Catholicism as Civil Religion

By: David Gibson

March 11, 2021

Joe Biden and Catholicism in U.S. Politics

The enduring image of Donald Trump’s use and abuse of faith will likely, and justifiably, be the one of him ostentatiously waving a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in June 2020 after sending police to blast peaceful anti-racism protesters with tear gas and batons. When the smoke cleared, we watched an American president awkwardly pose by a church he doesn’t attend, holding scriptures he doesn’t read full of sacred teachings he doesn’t comprehend.

And that was just a foreshadowing of an even more dangerous display of corrupted faith that took place in January as a defeated but not yet vanquished Trump exhorted his followers to go to the Capitol and “take back our country.” That’s just what they tried to do, and the principal vehicle for their fanaticism was a bastardized form of Christianity. They invoked Jesus and carried crosses but evidenced no actual connection to the teacher or traditions they claimed as their inspiration. 

This was the apotheosis of Trumpism: harnessing a sectarian faith to forge an ugly new civil religion that perverts both civil religion and real religion. As Tobias Cremer wrote for the Berkley Forum after the January 6 insurrection, “the riots seemed to exhibit the triumph of a toxic and violent post-religious right, whose identitarian use of Christian symbols threatens not only America’s democratic norms but also its civil religious tradition.”

This was the apotheosis of Trumpism: harnessing a sectarian faith to forge an ugly new civil religion that perverts both civil religion and real religion.

Cremer and others have rightly praised Biden seeking to restore a civil sense of civil religion, starting with a solemn and symbol-laden inauguration at the very Capitol that had been overrun just two weeks earlier. 

What is also increasingly clear, and unexpected, is that the vehicle for the restoration of America’s civil religion is Biden’s own Roman Catholicism.

The public impact of Biden’s personal faith has perhaps not received as much scrutiny because so much of the focus during the campaign was on the particular political and ecclesial dynamics of the candidate’s Catholicism: Would Joe Biden’s working-class, altar boy biography siphon off enough of his fellow white Catholics from the Republicans to give the White House back to the Democrats? Or would Biden’s support for abortion rights spark a new round in the “wafer wars” and diminish his crucial Catholic base? And, once elected, could the second Catholic president in American history—and one with much in common with Pope Francis—now serve to unite a church that has been so politically polarized? 

That Catholicism might serve as a religious unifier for a nation rent by partisan schisms is also unexpected given that Catholicism was such an alien religion for so long in the United States. Biden certainly isn’t engaging in some kind of stealth integralism. But his practice of the faith is as manifest as that of any president in history—and it is connecting with, and shaping, our civil religion in very real ways. 

That Catholicism might serve as a religious unifier for a nation rent by partisan schisms is also unexpected given that it was such an alien religion for so long in the United States.

Civil religion in many respects provided a secular umbrella under which Catholicism could assimilate religiously while Catholics assimilated socially. The term was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, but it was Robert Bellah who in the 1960s elaborated the American variety that is “also genuinely American and genuinely new.” 

“It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols,” Bellah wrote. Interestingly, Bellah opened his 1967 article by citing as an example of American civil religion John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, was of course careful to steer clear of overt references to his Catholicism. 

Biden, the second Catholic president, at his inauguration 50 years later, had no such qualms. He quoted Saint Augustine and delivered a speech that sounded like the sacramental reconsecration of a defiled sanctuary. That vibe was of a piece with his entire campaign, one centered on a battle, as he often said, “for the soul of the nation.” Biden’s overtly religious framing of our national crisis has been matched by the explicitly Catholic expression of his own faith. Biden goes to Mass every weekend, receives ashes at Lent, wears his late son’s rosary on his wrist, and unabashedly and sincerely (if maddeningly, to his foes) invokes his faith at every turn. 

Biden’s overtly religious framing of our national crisis has been matched by the explicitly Catholic expression of his own faith.

It is a faith informed by his own personal tragedies and sadly perfect for our moment of national mourning. “His inauguration on January 20 felt like a memorial,” Olivia Nuzzi wrote. “The five weeks of the Biden era have been a never-ending wake, presided over by a spiritual leader of a secular government, a foremost authority on sadness.” That’s what is needed at this moment. Biden ordered U.S. flags lowered to half-staff for five days in memory of the half million (and counting) people in the United States who have lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he gave one of the nation’s most memorable eulogies after a memorial in which the South Portico of the White House was illuminated by votive candles. He visited Bob Dole after his longtime Senate colleague revealed he is battling cancer, a reminder that real religion, and civil religion, are founded on civility. It’s something that never even seemed to occur to Donald Trump. 

But it comes easily to Joe Biden in large part because of his Catholic practice, which is in turn giving form to concrete expressions of the tradition of civil religion. That this Catholic-infused religiosity resonates with the public may signal Catholicism’s acceptance as an American religious tradition that need not dilute itself in the nation’s preexisting religious ethos. The cultural and numerical decline of mainline Protestantism, which had shaped that ethos, may also have created a vacuum that Catholicism is filling. 

The sympathy for Biden’s Catholic practices may also signal a hunger among Americans for a genuine civil religion, one that unites rather than divides.

The sympathy for Biden’s Catholic practices may also signal a hunger among Americans for a genuine civil religion, one that unites rather than divides.

There are different strains of civil religion, and Bellah back in 1967 noted that civil religion “has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” Just as faith can morph into fanaticism, so too, patriotism can flash over into nationalism. Civil religion harnesses both faith and patriotism, but as the Trump presidency showed, it can also unleash, in tandem, uglier versions of them both. Marcia Pally has argued that American civil religion has always had a “populist” soul born of Protestant anti-establishment instincts and revivalist impulses, and that in turbo-charging those enthusiasms Trump plunged America into “a civil-religious war.” 

In this context, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that Catholicism can be a vehicle for promoting social peace. Despite its Catholic MAGA adherents and exponents, Catholicism stresses the common good over libertarian individualism. It also puts an emphasis on communal practice that makes it intelligible and appealing to a wider Judeo-Christian American ethos. “I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir. “My idea of self, of family, of the wider world comes from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.” 

Despite its Catholic MAGA adherents and exponents, Catholicism stresses the common good over libertarian individualism.

And it's a culture shaped by rituals that these days are often dismissed, even derided, much like the dismissal of “norms” by populists on the right and left. But norms, like rites, turn out to be critically important, for politics and society. 

Last year in the depths of the pandemic I wrote an essay for Commonweal Magazine about a neighborhood ritual that had developed during the first months of lockdown in which we would emerge from our homes to listen to a performance of “Amazing Grace” (and, later, other standards) every afternoon at 5:00. In the piece I recalled the passage from “The Little Prince” in which the Fox instructs the Boy about how to makes friends by being reliable in one’s commitments. “One must observe the proper rites,” says the Fox. 

Observing the proper rites builds societal, as well as personal, ties. Rites faithfully observed, and in good faith, can help replenish the depleted reservoir of communal trust. As Bellah wrote, civil religion “is in need—as any living faith—of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards.” In America, biblical religion also needs such a renewal. That Joe Biden’s Catholic reformation could foster both goals is perhaps the latest irony in an era marked by historic surprises.

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