Seen today on the Washington Post website (the second Sunday after Epiphany, no less!), a perceptive article on President-elect Joe Biden’s Catholic faith that raises some of the same issues I hope to touch on in my expanded study of cultural issues in the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod on the North Side of Chicago during the 1850s.
And, of course, as I work on my own faith formation.
It’s by Michelle Boorstein, the Post’s religion writer — whose religious background is right after my own heart. Her bio on the Post website says her “path to her dream job as a religion reporter began as a kid, trying to make sense of a kosher Jewish home that had three sets of dishes: meat, milk and Chinese food.” A former overseas reporter for the Associated Press, she focuses now on what she describes as “the busy marketplace of American faith, spirituality and meaning-making.”
Issues that Boorstein touches on include — in her words:
- Biden’s tendency to refer to “faith’s purpose in general, inclusive terms — as sustenance for the weary, encouragement for the suffering and an obligation to welcome and care for one another.”
- [Of Biden’s faith:] “Millions Americans hungry for a faith focused on healing and inclusion will embrace it — especially on the left, where believers have felt trampled by the religious right into nonexistence since the 1970s.”
- Biden’s “idea of religiosity,” which Boorstein says “is pluralistic.” She also cites A 2020 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that “found sharp partisan divides on the issue of religious diversity, with 43 percent of Republicans preferring the country to be made up ‘primarily’ of Christians, compared with 16 percent of Democrats.”
- An article in First Things by Jayd Henricks, a former top lobbyist for the Catholic bishops’ conference, that suggests the means of grace should be denied to Biden — “Henricks identifies the eye of the storm of that crisis as the giving of Holy Communion, the way to ‘save one’s soul,’ he writes. He concludes that U.S. bishops should deny this to Biden and thus ‘provide clear guidance … on the dignity and seriousness of the moral life’.”
Cite: Michelle Boorstein, “Joe Biden’s Catholicism is all about healing. Now, he will lead a suffering America,” Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/01/11/catholic-grief-joe-biden/. [Accessed Jan. 17]
Verbatim excerpts: (Brackets in the original.)
The question is how the country will adjust to a man whose faith doesn’t feature literal Bible-waving promises to “save Christianity” or threats that political opponents might eliminate God (all Trumpian moments).
Biden presents a less common image: a devout, churchgoing liberal. The country will soon observe for the first time a president who goes to Mass every Sunday, plus on Catholic feast days, and sprinkles conversation casually with scripture, religious hymns and references to religious history but describes faith’s purpose in general, inclusive terms — as sustenance for the weary, encouragement for the suffering and an obligation to welcome and care for one another.
Millions of Americans hungry for a faith focused on healing and inclusion will embrace it — especially on the left, where believers have felt trampled by the religious right into nonexistence since the 1970s.
Millions of others will reject Biden’s version of religiosity, one that’s less tied to doctrine, less likely to honor religious conservatives’ legal demands, less invested in America as a Christian nation. This is problematic for many on the right. A 2020 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found sharp partisan divides on the issue of religious diversity, with 43 percent of Republicans preferring the country to be made up “primarily” of Christians, compared with 16 percent of Democrats.
Some further to Biden’s left will also bemoan his unwillingness to draw a direct line from the gospels to policy changes like free higher education and universal health care.
But what makes Biden different, says Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli — whose spiritual biography of the president-elect is being published this month — is that he’s unapologetic.
“Joe Biden is a Catholic in the public square who doesn’t take lectures from bishops about what being Catholic is about. This is totally new,” Faggioli said.
His desire to be a uniter will be tested quickly on the religious front. On Jan. 29, nine days after Biden’s inauguration, perhaps the largest annual gathering of U.S. Catholics will take place blocks from the White House: the March for Life, where tens of thousands of mostly Catholic abortion opponents rally. The march has become heavily Republican in recent years, filled with abortion opponents willing to overlook President Trump’s record-breaking number of executions and his laissez-faire approach to a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands in the United States. In 2020, Trump became the first U.S. president to speak live at the march. This year, it will undoubtedly feature many speakers and signs challenging Biden’s faith.AD
But Biden has long pushed back on the idea that, for him, faith must lead to policies.
“I’m prepared to accept doctrine on a whole range of issues as a Catholic. … I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith — my wife and I, my family — the issue of abortion. But what I’m not prepared to do is impose a rigid view, a precise view … that is born out of my faith, on other people who are equally God-fearing, equally as committed to life,” Biden told the Jesuit magazine America in a 2015 videotaped interview.
Yet Biden has bound up his promises to make significant social change in areas from health care to the environment with that to “restore the soul of the nation.” If he is a healer, Biden has an epic pastoral challenge.
As strong as Biden’s attachment is to Catholic beliefs and culture, his idea of religiosity is pluralistic.
Rabbi Michael Beals, a Delaware cleric whom Biden calls “my rabbi,” met Biden 14 years ago when the then-senator came without fanfare to sit shiva — a visit to relatives of the dead during the week-long period of Jewish mourning — for a longtime, small-amount donor. Then, six years ago, at a party at the vice-presidential mansion for the Jewish High Holidays, Beals offered to bless Biden.
“He bowed his head the way a Jew never would. I put my palms on his forehead, like I would for my children, and it was such a moment. He really has a sense for respect for religion, religious leaders, deep faith. And his faith isn’t a designer label. He is a Catholic but he treated me no differently than he would have a priest,” Beals said, noting that Biden has his own black yarmulke.
All three of Biden’s adult children were married to Jewish spouses at some point. His wife, Jill Biden, attends church with him but is a Presbyterian.
Some Catholics worry — or hope, depending on their perspective — that Biden could influence the U.S. church.
“What’s happened with Catholics is, we got subsumed by [White] evangelicals because of the political interests,” said Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania who sat on Biden’s Catholic advisory groups. “But the ways in which he’s speaking about the poor — this is straight-up Catholic social teaching, and you can’t get away from that.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November created a working group to deal with the “difficult” situation of the second-ever Catholic president being a strong advocate for policies the church opposes on abortion and LGBT legal rights. The bishops also noted areas of potential collaboration on immigration, climate change and racism.
“I’d hope [the bishops] would make judgments about Joe Biden’s presidency that take into account the whole social teaching mission of the church, not just picking a few issues like abortion,” Casey said.
But to Jayd Henricks, a former top lobbyist for the bishops, Biden creates a crisis: He “undermines the prophetic work of the Church and her call to witness the truth and love of Jesus Christ,” Henricks wrote last month in First Things. “The bishops’ crisis in this situation is not a political crisis. It is a crisis of authority, a crisis of identity, and a crisis of faith.”
Henricks identifies the eye of the storm of that crisis as the giving of Holy Communion, the way to “save one’s soul,” he writes. He concludes that U.S. bishops should deny this to Biden and thus “provide clear guidance … on the dignity and seriousness of the moral life.”
However, Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington and a newly minted cardinal, has already said he will not deny Communion.
As he prepares to assume the presidency, Biden has focused on faith as solace. In his Nov. 7 victory speech, he quoted a hymn beloved by his late son, “On Eagle’s Wings,” that paints God as protector, holding “you in the palm of his hand.”
Butler says Americans should prepare for such references “to be everywhere” in a Biden administration. “Biden’s thing is: There is suffering in the world, and Catholicism looks grief and suffering right in the face.”