Before his swearing-in as president, Joe Biden attended Catholic Mass. At his inauguration, the invocation was delivered by the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, a Jesuit priest. Later, as Biden placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he made the sign of the cross. When he sat at his desk in the Oval Office for the first time, a picture of Biden greeting Pope Francis was clearly and deliberately visible right behind him.
These are all strong statements about Biden’s faith and focus. Out of 46 presidents, he is only the second Catholic — a full 60 years after John F. Kennedy became the first — and he has to rank as one of the most openly devout chief executives we’ve ever had. That piety provides a direct contrast to Biden’s predecessor, who hardly ever attended church, married three times and boasted about his predatory sexual escapades and business practices.
More importantly, Biden is a progressive, social-justice Catholic. He summed up his guiding philosophy during a eulogy for George Floyd: “Faith without works is dead.”
As Sister Carol Keehan, the former head of the Catholic Health Association, told NPR: “He’s very clear about justice. When Joe Biden talks about faith, he talks very much about things like the Gospel of Matthew: ‘What you’ve done to the least of my brothers, you’ve done to me.’”
That emphasis aligns the president with Pope Francis, who has tried to move the Catholic Church away from its obsession with issues like abortion and gay rights and toward Jesus’ core message of serving the poor and persecuted. Biden’s approach to religion helped trigger a small but significant shift among Catholic voters, who comprised one-quarter of the electorate last November and backed him over President Trump by 52% to 47%. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among Catholics, 50% to 46%.
“To many millions of Catholics who voted for him, Joe Biden and his focus on healing are a compassionate, Pope-Francis-like model of their faith,” wrote the Washington Post.
For many decades, the Republican Party has assiduously — and successfully — claimed the mantle as the “religious” party in America while branding the Democrats as a gang of godless radicals. In 2016, the one-third of voters who attended worship services at least once a week backed Trump 55 to 41. Meanwhile, the 22% of voters who said they rejected organized religion voted Democratic by more than 2 to 1.
Much of that pattern was driven by evangelical Protestants, who heavily favored Trump in both elections, but Catholics formed a key part of his coalition. You might call them Antonin Scalia Catholics: followers of the late Supreme Court Justice who provided the touchstone for conservative legal thinking over the last generation.
It was highly significant that Trump named Amy Coney Barrett, a Scalia disciple and former law professor at Notre Dame, to the Supreme Court. As a result, all six of the right-leaning justices now on the court were raised Catholic (although Neil Gorsuch now attends an Episcopal church).
That judicial bloc is closely attuned to a reactionary faction in the Catholic hierarchy that despises Pope Francis. That faction generated a statement from Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who denounced Biden on Inauguration Day for promoting policies “that would advance moral evils,” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender.”
Biden’s election, however, could mark an inflection point in the role faith plays in public life. His version of Catholicism stands staunchly against both the Scalia devotees and the bishops represented by Gomez. “With Biden, a different, more liberal Christianity is ascendant,” wrote The New York Times, “less focused on sexual politics and more on combating poverty, climate change and racial inequality.” His leadership, added the Times, “is a repudiation of the claim by many conservatives that Democrats are inherently anti-Christian.”
The model of Biden talking openly and proudly about his faith should encourage other progressives to do the same.
“I think one of the mistakes Democrats have made over decades is to be very private about the values that move them into public life,” Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden confidant, told NPR. “If we — as many Democrats in elected office have for 20 years — hide that or don’t speak about it, millions of Americans are left wondering what drives you.”
No one has to wonder what drives Joe Biden. Just look at the picture of Pope Francis behind him.
Steven Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.