsided by a concerted effort to seek and destroy a juicy target. Not controversial? No worries — controversies will be provided at the door.
(But then, our own members do it too. I actually read a long exchange on a Masonic forum this week that was excoriating a Brother Mason for daring to appear on a platform behind the duly elected President of the United States this week while wearing a visible square and compasses lapel pin—as though there was something shameful, controversial, or humiliating in that.)
Just as I was taking another stab at the story this morning, Brent Morris passed along an opinion piece from yesterday's Washington Post about the Knights of Columbus written by Kevin Butterfield, who is the director of George Washington’s presidential library at Mount Vernon (and author of the book, The Making of Tocqueville’s America). In his Post article, 'Senators shouldn’t be afraid of the Knights of Columbus,' HERE he gives an excellent thumbnail sketch of the history of voluntary associations like Freemasonry and the rest, the flareups against them that have waxed and waned over the centuries, and why Senators Harris and Hirono really don't need to bark up this dead horse.
In a related vein, a report came out this week by the Pew Research Group concerning the religious beliefs and affiliations of the new members of the House of Representatives for 2019. At any other time in the history of this country, the headline that accompanied it would have brought down the rage, wrath and disgust of the overwhelming majority of the population over its blatant bias and implication. Now, it's just one more screaming bit of clickbait: 'Christians Overrepresented in Congress.' The chart from their survey can be seen below (click to enlarge).
The implication is that rational Americans should be appalled — or something — by all of those religious people in government. It's just gotta be wrong! It's just gotta! Even if you really believe that, the part everyone seems to be looking past is that joiners of clubs and active members of religious congregations are the most likely sort of people, on average, to step up and take part in governing. They volunteer, contribute, show up, take part, vote, and do everything else needed to operate a democratic society far more consistently and dependably than the teeming masses of apathetic spiritual-not-religious-I'm-not-a-joiners that are growing in numbers every day. Of course there are exceptions, but the statistics are what they are. If you want an effective democratic society to be run efficiently, ask the busy and successful people who are already working hard in their clubs, fraternal groups, churches, and companies. They show up, and keep showing up. They keep shoveling coal when the briefly dazzling activists and noisemakers get tired and go home.
Of course the demographics of the new Congress have changed to reflect the huge changes in the country's population, and they were sworn in yesterday. I found it quite interesting that the dais of the House of representatives looked very much like an altar in many Masonic lodges these days, filled with the various books deemed to be sacred by the assembled members, upon which they took their oaths office.
|Sacred books prepared for the Congressional oaths of office: |
Multiple Bibles, Hebrew Tenach, Islamic Qur'an, Hindu Veda, Buddhist Sutra,
plus two U.S. Constitutions for any atheists or agnostics.
Front and center were news stories celebrating the swearing in of Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) as "the first bisexual and only religiously unaffiliated member in Congress" (her oath of office was taken on copies of the U.S. and Arizona Constitutions, a practice started when John Quincy Adams swore on a law book instead of a Bible). I have no opinion whatsoever of Rep. Sinema's abilities or zeal for governance, and wish her all the best. But I did find it a bizarre Ying to the Yang of the historical perspective of Judge Buescher's conformation, when it comes to the current crop of Robespierres like Senators Harris and Hirono, and what are and are not not considered disqualifying traits in public service these days.
I know I'm crossing into political (or maybe 'Get Off My Lawn') territory here, but the Masons of the Enlightenment who transformed Freemasonry into a speculative order for instructing men in a code of morals would be blowing their collective stacks right now. On the one hand, it is apparently deemed vitally important (or at least fashionable) that a person's private sexual proclivities are publicly bannered and declared important qualifications for governing the country, while not fessing up to having any sort of organized moral code beyond the written (and always changeable) civil law. On the other hand, the moral and religious beliefs of a man headed for the judicial bench that are held by what is still a vast majority of the country are deemed discriminatory, dangerous, probably ignorant, and definitely unsuitable by a noisy contingent of elected officials. It's no longer bombast to ask how much longer it will be before anyone who espouses any religious faith — Christian, Jew, and yes, eventually even Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu in due time — will be written off as either sinister, an ignoramus, or both, for daring to believe in the very first Charge of all Freemasonry, as set down in Anderson's Constitutions:
"A Mason is oblig’d by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must else have remain’d at a perpetual Distance."
And that's why it's important for us to stick up for the Knights of Columbus and never forget Martin Niemöller's poem when it comes to observing the treatment of religious and fraternal groups on the public stage.
First they came for the Knights of Columbus...