Comment by Andrew Brown
Joe Biden’s Catholic faith is almost invisible to secular liberals, yet it is going to be one of the most important things about him politically as well as personally. In The New Yorker, writer Evan Osnos’s sympathetic and well-informed biography of the new president, the word “Faith” appears seven times, none of them in a Christian context — all of them referring either to faith in America or in particular politicians.
Priests make only two appearances, once as an indicator of how close to death Biden came from an aneurysm, once in his reported speech: “Jesus” and “God” appear only as interjections.
Yet Biden goes to church every Sunday, and in his partial autobiography he opens with the idea of justice and human dignity that a Catholic upbringing gave him.
Although his life has been marked by horrible suffering — his first wife Neilia and their baby daughter died in a car crash; and his eldest son, Beau, died of a brain tumour at the age of 46 — he does not turn their stories into a triumph over tragedy but into bleakly honest reflections.
Where an evangelical story would have God comforting, in Biden’s telling it is other human beings, sometimes unlikely ones, who can touch him in his grief.
When he deals with God it is almost a conversation: “I find the rosary soothing”, he wrote. “It’s almost like my meditation. And mass is a place I go to be by myself, even in the middle of the crowd. I always feel alone, just me and God. When I pray, I find myself not only praying to God, but praying to Neilia and to my mom to intercede with God for me. It’s a way of reminding myself that they are still a part of me, still inside me. And in the first hours after we lost Beau, I began to talk to him, too. It was my way to remind myself that he was still here with me, too.”
But he says only that faith provided “some refuge” from the pain, not that it took it all away. This is a downbeat, grounded style of Christianity which is in sharp contrast to the evangelical style of much of America, full of promises of “Victory” and “deliverance” in this life. The gap between the two styles is not merely theological. It coincides with a deep political schism within the United States and within the Catholic church there.
Biden’s account of his life is also full of stories about how he himself attempted to console others who had experienced similar losses. He gives his private phone number to a grieving immigrant father of a murdered policeman, telling him — and meaning it — that he can always call, long after the waves of public sympathy have subsided.
The contrast with Donald Trump could hardly be greater. The last time Trump was known to go to church was for a photo opportunity towards the end of a police riot when he had the police clear the steps of the Anglican cathedral in Washington of protesters, to the horror of the bishop there. Biden opened his day as president with a church service presided over by a Jesuit.
Yet for a wide swathe of the American electorate, Trump represents the Christian hope of America and Biden the anti-Christian darkness. This is true even within the Catholic church, where the white vote split almost 50/50 between Biden and Trump, and some prominent priests, one bishop, and a former Vatican ambassador to Washington continued their campaign against the election result right up until the riot in the Capitol.
Ostensibly the issue is about abortion. Biden is personally opposed, but says he does not believe the law should bind people of different faiths. Yet abortion is the issue that united white evangelical Christians and Catholics, once bitter enemies, in the great realignment of American politics after the 1960s. The division in American Christianity runs through Protestant Christianity almost entirely on racial lines. Black Protestants vote Democratic; white evangelical protestants vote Republican. The Trumpist mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6 carried Christian banners .
And their faith, like Biden’s, is rooted in their daily lives. The social media through which so many of them live saturate their ordinary lives with spiritual meaning and political commandments, just as Biden’s Catholic faith does for him, although theirs urges them to struggle and to hatred. This everyday, ordinary quality is what will make the divisions in American society so very hard to heal. Christian preachers used to denounce “Sunday Christians”, whose faith was only real one day a week. Biden is obviously not one of those — but nor are his opponents Sunday Trumpists now.