President Joe Biden’s private audience with Pope Francis on Friday at the Vatican was a moment to reconsider the role that faith plays in American politics – and whether it can be depolarized going forward.
For decades, faith has been used to divide people along partisan lines. Since the 1980s, White evangelicals have overwhelmingly backed Republicans as a badge of identity, often in opposition to abortion and LGBT rights, with Donald Trump winning a higher percentage of their votes in 2016. It was even more than George W. Bush, an actual evangelical whose faith was central to his identity, got in his two presidential elections.
But whether you agree or disagree with his policies, Biden is undeniably a man of faith, who attends church regularly and reportedly carries a rosary in his pocket. He quoted a Catholic hymn in his post-election victory speech and St. Augustine in his inaugural address.
In addition, Democrats now have Rev. Raphael Warnock serving in the US Senate from Georgia, making it perhaps just a bit more difficult to portray their party as Godless heathens – or “secular humanists” as the case may be.
Even Pope Francis is a symbol of a comparatively liberal Christian tradition, at odds with many conservative traditionalists in his own church.
And so it’s notable that in recent weeks, evangelical leaders have met with Biden at the White House and made a faith-based case for the passage of the child tax credit as part of his budget.
It’s a reminder that so much Biblical wisdom is based on caring for the poor and the needy, and not simply focused on social conservative restrictions.
This is a glimpse of a progressive Christian tradition that has been eclipsed by the rise of the religious right. But in the 1960s, faith-based leaders from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched together for civil rights. And in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter rallied the faithful to become the first born-again evangelical president of the modern era.
But beginning with Baptist minister Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority rallying around Ronald Reagan in 1980, evangelicals have become a powerful conservative voting bloc comprising as much as a quarter of the total electorate.
And while Biden made modest gains with faith-based voters in 2020, a Pew survey from May found that Biden’s approval ratings among religious groups were the mirror image of Trump’s – with his highest support among Black protestants and the lowest among White evangelicals. But interestingly, Christians overall were twice as likely to say they liked the way Biden conducted himself in the presidency compared to Trump.
It’s safe to say that we’re still a long way from overcoming our religious-political divides.
Biden’s meeting with Francis came as a handful of Catholic bishops in the US have called for Biden to be denied communion for his stance favoring abortion, despite Pope Francis’ declaration that politics should not drive these decisions.
The blurring of faith and politics can cause family divides, as Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger from Illinois found when family members denounced him for going against “Christian principles” and joined “the devil’s army” after he called for Trump’s removal and refused to back the big lie following the January 6 Capitol riot.
Incidentally, the Bible warns against lying at least 116 times – including in the 10 commandments.
But who’s counting?
The larger issue – and opportunity – is to depolarize associations of faith with one political party. There should be competing visions of how to apply faith to public policy, offered with moral humility. And if a progressive vision of Christianity emerges as a counterweight to the religious right, it may elevate our debates and help us reunite as a nation in commitment to the common good.