U.S .Presidents and the Knights of Columbus
2/15/2019By Andrew Fowler
From appearing at Supreme Conventions to endorsing several of the Order’s initiatives, U.S. Presidents through the 20th and 21st centuries have crossed paths with the Knights in many ways. One was even a member.
As noted in Columbiad (the predecessor of Columbia magazine), the Order was critical of certain US government anti-Catholic policies and practices in Cuba and Philippines, which the United States controlled following the Spanish American war.
The 26th president eulogized the service of Knights of Columbus member Lt. William Fitzsimons, the first officer to die in World War I, by writing in the Kansas City Star about his death’s “symbolic significance” and the shared “pride in the fine and gallant life which has been crowned by the great sacrifice.” Roosevelt met with a K of C delegation following the Order’s substantial contribution to the Catholic University of America in 1904. On Columbus Day 1915, the former president also spoke to the Knights of Columbus at Carnegie Hall.
President Taft delivered an address at the unveiling of a statue of Christopher Columbus outside of Union Station in Washington in 1912. His last reception in office was held by the K of C in Washington. At evening’s end, he stated: “Good-by, good luck, and remember that when I am one of the crowd I will look back upon the honor you have bestowed upon me in inviting me here tonight and will always cherish its memory.”
Warren G. Harding
During his 1914 campaign for the Ohio state senate, Harding’s opponent Timothy Hogan was the target of nativist, anti-Catholic sentiments. One publication, The Menace, reported it exposed a plot by the Knights of Columbus to “steam-roller” Hogan into the Senate. The newspaper also said the Knights cry “The pope is king” and “To hell with nations opposed to the pope” during marches. Harding did not denounce the criticisms and went on to win the election.
President Wilson approved Supreme Knight James Flaherty’s plan for the Knights to create recreation huts for Allied troops during World War I “not only of members of the Order and Catholics, but for all others, regardless of creed.”
President Hoover defeated a Knight of Columbus, Al Smith, for president in 1928. He went on to personally congratulate Supreme Knight Carmody and the entire membership on its 50th anniversary, writing the K of C “has to its credit so many helpful contributions to education, fraternal benevolence, and the relief of human distress.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In 1934, President Roosevelt created the first federal observance of Columbus Day after advocacy by the Knights of Columbus. Roosevelt had had experience with the Knights going back to World War I. Supreme Knight Carmody wrote to President Roosevelt several times during the 1930s concerning the persecution of Mexican Catholics. In 1937, Carmody urged FDR to take action on behalf of German Jews targeted by the Nazis.
President Truman endorsed the Knights of Columbus Crusade for the Preservation and Promotion of American Ideals, which published books and pamphlets to educate the public on “the perils of communism.” He also appointed former Supreme Knight Francis Matthews Secretary of the Navy and, later, ambassador to Ireland.
As a result of a national campaign led by the Knights of Columbus, Ike signed a 1954 law that added the words “under God” to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. He also met with Supreme Knight Luke Hart on the issue in 1953.
John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy became the only Catholic ever elected to the office. He was also a fourth degree Knight. Today almost 30 councils are named for him. “Hello chief” was the president’s greeting as he began a meeting with Supreme Knight Hart in the White House.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Commander Jeremiah Denton, a U.S. pilot and member of the Knights, was an American POW in the Vietnam War. He was forced to participate in a propaganda interview, during which he blinked the word torture in Morse Code to secretly reveal the reality of what was happening.
President Johnson wrote to Denton’s wife, “I wish to share with you and your seven children sincere pride in the courageous statement made by Commander Denton of support for the United States and for our policy in Vietnam. It has given me renewed strength.”
Johnson also sent greetings to the Knights during their Supreme Conventions.
President Nixon addressed the Knights’ convention in 1971 and issued a presidential proclamation one year later designating Columbus Day the second Monday in October, establishing the holiday we know today.
President Ford thanked the Knights of Columbus for cosponsoring the Bicentennial Christopher Columbus Day Ceremony held on October 11, 1976 in Washington calling the event “not just a celebration for Americans of Italian or Hispanic heritage, but a truly national tribute by all Americans.”
President Carter sent greetings to the Knights during their Supreme Convention for every year of his presidency.
President Reagan spoke at the organization’s centennial celebration in 1982, and said saying the Knights of Columbus is “unrivaled in its dedication to family, community, country, and church.”
In 1984, he awarded the Knights of Columbus a President’s Volunteer Action Awards and spoke of his father’s pride in being a K of C member at the Supreme Convention in 1986. Reagan noted that his appreciation for the K of C had “deepened” since becoming president.
George H.W. Bush
In his presidential nomination acceptance speech, Bush mentioned the Knights as part of the “thousand points of light” in America. He addressed the Supreme Convention in 1984 as vice president and then as president in 1992.
President Clinton sent a message to the Knights of Columbus during the 111th Supreme Convention, saying the Order’s “contributions to the Catholic Church and to your communities merit our applause.”
George W. Bush
President Bush spoke at the 122nd Supreme Convention in 2004, describing himself as a friend to the “soldiers in the armies of compassion.” He continued, “You're helping this nation build a culture of life in which the sick are comforted, the aged are honored, the immigrant is welcomed and the weak and vulnerable are never overlooked.”
President Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, declared on March 17, 2016 that a genocide was being carried out against Christians and other religious minorities. The designation followed an effort led by the Knights of Columbus that included a nearly 300-page report documenting ISIS’ crimes against Christians in the region and a robust advocacy and media effort, a petition drive, testimony before Congress and with spiritual, financial and moral support for the victims.
Donald J. Trump
In Dec. 2018 in an Oval Office Ceremony that included Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, President Trump signed unanimously passed legislation to provide humanitarian relief for victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria, while holding ISIS perpetrators accountable. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act was strongly supported by the Knights of Columbus and was based on Congressional testimony by the Supreme Knight.
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