Not since John F Kennedy’s presidency in the early 1960s has a Catholic politician been elected to the USA’s highest office.
By all accounts, President Joe Biden‘s faith isn’t phony, forced, or ammunition for a photo opportunity.
(And unlike JFK, who governed during an era of anti-Catholic sentiment, Mr Biden hasn’t made any attempts to distance himself from the Vatican.)
But his liberal views on two polarising topics — abortion and gender rights — still have some religious constituents, and leaders, up in arms.
According to Massimo Faggioli, an author and religious studies professor at Villanova University in Mr Biden‘s home state of Pennsylvania, the 46th president is an “old-style Catholic”.
“He has always said, ‘My Catholic faith has kept me alive,'” says Dr Faggioli.
Mr Biden has experienced more loss than the average politician.
In 1972, his first wife Neilia and their one-year-old daughter Naomi died in a car crash. The couple’s sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the accident.
In 2015, another tragedy struck the family. Mr Biden‘s younger son Beau, a Delaware-based politician and lawyer, passed away from brain cancer.
Mr Biden says the loss of his son — who encouraged him to run for office — was a motivating factor in his presidential bid.
Christianity at a time of crisis
For author and moral and political theology professor Luke Bretherton, Catholicism provided Mr Biden with the “language of lament”, and a way to process grief through ritual.
The Duke University academic points out that previous leaders — who have shown “tone deafness to the human condition” — Mr Biden is uniquely placed to deal with the crisis unfolding in America.
Since his inauguration last month, Mr Biden has openly grieved for the lives lost during the pandemic, and swiftly moved to introduce public health and relief measures.
From Professor Bretherton’s perspective, Mr Trump refused to acknowledge the rising death toll, and his responsibility, because such an act would have been akin to admitting to failure.
“It would have been a sign of his lack of virility, it would have dented his masculinity,” he says.
But Professor Bretherton doesn’t believe ego was the only factor, and links Mr Trump‘s actions to religious belief.
“I would say does have a theology, it’s a kind of prosperity theology — you see that in who he drew around him, people like [US televangelist] Paula White,” he says.
“We’ve seen that scaled up under Trump. We’ve all had to live in some weird denial about what the f*** is happening to us.”
In October last year, Pew Research Centre found that white Evangelicals, Protestants and even Catholics viewed Mr Trump has their preferred candidate.
Dr Faggioli points out that regardless of whether Mr Trump is a true believer, the former president became a symbol for many Christian Americans — particularly those with conservative views around abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights.
Dr Faggioli says the pro-life/pro-choice debate sits at the heart of the rift between the bishops’ conference and the new president.
While Mr Biden opposed the Roe v Wade ruling early on in his political career, in recent decades he has taken a liberal stance in support of abortion.
Dr Faggioli says even though Mr Biden wears issues like abortion and gender rights “lightly” — meaning they’re not central to his platform, which focusses more on inequality and the environment — he sits squarely in the Democrat camp.
For many religious constituents and leaders, those two ideologies are incompatible.
Last year, Wisconsin-based Catholic Father James Altman released a monologue on YouTube, titled You cannot be Catholic & a Democrat. Period., unpacking this stance. It’s had more than 1.2 million views.
The paradox of US Christianity
Professor Bretherton says Christianity has been used to defend and validate diametrically opposed beliefs in America for hundreds of years.
He argues that Protestant Christianity — a “white form of religion” — was dominant in the country’s foundation era, but that it also, paradoxically, gave birth to the African-American church.
According to Professor Bretherton, Christianity has been used to both legitimise and decry slavery, civil rights and segregation.
He says the transition from Mr Trump to Mr Biden could be seen as a handover from Christian nationalism — used to reinscribe white supremacy and racial capitalism — to a form of Catholic, Protestant and African-American Christianity that supports individual rights, progressive taxation policies and more integrated schooling.
“One can understand it as a kind of seesaw,” Professor Bretherton says.
“There’s this constant movement that still continues to play out today.”
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