Podcast: How Joe Biden’s Faith Will Shape His Presidency

January 19, 2021
Podcast: How Joe Biden’s Faith Will Shape His Presidency
Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021. / Photo: Creative Commons, Gage Skidmore

In an October 2020 op-ed for the Christian Post, Joe Biden wrote: “My Catholic faith drilled into me a core truth—that every person on earth is equal in rights and dignity, because we are all beloved children of God.” As president, he continued, “These are the principles that will shape all that I do, and my faith will continue to serve as my anchor, as it has my entire life.”

I'm Jonathan Beasley, and this is a special pop-up episode of the Harvard Religion Beat. Today, I'm chatting with E. J. Dionne, who many of you likely know as a journalist, author, and political commentator. He also teaches at Georgetown and here at Harvard and HDS. And just before the election he co-authored the report "A Time to Heal, A Time to Build," with Melissa Rogers for the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior fellow in Governance Studies.

I wanted to speak with E. J. to get his insight into how Joe Biden’s Catholicism will shape the way he governs as president, and how his faith will serve as a road map for how his administration will tackle economic injustices, equal rights, religious freedom, and racial justice—all while trying to heal a very divided nation.

Listen to the episode:

Harvard Divinity School: Thanks for joining me, E. J. So, before we look ahead to the upcoming Biden administration, what role would you say that Biden’s faith has played in his political career up to this point? Has there any kind of identifiable thread throughout his political career that speaks to how his faith has influenced his political leadership?

E. J. Dionne: I think it's very important to view Joe Biden as a Catholic of a certain age and a certain kind. And I think that his faith has been extremely important, but not necessarily in the direct way of X religious position, Y bill, or Y proposal. Rather, I think he is a product of the era that Garry Wills referred to as the era of the two Johns—John F. Kennedy and Pope John the 23rd. And that his Catholicism very much reflects that orientation.

It should be said that Joe Biden, in many ways, is a rather old-fashioned, pious Catholic. If you are on his press list and get press releases and pool reports, he is always in church, either on Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings. He is always in church for Catholic holy days of obligation, which many Catholics actually don't quite make it to mass on those days. But Joe Biden is there.

He's talked about carrying rosary beads around with him. There is that very traditional approach. But he also came of age at a time when Catholicism itself opened up to the world. And when Catholicism really embraced democracy and developed a positive kind of dialectical relationship with modernity, if I can put it that way. Still critical of modernity, in certain respects, but very open to the ways in which modernity could teach the church, even as the church had things to teach to modernity about the value of community and tradition. And I think that's where Biden comes from.

I also think he is very much in the wing of Catholicism that we loosely describe as "social justice Catholics." Obviously, I know many Catholics who are very strongly opposed to abortion who are in the social justice camp. But the debate in the church, in recent years, has really come down to an argument over emphasis. How important is the abortion issue compared to social justice issues?

And I think the other pope, obviously, Joe Biden is, and will be, closely aligned with, is Pope Francis. And I think it's very striking that there's a real division within American Catholicism between Catholics who are embracing Pope Francis, who are on the more progressive side of the church, and those who are very critical of him, on the more conservative side. You could have a real paradox here, where Joe Biden will be closer to the positions of the pope in Rome than to the positions of many of the conservative bishops in the Catholic hierarchy.

Now obviously, Joe Biden is pro-choice on abortion. This obviously bothered many pro-life Catholics. But what was really striking is the radicalism of Donald Trump—the right-wing radicalism—moved many quite pro-life Catholics. John Carr at Georgetown, where I also teach at our Initiative on Catholic Social Thought, wrote a very powerful endorsement of Joe Biden. And John had never really entered the political arena. And it was a response—and he disagrees with Biden on abortion—but it was a very powerful argument that in this election there were issues that transcended the particularity of the abortion issue, having to do with democracy, human rights, decency, and what it really meant to be pro-life in the broadest sense.

So I think, to go back to where we started, Biden's commitments around social justice, I think, are very much shaped by Catholic social thought. And, right out of the box, when you look at how Biden has put his own stamp on an economic stimulus and rescue package that he wants passed right away after he's inaugurated, he added the child tax credit to the list of things he wants to do. That is very much in keeping with the Catholic emphasis on both social justice and greater equality, on the one side, but also on the need to give support to families, on the other side.

It is where, I think, a kind of Christian Democratic and social Democratic politics link. And I think we're going to see Joe Biden as part Christian Democrat and part social Democrat, in his presidency.

HDS: Since we’re discussing social justice, Biden has talked about rooting out the “pervasive evil of poverty.” Here in the United States, there are over 1 million veterans on food stamps and 22 million children each day depend on school lunch programs so they don’t go hungry. How do you think Biden’s faith will influence how he tackles economic injustices in this country?

E. J. Dionne: Well, again, I think that the best kept secret of the Roman Catholic Church is its social teaching, which goes all the way back to Rerum Novarum, the great encyclical about labor rights and equality back in 1891, and has been built on over the years even by popes we see as conservative. Pope Benedict's encyclicals is an economic justice put him, in some ways, to the left of the Democratic Party, where it was when President Obama was in office.

I had fun writing a column when President Obama visited with Pope Benedict. And I said, the person on the left end of this conversation, when it comes to economics, is going to be Pope Benedict, who had been more publicly critical of capitalism than President Obama had. And Pope John Paul II is viewed by many—and for understandable reasons—in certain ways, as quite conservative. But he was very, very critical of unrestrained capitalism, insisted on a safety net, wrote a whole encyclical on the rights of labor.

And so if you take the Catholic social tradition, going back well over 100 years, it's a tradition that is not anti-market, in the sense it doesn't say the market has no role. But it is very critical of the unrestrained, uncorrected market. It says that, as Pope John Paul II put it, labor is prior to capital. Which, by the way, Abraham Lincoln also said. And I think that, in a way, both consciously and unconsciously, all of that teaching influenced the way Biden looks at the world.

And again, I think it's important to kind of link the old-fashioned pious Catholic with the social justice Catholic. Because, in a way, it's Joe Biden marinated in a tradition. It's not Joe Biden getting a PhD in social ethics. And I'm not saying that in any way to suggest that he's not thoughtful about these things. I'm saying it to say it actually, in a way, runs deeper than that. It's kind of who he is, from having been part of a long tradition all his life.

And I think we're going to see the effects of that in surprising ways. And when he was vice president, he met regularly with Catholic leaders, people who care about Catholic social thought. People like Sister Carol Keehan, for example, of the Catholic Health Association, who played a very important role in pushing Obamacare over the line.

When many Catholic bishops were opposing Obamacare because of the abortion issue, Sister Carol was out there saying, no, actually this Obamacare—or the Affordable Care Act—doesn't support abortion, and it is consistent with the 150 years of Catholic social teaching that we provide everybody with health coverage.

So he has maintained those personal ties that reinforce his larger, as I like to put it, marination in Catholic thought.

HDS: Just shifting gears a bit here, E. J., a recent article in the Washington Post claimed that Biden’s LGBTQ agenda will make him the most pro-equality president in history. Some conservative Christian legal organizations, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, are concerned that Biden reversing certain Trump LGBTQ policies might impact “Americans who want to live life according to their convictions.” How do you see a Biden administration navigating the very turbulent waters of religious freedom?

E. J. Dionne: Well, I think it's important to bear in mind on LGBTQ issues that, while a lot of the leaders of organized religious groups and churches have been critical of the way in which advances in LGBTQ rights have, in their view, impinged on religious liberty. The fact is that within the grassroots, there's enormous support for LGBTQ rights.

There is great support in the polling for broad LGBTQ rights among Catholics, among many, many Protestants, including evangelicals. And there is also, among religious people no less than among secular people, a great generational divide. Younger religious people are far more pro-LGBTQ rights than older ones. And that's A and B.

There is a steady shift in favor of LGBTQ rights across the board in our country. A number of scholars have said that it was the sharpest and most radical shift in opinion on any issue that we've seen since the dawn of polling. And just parenthetically, I think the reason that happened was the fact that so many people who are gay and lesbian and trans came out long ago. And suddenly, many Americans who may have had moral qualms realized that somebody they loved and cared about was gay or lesbian. And it changes the picture that people have. And that's had—your son, your daughter, your cousin, the guy you work with, or the woman you work with—it's changed the issue fundamentally. I think it's really important to bear that in mind as we look at these religious liberty arguments.

I think this will be one of the trickiest issues that Biden has to navigate. In Congress, there are two versions of equality laws, basically LGBTQ civil rights laws. One with virtually no accommodations to religious groups. The other with more accommodations, by far, than the LGBTQ community can abide.

I think that Biden will make some efforts to open a dialogue with the religious groups to say perhaps there are certain areas where we might find accommodation. I think, clearly, the very nature of the First Amendment is the government, clearly, can't force denominations that don't want to, to conduct gay marriages. But I think that's baked in the cake already. And on the LGBTQ side, the view would be that that should be a sufficient accommodation.

There may be some issues that arise about religious universities or colleges that reject gay marriage, same-sex marriage. And that would be much more complicated. So if you asked me for a hunch, I think, in the end, Biden will come down on LGBTQ rights. I think he will make some effort to have some very limited accommodations. And to say, you know, I'm not doing this to attack religious groups. I am doing this because I think LGBTQ rights are central.

What I do hope for is a new dialogue on religious liberty. As we talked about before our conversation began, my colleague Melissa Rogers and I—Melissa was the head of the Faith-Based Office in the Obama White House, in the second term of the Obama administration. We both think it's a terrible shame that the term "religious liberty," which is something that should unite us, has become an ideological slogan used by our conservative friends. And we have many conservative friends. And we consulted with a lot of conservatives when we wrote that report. But our conservative friends, in some cases, sort of drag their feet on certain advances that we think are proper.

On the other hand, we get their concerns. We too honor religious liberty. We too think that there are areas where accommodations are proper. So, for example, both of us support the universal availability of contraception under the Affordable Care Act. But both of us think it's reasonable to find ways in which religious institutions—say, Catholic universities, evangelical universities—that don't want to provide that aid, to get around providing it directly, while still guaranteeing women access to contraception.

But we also think that when you hear the words "religious liberty"—and here's where I think Biden has a great opportunity to transform the conversation. This is also liberty for Americans who are Muslim. This is liberty that says we shouldn't have policies in our country rooted on denying access to immigration or refugee status on the basis of someone's religion.

And I think this is the big change in our society. I think the largest sociological change, for those studying religion in the United States, the rise of the religious nones—that's spelled NONES—where up to 40 percent of young people of the under 30s, or under 35s, or under 40s, are now religiously unaffiliated. And it's very important when we talk about, for example, government partnerships with all of the civil society groups that do good in our society, and that includes an awful lot of faith-based groups, we need also to talk about all the secular groups that do this work.

One of the proposals we make in our report, which we called "A Time to Heal, a Time to Build," where we're really trying to heal some of these religious divisions, is to think about partnerships with faith-based groups that have been an issue since the Bush administration. Even though they began, actually, right at the beginning of our republic. And President Clinton inaugurated some of these partnerships.

We think that we should re-conceive these as a broad partnership between government and civil society that includes and honors the work of religious groups, but also honors the work of nonreligious groups. And we think that may be part of a way to lower the temperature on some of these religious questions.

E. J. Dionne is Visiting Professor in Religion and Political Culture / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard file photo

HDS: So what other areas, in particular, do you anticipate a Biden administration partnering with faith organizations and faith leaders on? I'm specifically thinking about immigration, especially following the way that the last four years have gone under Trump’s policies in that arena. And might there be other areas where faith organizations and Biden’s administration could collaboration on, such as racial justice and equality?

E. J. Dionne: That is a great question. And it's something we talk about a lot in our report. Indeed, when we did our consultations for the report, with all sorts of people from different points of view, different backgrounds, different experiences.

Joshua DuBois, who headed the faith-based office in the first half of the Obama administration, suggested—and we adopted enthusiastically—that faith-based groups, at this moment in our history, could especially be called on to help move us toward racial justice, to involve themselves very much in the issues of what you might call a third reconstruction that our country needs, that really came to life in 2020—that became urgent in 2020—after the killing of George Floyd and so many others.

And also in relationship to the pandemic, where the pandemic underscored both the costs of racial inequalities in our country and the cost of class inequalities in our country. The fact that Black Americans got the disease at a higher rate than white Americans did. The fact that, on the economic side, those we called essential workers, who really were our forgotten workers before the pandemic, that while people who are affluent and could operate on little machines, do their work on little machines like the one we're talking on right now, they either lost their jobs or they had to work—as in supermarket clerks, as in slaughterhouse workers, as in sanitation workers—had to work under far more dangerous conditions. So we think that on issues dealing with a pandemic, and on issues dealing with racial justice, there is a great opportunity for our religious institutions—all of them, across the board—to do work in this area.

I'd also like to shout out the election of the Reverend Raphael Warnock, in Georgia. And if I can simultaneously shout out the Harvard Div School, he gave a very interesting lecture at the Divinity School sometime back. I have it sitting right next to me. The Reverend Warnock wrote a book called The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness.

And my friend John Gehring wrote a very powerful piece very recently in Commonweal, talking about how Warnock, by marrying a deep appreciation of the traditional piety of the African-American church—the subtitle of his book is "Theology, Piety, and Public Witness" with the Black liberation emphasis of James Cone, who was his thesis advisor, laid out an alternative way to think about faith.

We have spent 25 or 30 years thinking about faith as almost inevitably allied with the right end, the conservative end of the American political spectrum. That would come as news to anyone who has been involved in the Black church, to most Black Americans for a long period of time.

And I think that we have ways of—there's been a lot of talk about where is the religious left, what has happened to the religious left. The religious left is about to walk into the United States Senate in the person of Senator Reverend Warnock. And so I think this is a very exciting moment of new possibility. 

And lastly, if I may—and again, I want to shout out the many conservatives, including conservative religious people, like my friends Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner, who really stood up to Trump. Who are evangelicals, and who declared to their fellow evangelicals that an alliance with Christian nationalism, with white Christian nationalism, is antithetical to the Christian tradition.

And again, they weren't speaking as left Christians. They were speaking as proud conservative, evangelical Christians who insisted that, if you will, there needed to be a kind of Reformation—loaded word, I know—within the conservative evangelical community. So, again, I take a lot of heart that, while in the votes, those who label themselves white evangelicals—as those whites who label themselves evangelical—were overwhelmingly for Trump, there's a real ferment going on in that community.

And I think that it's important that those of us on the more progressive or social Democratic side of politics who are religious, or are Christian, really be in deep dialogue with them. Because I think that dialogue might help us take steps to reduce the temperature in our politics and reduce the polarization which really just blew up—literally, blew up—on us at the nation's capital when those ballots—the electoral college ballots—were being counted.

HDS: This is, of course, a time in American history when we’re perhaps as divided as we’ve ever been, or at least since the Civil War. Biden has talked about the need to come together as a country and to love our neighbor as ourselves, as prescribed in the New Testament. While on the campaign trail, Biden was fond of saying that, “While I am running as a proud Democrat, I will serve as a president for all Americans.” So, E. J., how will that happen? How do you see a Biden administration working to heal the deep, divisive wounds in this country?

E. J. Dionne: It’s a great promise Joe Biden made. It's the right promise. And interestingly, I discovered recently that the promise to represent everybody and not just the people who voted for you, or not the people in your political party, goes back to Abraham Lincoln's first congressional race, where he made a similar promise.

Abigail Spanberger—very prominent moderate Democrat who took a Tea Party district in 2018, she was one of the very important figures who flipped control of the House—made that promise in her district, knowing how many very conservative voters she would have as her constituents. I don't think any of us is under any illusion of how difficult it's going to be to keep that promise.

I think that the way toward outreach lies in an attempt to solve common problems. People who have been engaged in various forms of dialogue over the decades, ecumenical dialogues and political dialogues, one school would have people go all the way to the bottom of their disagreements to try to figure them out. There's certainly something to be said for that, but I've always been partial to the other school that says maybe we can put aside those disagreements and try to solve some common problems. Maybe we can look at some of the roots of our rancor and try to improve the society in ways that make rancor a little less likely.

I'm thinking very specifically of the fact that when you look at the economic challenges of Black Americans in inner cities and in many rural areas, and of white working-class Americans, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, some of the sources of their discontents are the same. Now, Black Americans confront very specific, longstanding forms of discrimination that none of us who is white confront.

But there are shared economic concerns, economic justice concerns, that I think Biden can address. If you take something, to go all the way back to the beginning, like the proposal for a child tax credit, that will help an awful lot of people who face economic challenges across racial lines. It will help Black Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, whites. It does not differentiate in that sense.

I also think that the way you talk about these things can matter. And I was struck that Biden, for whom Robert Kennedy was a hero—and it's worth remembering that Kennedy had extraordinary success, particularly in that last campaign of his, in 1968, in reaching both white working-class Americans and Black Americans, and developing trust within both groups.

I think Biden campaigned in a way that was designed to build trust on both sides of this line. And I hope that—I don't think we can give up on the effort to pull our country together just because it's going to be hard. And just because there are plenty of people who will never vote Democratic, and may never tell a pollster they really approve of Joe Biden.

But I think the sort of gut reaction of, well, I don't really like Biden, but he is doing something about X, is something that he is in a really good position—is an approach that I think is he is really in a good position to pursue.

And I think for those of us who are grassroots citizens, I think we need to try as best we can—including through our religious congregations, if we belong to religious congregations—to have forms of outreach rooted, again, not in trying to get to the bottom and resolve all our deep differences. But to say, where can we unite in solving a problem in our community or our nation?

Because I think there are many people, in their gut, whom I may have passionate disagreements with about politics, who still read the same scripture. And still, in their guts, understand that we have a primary obligation to the least among us. Who still understand that maybe there's a problem when people in religious communities are often more vicious toward each other in their political disagreements than people outside.

And I gotta say, I owe that insight to a conservative friend. My friend Ramesh Ponnuru, of the National Review, when we had a dialogue once, who said, there is something really wrong with Christians who argue about politics, who argue about it with an exceptional degree of viciousness.

And so maybe I could close with words from somebody who just retired from the news and commentary business, my friend, Mark Shields, who many know from his years of commentary on the NewsHour, on the PBS NewsHour. I have always loved Mark's line that in politics, as in religion, the world is divided between those who are heretic hunters and those who are convert seekers.

And I think politics and religion both tend to be better off when we privilege convert-seeking over heretic-hunting. Because it accepts that each of us is capable of being having our minds changed. And because it puts particular burdens on the convert-seeker, at least to try to understand where the person we are talking to is coming from. And so I hope—I think Joe Biden is instinctively a convert seeker. And I think that's instinctively, as Mark Shields, taught us, it's a good thing to be.

HDS: I want to thank E. J. Dionne for his time and insight. E. J.’s upcoming book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country, which you can grab on February 4, which is the day after my birthday, so … Happy Birthday to me.

Thanks for tuning in to this special episode of the Harvard Religion Beat. The show is written, hosted, and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by the truly fabulous Caroline Cataldo.

We’ll have a new episode coming out in early February that takes a closer look at religion’s role in past pandemics and this current pandemic. It’s super interesting. You won’t want to miss it, so subscribe to the podcast if you don’t already.

Until next time…

Music credit: InSpectr, "After the Border" (Free Music Archive)