Why Joe Biden's history with Catholicism matters to voters
(COMMENTARY) The 2020 presidential race is in full swing. The political press and its insatiable appetite for all things Donald Trump has subsided in as much as it needs to dedicate column space and airtime to the Democrats looking to replace him.
At last count, 20 people are running in the Democratic primary. Those include long-time frontrunners like Bernie Sanders, according to various polls and based on money raised, as well as those you may never have heard of before now like John Hickenlooper.
Overall, religion and faith, as expected, has gotten little to no coverage thus far. Only Pete Buttigieg has seen crossover coverage and that’s only because he injected his Christian faith (as a shot against Vice President Mike Pence) into the conversation.
The religion of these candidates and history with the dogma of their respective faiths — what they believe, why they believe it and, in some cases, when they changed their minds — is an issue many Americans care about. Journalists in the New York and Washington, D.C. bubbles may not think so (or even be aware of it), but the rest of the country (from the Bible Belt to the Western Plains) cares.
One candidate whose faith does need examination is Joe Biden. The former vice president has been in the news a lot recently — even before he announced a 2020 bid — but the faith angle (and his history with Catholicism over the decades) has sadly been overlooked.
For starters, Biden was born and raised a Roman Catholic. Were he to win the presidency, Biden would only be the second Catholic — after John F. Kennedy — to occupy the Oval Office. That’s no longer a big a story as when JFK did it in 1960. Nonetheless, Biden’s brand of Catholicism (past and present) is worth lots of news stories and TV segments. One can't run a Biden is running in 2020 story without including his faith and how it has influenced his life and politics.
It's true that Biden winning wouldn't make the same headlines JFK did in 1960. Or can they? After all, Catholics have come a long way in this country — both in terms of political clout and in overall population — that a Biden win wouldn't do much in the way of cementing Catholicism in any way. After all, a majority of the Supreme Court now features Catholic judges. Issues like abortion (Biden was once a pro-life Democrat) and religious freedom are at the center of the culture war being waged primarily by conservative Catholics, with help from Evangelical Christians, Mormons and other Protestants.
Overall, the Biden coverage has been devoid of any faith.
First up, The New York Times and its story about Biden's announcement. There is no mention of Biden's faith or religion in the 2,000-word news story. Here's a large slice of the announcement story that also saw a missed opportunity:
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, said Mr. Biden would bring a unique set of political strengths to the race, but would also need to address aspects of his record that make progressives uneasy.
“I think it’s important that Biden perhaps help people understand that, as a 40-year member of Congress, his views have evolved,” said Mr. Morial, who suggested Mr. Biden might be well-equipped to make an explanation: “He is one of the few guys who is probably as comfortable talking to a group of truck drivers as he is in an African-American church.”
Mr. Biden’s competitors have already had months to find their footing in the race. The field includes muscular fund-raisers like Mr. Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris of California and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas; intriguing underdogs, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; and policy-minded liberals like Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who have helped frame the race as a contest of ideas.
Mr. Biden’s rivals avoided criticizing him Thursday, and several sent out fund-raising appeals professing confidence in their own prospects. …
As the race proceeds, other Democrats take on Mr. Biden’s record more bluntly, including his background as a Delaware senator loyal to the state’s credit card industry and his 2002 vote to authorize war in Iraq.
Mr. Biden’s private endeavors could also become political targets. He has earned millions of dollars through paid speeches and book deals since leaving office, and has created a network of nonprofits and academic centers that employ many of his trusted aides. He intends to shut down the most prominent of those groups, the Biden Foundation.
There is mention of black churches, but nothing more. That’s a nod, perhaps, to the fact that race matters more than faith these days, among Democrats.
Earlier in the piece, there was another chance to combine Biden's past, the tragedy that befell his family decades ago and potentially his Catholicism. Instead, there is more mention of his race.
Mr. Biden is seen by most Democratic voters as a sympathetic figure, a trustee of Mr. Obama’s legacy whose life has been touched repeatedly by grievous tragedy. He has spoken frequently about the death of his first wife, Neilia, and his infant daughter in a 1972 car crash; the death of his son, Beau, in 2015 became an occasion of national mourning.
But Mr. Biden differs in profound ways, in his identity and political orientation, from the rising generation of voters and activists that has increasingly come to define the Democratic Party.
Mr. Biden is a white man who became a senator during Richard Nixon’s presidency, in a party seen as prizing youth and diversity. He is a centrist and a determined champion of bipartisanship, vying to lead a coalition that views the Republican Party as irretrievably malignant. And he plans to finance his campaign chiefly through large contributions from traditional party bankrollers, in an age of grassroots hostility to corporations and the very wealthy.
In his video, Biden had said he is part of a fight that's a "battle for the soul of a nation." Soul being a word often associated with religion — or morality, at the very least — was lost on political journalists. No mention of that at all in The New York Times feature.
Moving on to The Washington Post, another national newspaper that has made politics the centerpiece of its news coverage since the Nixon era. In its feature looking back on Biden's life and career, the newspaper's 1,500-word piece also found no room for Biden's Catholicism. Here is a section from that story where even a line could have been inserted to help frame Biden in more complete terms:
Although Biden’s launches have similarities, with broad promise of national unity, it is an open question whether this campaign will have a different ending from previous efforts that quickly faltered. A fundamental question for Biden’s campaign is whether he — who in many ways still sounds in 2019 like he did in 1987 — can win over a party that has undergone fundamental shifts over the past few years.
During the 1987 announcement speech at the Wilmington, Del., train station, the 44-year-old spoke passionately about passing a better nation to his children — not, as he often does now, to his grandchildren.
The way some disparage 280-chacter tweets these days, Biden lamented how the art of politics had turned to messages “skillfully crafted to squeeze into 30 seconds on the nightly news.”
The Washington Post's main story (behind a paywall here) on Biden's announcement did offer this morsel and nothing else:
A Democratic force for nearly five decades, Biden built his career as a campaigner on his connection with working-class voters, including white voters he has sometimes called “the ethnic vote” — Midwestern Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics, or South Florida Jews. His campaign style tends toward the populism of Franklin Roosevelt, railing against those with money and power who he claims work against the needs of middle-class Americans.
A look around the web and mainstream news sites from Politico to The Hill ignored Biden's faith.
The sites that did a good job were the Catholic press, both on the left and right, in putting Biden's Catholicism in perspective. No surprises there, in the current media climate.
This from The National Catholic Register under the headline, "2020 candidate Joe Biden identifies as Catholic, but breaks from church teaching.” Here's how the piece opens:
Former Vice President Joe Biden launched his bid to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Thursday, ending months of speculation. Over the course of his long political career, Biden has grappled with reconciling his Catholic faith with his stances on issues like abortion and marriage that contradict central Church teachings.
One significant Church teaching where Biden has shifted is abortion. As The New York Times recently noted, Biden was pro-life when he began his Senate career in 1973. He argued that the Supreme Court had gone “too far” on abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision and stated in 1974 that a woman shouldn’t have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
The Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is very clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (2271).
However, Biden changed his stance on the issue over his decades in Congress, saying initially that he supported abortion but was opposed to using taxpayer money to fund it.
In 1981, he introduced “the Biden amendment,” which prohibited foreign-aid funding from going to biomedical research involving abortion. He appeared to reverse that position in 2005, however, by voting against President George W. Bush’s reinstatement of the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, which blocks taxpayer funding to organizations that provide abortion overseas.
There's more information packed in these four paragraphs than anything else I read regarding the gaffe-prone Biden's political past.
In turn, America magazine, a voice on the Catholic left, published a listicle of all the Catholics who have run for president since JFK. The piece offers up these tidbits:
Not that long ago, any Catholic running for president was almost certain to be a Democrat (as was Al Smith in 1928, the only Catholic nominee before Kennedy). But in 2016, six of the 17 candidates who qualified for Republican presidential debates were Catholic. This year, Mr. Biden will face at least four other Catholics in the Democratic primaries.
Another great piece on Biden’s faith and the evolution of his politics comes from Faithwire. Yes, a column that would have been produced by a mainstream news outlet just a few decades ago is now relegated to the religious press. The piece — under the headline, “Joe Biden used to be a Pro-Life Democrat against Roe v. Wade. What changed? — does a wonderful job filling in the blanks. It should be noted that it’s not as if Biden has hidden his faith. During a national book tour just two years ago, his Catholicism was on full display. America pointed that out at the very start of a piece by Tom Brennan that started this way:
Joe Biden wears a rosary on his left wrist, a gift his younger son, Hunter, gave to the former vice president’s older son, the late Beau Biden, after a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Stephen Colbert called attention to the rosary about midway through his conversation with Biden at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on Nov. 13, the opening night of Biden’s “American Promise”tour. The personal item was a fitting symbol for Biden’s new book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose—an alternately grand, sweeping discussion of current events in the United States and a quiet, intimate look at a father who will probably never stop grieving his son.
The tour has been hyped by the political media as a test run for a 2020 presidential bid, and with its 19-city sweep across the country, particularly in the crucial swing states of Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, this may well be a stealth political campaign. The tone of the conversation between Biden and Colbert was, however, subdued. It was less a chest-thumping rally and more a reflective town meeting, with Biden serving less as a politician than as a counselor or church pastor, offering wisdom from his life’s experiences. And there is perhaps no better person to counsel our country at a time of division and discouragement than the nation’s 47th vice president, who lost his first wife and daughter to a car accident and his eldest son to brain cancer.
The promise that Biden’s book title alludes to is one Beau asked for after his cancer diagnosis: “Promise me, Dad. Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right.” The elder Biden took that to be a request that he not give up, not turn inward. He admitted that he had actually decided not to run for the presidency in 2016—well before his official announcement in October of 2015 and before Beau Biden’s death in the spring of 2015. But he worried an early withdrawal would demoralize his son, whose trademark optimism and deep Catholic faith were crucial in his fight against cancer.
This truly is a wonderful anecdote that delves into the mind and heart of a public figure. Biden, who officially starting stumping this week, will bring up his blue-collar, Irish Catholic upbringing, especially in the counties where Trump did well in 2016. In that sense, no political reporter should write another story without first looking at the insights provided by Timothy Carney’s new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. It is able to condense some of the issues regarding the journalism of today, religion coverage and understanding Trump voters.
Will journalists be listening? As America also pointed out, the four other Catholics in the race so far also include Julian Castro, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O'Rourke and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. Don't expect to read about their faith in the national press anytime soon, unless they somehow make it part of an attack like Mayor Pete did. Otherwise, it's not likely given the secular forces that pervade our national politics and press these days.
This piece was originally published on GetReligion.