Kamala Harris, California’s junior senator and perhaps a 2020 presidential candidate, is walking into the quagmire of political correctness with a nominee for the federal court in Nebraska. It has to do, in part, with religion. Most politicians tend to avoid questions related to religion because the risk of offending someone is far greater than the payoff of criticism, however justified.
In this particular case, Senator Harris, along with Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii are raising questions about Brian Buescher, who has been nominated by Donald Trump to serve on a federal district court in Nebraska. It turns out that Mr. Buescher is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
The Knights of Columbus is an all-male group, clearly an anachronism, but as a private organization, they have the right to restrict their membership in this way. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal quotes Senator Hirono as saying that the Knights “hold a number of extreme positions, particularly on same-sex marriage and abortion.”
But the question is should Mr. Buescher be disqualified because of guilt by association. After all, John F. Kennedy was also a member of the Knights, but he made compelling arguments that if elected president, he would separate church from state and make decisions based on the constitution and not the bible.
Mr. Buescher has somewhat followed President Kennedy’s strategy and has said that as a judge he would uphold precedent by both the Supreme Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
It is certainly understandable that Senator Harris has concerns about the associations of any person being considered for a judgeship, or any number of other federal jobs. But the problem is, where do we draw the line?
The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville found that one of the unique characteristics of Americans is how they form groups, and strongly identify themselves with these groups. In one sense, a group provides support for individuals. In a different sense, a group provides baggage for individuals.
So, a key question becomes, how can someone belong to a group, enjoy the benefits, and not be responsible for those components of the group that are not in their comfort zone?
Some groups are very purposeful, such as a professional scientific organization. But others are based on beliefs, even myths. Religious groups tend to resemble the latter.
But religion is such an engrained part of our past, that it is unrealistic to limit those who are qualified to hold positions such as judgeships to those who do not have religious affiliations.
The bottom line seems to be that individuals can have religious affiliations, not necessarily because joining a religion was motivated by rational thinking or even an emotional need for community. Rather, it is something that is almost in their genes, at least in the recent history of them and their families. The question is whether or not, like John F. Kennedy, the individual can separate the secular from the religious. If they can, this is tantamount to an individual acknowledging that religion may serve a purpose for them, but when it comes to decisions that impact others, it has to sit on the sidelines.
I definitely want to see Kamala Harris succeed and not fall into rabbit-holes that can be avoided. She has had her own experiences with religion, growing up in both a black Baptist church and a Hindu temple. But as a public official, she is very comfortable taking the road of rationality. Our goal is to increase the number of humans who are comfortable with reason and empathy. In the process, we may have to forgive some people for how they got there.