Joe Biden will be only the second Catholic president in US history
President-elect Joe Biden has promised that he will be a president to “heal” and “unite” a divided nation, one whose political divisions have grown increasingly sharp and heated. It is clear that he will rely on a message of unification through faith and common belief.
The announcements began pouring in on the morning of November 7: Joe Biden, the former senator and vice president, had secured enough votes to become President-elect Joe Biden. More than a forty-year career in politics had culminated in Biden ascending to the highest position in the country. Biden has worn many hats in his long career, but one identity he has been consistent in is that of a devout Catholic.
When Biden takes the oath of office on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021, he will become only the second Catholic president in the United States’ history. He will follow in the footsteps of President John F. Kennedy, who served from 1961 until his assassination in 1963.
Biden, a self-proclaimed “proud Democrat,” will also take office after years of his party being portrayed as antagonistic to religious faith. Biden has promised that he will be a president to “heal” and “unite” a divided nation, one whose political divisions have grown increasingly sharp and heated. It is clear that he will rely on a message of unification through faith and common belief.
The Catholic president
Sixty years ago, when Kennedy, a Democrat, was campaigning for the presidency, he was doing so in an era of substantial anti-Catholic bigotry. In some corners of the country, there were fears that Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would take orders from the Pope instead of the American people. Some members of the Democratic Party stated they could never vote for a Catholic.
During a 1960 campaign stop in Houston, Texas, Kennedy looked to assuage the fears of the electorate. He stated to a gathering of Southern Baptists, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
Ultimately Kennedy overcame the bias to become the first Catholic president in US history. In his famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address, Kennedy offered a message of unity in the face of divisions: “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
On Saturday, November 7, in his first public remarks following the still-unofficial declaration of victory, Biden struck a similar tone to Kennedy. He began by stating, “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but unify. Who doesn’t see ‘Blue States’ and ‘Red States,’ but only sees the United States.”
Biden also expressed his faith by reading a common Catholic hymn and closing with one more call for unity.
“And now, together – on eagles’ wings – we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do.”
As a Jesuit priest, James Martin, explained on Twitter, “‘On Eagles’ Wings’ is a popular Catholic hymn just mentioned by our Catholic President elect @JoeBiden as beloved by his family.”
Religious division in the US
The role of religion in Americans’ lives has been in decline for decades. In 1961, when Kennedy took office, only 2% of the country indicated they had no religious preference. In 2019, that number was 21%.
Most of that decline appears to be related to the drop in the mainline Protestant Christian faiths. Only 35% of the country was Protestant in 2019, compared to 70% in 1961. That same year, 23% of the country said they were Roman Catholic. In 2019, the percentage of Catholics in the country is 22%.
As these numbers decline, the political divisions along faith categories has become even more obvious. The conservative Evangelical Christian denominations strongly support the Republican Party, which has made outreach to them a priority in recent decades. Catholic support is more or less evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, while liberal Christians often vote Democrat.
In the 2020 election, it appears that Catholic voters split almost exactly evenly between Biden and his opponent.
Are Democrats anti-Catholic?
During the confirmation process for the newest Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, much was made of her Catholic faith. Media focus was largely placed on her membership in People of Praise, a religious sect made up of mostly Catholics, which advocates for strict gender roles and for women to live in submission to men.
Some Republicans accused Democrats of being anti-Catholic for questioning Barrett on her faith. These accusations started in September when Barrett’s nomination was still under consideration. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “the most anti-Catholic bigot nominated in over a century.”
Conservatives have also taken aim at Biden himself, saying he is not really a Catholic because of his pro-choice and pro-gay marriage views. The Federalist, a far-right publication, wrote on November 3, “How did we end up here, with an ostensibly Catholic politician leading a ticket that is openly hostile to even the most basic, ‘non-negotiable’ teachings of the Catholic Church?”
These aren’t new attacks. In October 2016, Fox News ran an op-ed that claimed, “The modern Democratic Party is the greatest threat to the free exercise of religion in America’s history. In their attempt to limit religious freedom, they are attacking the foundation of America’s goodness.”
Accusations that Democrats are anti-religion often hinge on situations related to same-sex marriage or health care. Conservative Christians have expressed outrage at Democratic-supported legal protections for the LGBTQ community, which they believe infringes on their faith. Private businesses have come under fire for refusing to serve gay or transgender customers.
On another front, conservatives recently won a Supreme Court case in July to ensure business owners did not have to cover contraceptives in their health care plans. It is a traditional Catholic belief that people should not use forms of contraceptive birth control.
The Catholic Church’s stance on these issues is hardly set in stone though. Last month, it was revealed that Pope Francis supports civil partnerships for gay couples, so they are “legally covered.” The Pope has also supported the use of contraceptives under certain circumstances.
Regardless of what the incoming administration’s stance is on Catholicism or religion, Biden continues to openly display his faith. For instance, Biden began Election Day by attending Mass at his parish and praying at the grave of his deceased son, Beau Biden.
The fact that the only two Catholic presidents in American history have been Democrats also undercuts the argument that the party is anti-Catholic.
In Ireland, where more than 78% of the country identifies as Catholic and where Biden has ancestral roots, Saturday’s announcement that Biden had won the election was met with celebration. RTÉ News, Ireland’s national news station, ended its Saturday night broadcast with a recording of Biden reading “The Cure at Troy,” a poem by the Nobel Laureate and Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
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