Whither the Religious Left?Historians in the News
tags: religion, Catholicism, inequality, Democratic Party, Joe Biden
No one who watched the inauguration of Joe Biden could have missed that he was a Roman Catholic. Before the day’s public ceremonies, he attended a private Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, named for the patron saint of civil servants. Then, at the Capitol, a Jesuit priest and former president of Georgetown University, Father Leo O’Donovan, used an otherwise ecumenical prayer to remind the audience that a Catholic had asked for God’s blessing for George Washington’s inauguration. When Biden took the oath of office, he placed his left hand on a century-old family Bible emblazoned with a Celtic cross, and, after he was sworn in, he gave an address that borrowed from both Scripture and Catholic tradition. “Many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love,” he said. “What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?”
The answers Biden gave—a somewhat perfunctory list that included “opportunity” and “security”—were less striking than the question he posed, which stood out for its unembarrassed particularity. It was not just an obligatory invocation of a benign Supreme Being, the kind of bromide that has often accompanied our civic rituals.
Biden came of age during an auspicious time, religiously speaking. Reared in the last vestiges of an Irish Catholic immigrant culture, he would have heard the Latin Mass into his twenties, then lived through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council—he entered adulthood as Catholics entered the American mainstream, a period Garry Wills called the reign of “the two Johns” (Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy). Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli, in his new book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, suggests that Biden’s faith still bears the mark of these origins. “Biden is the first Catholic president to publicly express a religious soul,” he writes, “not a vaguely Christian, but a distinctly Catholic one, confidently but not bellicosely.”
That was apparent during Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump. Biden, for reasons of both temperament and ideology, was probably always going to run on a message that included “unity” and “healing.” During the Democratic primaries, he would reminisce about the way Washington used to work and tout his record of hammering out legislative deals with Republicans. But as the pandemic unfolded and he won his party’s nomination, Biden’s emphasis shifted, and the significance of his Catholicism to his candidacy deepened. He portrayed himself as an alternative to Trump’s incompetence and cruel disregard for human life—a man of decency and empathy, a claim inextricably tied to a biography marked by profound suffering and grief. Biden had buried a wife and daughter early in his political career, both killed in a car accident, and, more recently, a son cut down by brain cancer. Now he was pursuing the presidency amid mass death.
It was a crisis to which Biden brought unique capacities. Perhaps no American politician has had to mourn as often and as publicly as him, a fate that’s meant his Catholicism could never be merely private. (As it happens, his closest rival for this sad designation is another Catholic, Ted Kennedy.) Biden’s intimacy with loss made him a prominent and painfully sincere eulogist over the years—our nation’s “designated mourner.” The journalists Paul Moses and Michael Connor have emphasized that, traditionally, this was an important part of an Irish Catholic politician’s job, and that Biden draws deeply from that culture in his fulfillment of it. “His eulogies are built on themes of redemption and forgiveness,” Moses and Connor write, “as well as amazement at the dignity of each human being.” When Biden spoke about families who now had an empty chair at the kitchen table, he did so with credibility. He spoke out of his own sorrow—sorrow that he’s movingly testified his Catholic faith helped him endure. When his son Beau died in 2015, a grieving Biden called upon O’Donovan to preside over the funeral Mass.
Every so often, the “religious left” breaks through as a topic of fervent interest, a story that draws attention from beyond the reporters dedicated to the religion beat. Usually this has something to do with the fortunes of the Democratic Party, most of all the performance of its presidential candidates. In celebration, the deft use of religion receives a fair share of the credit—proof that talking convincingly about God can help overcome the party’s reputation as a bastion of out-of-touch coastal elites. In defeat, some blame inevitably falls on a supposed lack of faith-based appeals in campaign messaging, or a failure to make religious outreach a higher strategic priority—devoting resources to sway Midwestern Catholics, suburban evangelicals, or “moderates” for whom churchgoing is a comforting signifier.
Such a tendency shouldn’t be surprising. Going back to the religious boom of the 1950s, American political leaders have consistently reached for religion as a sort of all-purpose social fixative: a bedrock, shared faith in, well, the idea of faith. Civic religion supposedly helped underline America’s core difference with its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union—our embrace of religious freedom, in this telling traced all the way back to the Puritans, stood in stark contrast to the oppression of atheistic global communism. President Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up this vague consensus in 1952, with his pronouncement that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” For decades, that anodyne, patriotic piety has lingered as part of the language of presidential leadership, including Barack Obama’s rhetoric—the kind of sentiment expressed by invoking the “awesome God” of blue states rather than channeling Jeremiah Wright’s righteous wrath.
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