"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Saturday, January 05, 2019

"Public Servants Wanted: Joiners and Theists Need Not Apply"

Something sinister must be going on here
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.

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...


  1. Well written and thoughtful, Bro. Hodapp. Looking back at history it was the Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Stalin's that attacked our fraternity and murdered our brothers. Without becoming political I've got to wonder if that isn't the direction we're drifting towards now.

  2. Excellent, I’ve had an uneasy feeling since 9/11 that groups in the country might target the fraternity for some perceived nefarious reason to give them a voice and raison d’etre. We need to be prepared and I have been supporting fraternal outreach to the community. We can’t be a mystery.

  3. At least the local Washington DC area Knights of Columbus is taking this attack by the senators in stride. In response, they issued an open letter outlining their recent charity work in the District, and their coming fund raiser - an annual 'polar bear plunge', which they invited the senators to both participate in.

    In other words, they asked Harris and Hirono to go jump in a lake. A really cold one.

    Nicely played.

    1. https://oboyle.dcknights.org/index.php/news/66-open-letterto-senators-concerned-about-the-knights-of-columbus

  4. Another well written and useful piece. There is a Mexican lodge (in Puebla city) which has Pythagoras' works on its altar. The affiliations are open to question because there are several rather different versions of each -- Methodists, Congregationalists and Mormons come in different varieties, as do Anglicans and Baptists -- and so on. Perhaps everyone belongs tot the largest of each of the affiliations --Congregationalists to the United Church of Christ,Mormons to the Salk Lake City branch. Or perhaps more likely not. A Missouri Synod Lutheran is enjoined not to join Masonry while in some regions,Lutherans of certain jurisdictions are strong Masons.

  5. As historian Christopher Henry Dawson noted: “The process of secularisation arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.” And further, “Secularism is terrible not only on account of its emptiness but because there is a positive power of evil waiting to fill the void.”

  6. When I was a student at Harvard, the theologian James Luther Adams had at homes. He was the translator and advocate for Paul Tillich, another notable theologian and philosopher. He was remarkably tolerant of my secularism, but gently cited to me the horrors in Nazi Germany, of which he had personal knowledge, as an example of the evil to which you refer. Dawson was also my teacher at Harvard; he was a profound historian of Catholicism.

    1. Nazism is certainly the easiest and most readily accessible recent example, which is why I'm regularly exasperated with the current fad of dragging it out as the standard, all-purpose. boogyman. Attempting to claim the US and the West are descending into fascism today is just plain infantile. But 50 years ago, European fascism and especially Nazism was still within the living memory of a major proportion of society, which kept it in the back of the mind of the culture.

      The example I wish more people would look into and learn from was the complex cultural causations and effects of the French Revolution, especially because of so many parallels with what is swirling about now. At the forefront was the unbridled explosion of the pamphleteers and the openly hostile press which created an unparalleled feeling in the public that nothing was sacred or worthy of any respect or admiration anymore. In the midst of the Terror came Robespierre's creation of the Cult of the Supreme Being (Culte de l'Être Suprême) to be the official state religion in order to try to drum up faith again, since Catholicism had been so thoroughly destroyed.

  7. Fine post about a difficult subject, Brother. The irony is that the Knights of Columbus have tended historically to be more open to the Enlightenment ideation that this country was founded upon than many other conservative Catholics. A fact that I discuss in my Heredom article on Catholicism. So in that sense it is hard to understand why they would focus on that. It is so odd. I wish instead they would have focussed instead on the explicitly judicial philosophy of some other nominees, like Gorsuch, who though not Catholic, was heavily influenced by by the ultra-right wing catholic legal theorist Finnis. And several others have been influenced by Finnis as well, and because this is explicitly a matter of judicial philosophy I think it is fair game in such a hearing. Finnis has propagated the bizarre and anachronistic idea that Thomistic Catholic Natural Law Theory should be used in modern jurisprudence, because he believes (wrongly) that it had some relevance to development of modern notions of law. That bizarre notion, which Gorsuch was influenced by, would be of great interest for obvious reasons. But, by contrast, why membership in the Knights of Columbus should be a focus for them is a mystery, I agree .

    1. Let's not venture to much ibto the realm of religious and political opinions, shall we? Little good ever comes from that place.

    2. Well, first of all, the fine Masonic habit of avoiding political and religious disputation in Lodge has never applied to discussions outside of the Lodge amongst Masons. So your tsk-tsk here is a tad silly. (Btw, have you ever even been on a Facebook page with lots of Masons?! ---See how much they agree on in religion or politics! Spare me! LOL!)-- Of course one would still hope for a decorum influenced by Masonic Light, but I hardly think my comment veered outside that at all. In addition, surely Chris Hodapp's excellent site, the "go to" place for Masonic news, deserves thoughtful, measured responses. And I think my comment fits that requirement. --- But even more seriously I want to counter the implication of your comment that somehow I am just flinging a mischievous "opinion" into a fraught field. If you read my comment closely, you will see that I am discussing matters which allude to ascertainable historical facts. The facts of intellectual history are that the Aristotelian-Thomistic notions of Natural Law had no (zero) influence on development of crucial notions of laws of a "natural" sort which Enlightenment theorists of law developed and which in turn the Founders of the US were inspired by. (Aristotle was always a respected classic figure from the past, but no more than that in terms of the modern meaning of the term "natural" , which in the "Modern Era" was based more on burgeoning scientific thinking. ) This is NOT a matter of opinion, this is verifiable fact, which you can verify by reading things called books.--- For the life of me, I cannot explain how in the latter years of the 20th Century and early years of this one, some right-wing Catholic "scholars" have managed to convince themselves, and some others, that facts be damned, somehow Thomas Aquinas must have had some sort of influence on aspects of modern legal theory. I have read some of their attempts to assert such things, and they are terribly bad. And they are bad, and false, even if they are emanating forth from the toniest of climes like Oxford!! Also, as it happens, I was once a Catholic seminarian, and so I am quite familiar with how these philosophical issues were taught and debated even just prior to the period I have mentioned, towards the end of the 20th Century. For the standard textbooks in philosophy in Catholic schools and seminaries used to be Fr. Copleston's great series on they history of philosophy. I still think these are great books, and models of intellectual honesty, though obviously written from a very Catholic perspective. What is crucial to understand is that from reading Fr. Copleston's books, which used to train Catholic scholars very broadly, you would NEVER get the bizarre idea Thomistic Natural Law reasoning had any relevance to later Enlightenment notions of law, on which countries like the US based their jurisprudence. So this makes my point. Even the much-honored Catholic source would not contend what these crazed and dishonest thinkers like Finnis are contending. And so this is utterly fair game to be questioned of judicial nominees. And that was the point of my comment.

  8. Herpes_TrismegistusFri Jan 11, 11:56:00 AM 2019

    This Catholic and K of C member is in the awkward position of holding membership in organizations whose leadership claims to speak for all its members. The deference (or sometimes indifference) we show to our leaders, and our reluctance to publicly contradict them, is often mistaken for unanimity by those on the outside and abused by those on the inside. There is no recurring refrain that "no man speaks for all of" the organization, as we often hear in masonry.

    Also, unfortunately, the K of C has become more political and more involved in right politics since its current leader--who previously worked for Jesse Helms and then Ronald Reagan--took over in 2000. I remember in 2004 seeing in the K of C magazine a captioned photo of a roomful of chapeau'd 4th degree Knights chanting "Four more years! Four more years!" as GW Bush entered their room. This kind of behavior is off-putting to say the least. It would be out of place in a masonic gathering, where non-partisanship is taken seriously.

    I should say, in fairness, that although many within the K of C have grumbled about the continued presence of public figures who dissent on whether a fetus is a person--the late Ted Kennedy comes to mind--but there has never been a purge. So I think Harris is wrong in her assumption that all members of this organization march in lockstep.

    It seems she does not understand how large organizations work, or that considerable diversity can exist despite official positions declared by top brass.

    But I think the situation of the Knights of Columbus is not analogous to that of the Freemasons.

  9. The two Senators may have misinterpreted or read into the statement: "The Knights of Columbus stands as the strong right arm of the Church..." which is stated on their website. To be fair to the Senators, there is always an OFFICIAL position and a PERSONAL one in any organization. Depending on the integrity of the organization and it's members, the two can be vastly different.

  10. For African-Americans, the Knights of Peter Claver strongly parallels the Knights of Columbus,with a similar Fourth Degree. See https://www.kofpc.org/history.php

  11. Let's not forget that KofC also likes to pride itself that it was instrumental in getting the US motto changed to, "In God We Trust" in 1957. It has always lobbied Congress for "Catholic Causes". Unlike Freemasonry, the KofC doesn't prohibit political activism.


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