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religious bigotry in the u.s. senate

Adapted from a 1/4/2019 Opinion published in The Wall Street Journal by Eugene F. Rivers III, a Pentecostal minister, director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies.

People assume prejudice against Catholic politicians ended with the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy. Yet anti-Catholic bigotry lives. When US Senators sent written questions to Brian Buescher, a lawyer nominated for the Federal Court, two Senators demanded answers about his membership in the
Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization.
Senators Hirono (HI) and Harris (CA) didn’t care about the group’s charitable work, $1billion of assistance and hundreds of millions of hours of service in the past decade alone. They demanded answers about the Knights of Columbus “extreme positions”—opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

These US Senators insinuated Mr Buescher’s membership in Knights of Columbus should disqualify him from serving as a federal judge. In 2017 Sen Feinstein (CA) questioned judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s qualifications because “the (Catholic) dogma lives loudly in you.”

At a 2014 Vatican conference where I spoke, Pope Francis addressed marriage. He hoped the conference would “be an inspiration to all who seek to support and strengthen the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental, and beautiful good for persons, communities, and whole societies.” And the pope’s criticism of abortion—that it’s like “hiring a hit man”—are as strong as anything the Knights have ever said.

Is the pope an extremist? Should anyone loyal to the teachings of the Catholic Church be barred from public office?

There is no reason to accept such political bigotry. But this isn’t about membership in any particular group. It
is about silencing anyone whose views differ from the progressive view on social issues.

As a leader of black Christians, I feel strongly about the Knights of Columbus. For more than a century they bravely defended minorities. The group ran integrated hospitality and recreation centers for troops in World War I—the only charitable organization that did so. To confront prejudice in the teaching of history, in the 1920s the Knights commissioned books on black and Jewish history in America. They stood against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the height of the Klan’s power. The Knights spoke out against the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany as early as the 1930s. Today they assist victims of Islamic State.

If Catholics like the Knights can be targeted, what should members of my Pentecostal church expect? We share their traditional views on abortion and marriage as do Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons and evangelical Christians. Even the Rev Martin Luther King’s biblical beliefs would be anathema to Sens Harris, Feinstein and Hirono. JFK, himself a proud Knight of Columbus, would be unacceptable too.

Let me paraphrase Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association:
If this confirmation is decided on the basis that more than 70 million Americans lost their chance of being public servants on the day they were baptized, this nation will lose—in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

If certain senators refuse to see the good that people of faith contribute to their communities, perhaps they can at least recall the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. Or Article VI of the Constitution which prohibits religious tests for any public office.

We non-Catholics must stand up, if not for courage then for survival. When first they come for the Catholics, we can be certain that all of us are next. The respect for faith and diversity of belief that made this country a beacon of freedom is now under severe threat. ~

Dan Nygaard