The 1990s Cher song “If I Could Turn Back Time” seems to me in the background of the end of Kamala Harris’s primary campaign to become the Democratic nominee president. Maybe you remember the song — it’s become an ear worm for me since I first had the thought If I could turn back time — if I could find a way — I’d take back all those things that hurt you and you’d stay. Well, if Senator Harris had a time machine, I suspect she would go back to about a year ago, when she decided to attack a federal district-court nominee for Nebraska for his membership in the Knights of Columbus.
Here’s one of the questions she asked Brian Buescher in writing:
Since 1993, you have been a member of the Knights of Columbus, an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men. In 2016, Carl Anderson, leader of the Knights of Columbus, described abortion as “a legal regime that has resulted in more than 40 million deaths.” Mr. Anderson went on to say that “abortion is the killing of the innocent on a massive scale.” Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?
It doesn’t take too much awareness to realize that opposition to abortion is not a weird hang-up for Carl Anderson or the Knights of Columbus — it’s a no-compromise position for many religious believers and certainly for the Catholic Church, despite prominent dissenters like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, both of whom often say they speak “as a Catholic.”
Harris’s questions betrayed, at best, an ignorance of the largest fraternal organization in the world. And it didn’t take long for people on the right and left to call her out for sounding like a nativist from another century, when anti-Catholic bigotry revealed an intolerance for people of faith with traditional views on life and marriage. We tend to be a culture of short-term memory these days — so distracted we are (and traumatized by) the latest thing in the news that everyone is buzzing about. But those traditional views were ones that Democrats in living memory held not very long ago, before authoritarian ideological waves threatened to drown their political viability, at least in the Democratic party.
Both Buescher, who joined the Knights at age 18 (as did many of my male friends in college), and the Knights deserve better than Harris’s treatment. And people know that, which is no small reason that her campaign never developed the kind of following that would have kept her as a contender for the long haul.
People who don’t even have much contact with the Knights associate them with good citizenship. It’s not unusual to be familiar with the Knights for coat drives or pancake breakfasts or other charity and fellowship opportunities. The Knights have a storied history of fighting for religious freedom and being leaders and enablers of robust Christian generosity — the stuff of the Beatitudes.
In recent memory, the Knights successfully petitioned the Barack Obama administration to recognize the so-called Islamic State genocide in Iraq. They came to the aid of the likes of the Little Sisters of the Poor by educating a nation about the importance of basic civil rights for all — even Catholics who oppose things that are ubiquitous in society. They are known to rush to the scene of natural disasters; they have been beacons of light in the wake of grave violence, including in Sandy Hook in 2012 and in Highlands Ranch, Colo., this year. They are instruments of community building, healing, education, prayer, and civic responsibility. Typically, members of the Knights of Columbus are exactly the sort of people you want in your neighborhood, and for your husband to be friends with. They take their faith seriously, and they feel accountable for it — to live it out on more than an hour on Sunday and help others do the same.
Come to think of it, the Knights are pretty much exactly who you want in public office.
I gave Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard a lot of credit for taking on Senator Harris at the start of this year in an op-ed (just days before she threw her own hat into the primary ring). It was smart politically, but it was also the right thing to do. It was a healthy sign for the Democratic party — that someone would have the courage to take on anything involving abortion.
This is how Gabbard put it:
We must stand together and with one voice condemn those who seek to incite bigotry based on religion. We cannot allow those who are anxious to exploit our differences to drive a wedge between us. We cannot and will not tolerate prejudicial treatment of those with whom we disagree, any more than we would tolerate such treatment of those with whom we agree.
We’re living at a time when there’s this tyrannical feel to ideology. There’s this winner-takes-all attitude in the air once one side or another is in power. We’re still a people who purport to be about freedom. Let’s be serious and rigorous about that and maybe even more so when we are talking about our powerhouses of civil society, the meditating institutions that make our country work, who love and serve with a heart the government can never and will never have.
We’re a better people for the Knights of Columbus, and Americans know it. Harris clearly didn’t know this, and it haunted her campaign. Let her mistake be a cautionary tale.
Don’t take on the good guys. That’s not a help to anyone, and certainly not a political campaign. As Senator Harris can tell you.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.