On Jan. 16, the U.S. Senate unanimously adopted a resolution “to reaffirm religious liberty and condemn religious tests for federal officials.” It may seem odd that such an affirmation was necessary, and it is odder still that the proximate occasion of the resolution was the suggestion in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Knights of Columbus represent a form of dangerous extremism.
The resolution was proposed by Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, in response to a line of questioning by two Democrats during the late November confirmation hearings for Brian Buescher, who had been nominated for a judgeship for the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska. Senator Kamala Harris of California asked Mr. Buescher if he was aware of the Knights’ advocacy against abortion when he joined and asked if he agreed with a statement from the Carl Anderson, who leads the Knights, describing abortion as “killing on a massive scale.” Senator Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, described the Knights as having taken a “number of extreme positions,” referring to their opposition to same-sex marriage, and asked if Mr. Buescher would leave the Knights, who number more than two million members, if confirmed in order to avoid any appearance of bias.
This line of questioning has been widely criticized as displaying anti-Catholic bias, and certainly the willingness of two senators to depict a Catholic fraternal organization present in parishes across the country and around the world as a danger to the republic is chilling. It also shows a surprising ignorance of the Knights’ many religious, charitable and civic activities beyond their direct political advocacy, not to mention a complete disregard for their history in opposing virulent anti-Catholicism in the nation’s past. But there are at least three other factors at play beyond the appearance of anti-Catholic bias.
The current climate of “gotcha” politics is deeply opposed to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association.
First, as we have pointed out before, Roe v. Wade’s confinement of the abortion question to the judiciary continues to distort the workings of political dialogue and compromise. Unable to debate the abortion question straightforwardly, legislators are left to read tea leaves about what judges might do. And since the American people are not of one mind about abortion, the judicial “settlement” of the issue is in constant need of shoring up, driving its defenders to depict anyone who opposes abortion as dangerously extreme.
Second, the current climate of “gotcha” politics is deeply opposed to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association and the rich history of nongovernmental civic institutions building up the fabric of American public life. Many politicians, seeking short-term advantage, are willing to cast suspicion on any connection to a group or issue they oppose. The assumption that membership in a fraternal organization automatically constitutes endorsement of a particular political position—much less bias that would render a nominee unfit to be a judge—is catastrophically narrow.
Third, religious values are being conflated with bias—but the anemic state of the public conversation about religion makes it difficult to distinguish them properly. It is perfectly possible for judges to be motivated by their faith to recognize that abortion is a grave injustice, while still being committed to honor laws and precedent. And it is possible for senators to ask a nominees how they will navigate tensions between personal religious values and their judicial duties without assuming that one must violate the other. A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty. The United States deserves elected officials and judges who are willing to undertake that task.