In his recent and unprecedented papal trip to Iraq, Pope Francis visited Ur, the ancient city of Mesopotamia that Jews, Christians, and Muslims claim as the birthplace of Abraham. In his address there, the pope underscored what he termed true religiosity: “to worship God and to love our neighbor.” He pointed out how the current global pandemic invites us to consider our human interdependence and propels us to realize that no one can be “saved” alone. In this Pope Francis echoed a common theme of his papacy, reminding us of the need to opt for vulnerable persons and communities in order to pursue global issues of justice, peace, and the common good. He ended his speech by recalling the central biblical story that tells of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah toward three migrating strangers, whom they welcomed into their home (Gen. 18: 1–15).
The hospitality of Abraham and Sarah centers around the familial sharing of household goods. Yet this story—which evokes daily, private, and ordinary human relationships—also invites us to consider public and political actions that foster a more humane global order, both nationally and internationally. As I have stated elsewhere, our country under President Biden’s leadership must move from the previous administration’s egocentric politics of “America First” and toward a neighbor-centered politics of “America Cares.” Like Abraham and Sarah, “who hastened” to prepare a meal for three migrating strangers, each of us individually and collectively must hasten to practice hospitality. These actions are necessary, particularly with respect to those around us who have suffered from interconnected recent and age-old social and biological viruses.
Like Abraham and Sarah, 'who hastened' to prepare a meal for three migrating strangers, each of us individually and collectively must hasten to practice hospitality.
Many have wondered how President Biden’s Catholic faith will impact his presidency. The president does not hide his Catholic faith, and while some have questioned his religious orthodoxy, there is little doubt that Catholicism has informed his life, his values, and his political perspectives. I personally witnessed the outward expression of his Catholic faith when I accompanied him on June 3, 2011, during his visit to the Vatican for a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Towards the end of this audience, Biden took out a rosary from one of his pockets and shared its story and religious significance with the pope. This rosary represented but one outward sign of his Catholic faith and commitments. Resilience in the face of heartbreaking tragedy—witnessed by “Amtrak Joe’s” daily acts of hospitality toward his two young sons after he tragically lost his first wife and his one-year-old daughter—perhaps stands as a better public indicator of his “true religiosity,” to echo Pope Francis’ words at Ur.
The practice of hospitality is a profoundly religious act from a Christian point of view. As Pope Francis noted in his message to the people of Ur, “It was precisely through hospitality, a distinctive feature of these lands, that Abraham was visited by God and given the gift of a son, when it seemed that all hope was past (see Gen. 18:1–10).” But the practice of hospitality can also be understood as the fullest expression of our political aspirations. In his speech to the joint session of Congress in 2015, Pope Francis affirmed that politics is a form of service for the sake of all fellow citizens. It is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Thus, the practice of hospitality provides a signpost that helps us discern not only true religiosity, but also how we can humanize our political life.
The practice of hospitality provides a signpost that helps us discern not only true religiosity, but also how we can humanize our political life.
In recent years, we have witnessed how politics and religious interpretations of sacred texts and traditions have been weaponized at home and abroad in ways that have undermined human dignity and the rights of particular persons. Nationalism has been on the rise, and religious and theological misinterpretations of Christianity unfortunately have been deployed as its allies. But it must be said that in these and other instances where religion is engaged in the public square for nationalistic ends, religion itself is not the issue. The problem lies with those voices that have chosen to weaponize religion. As Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry argue in their recent book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Christian nationalism is ultimately not so much about religion itself as it is about misusing religion to maintain social power and privilege at all costs.
Religion is not going away and neither is the challenge to reconcile issues of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and other fundamental human rights. President Biden can make a difference tackling this challenge. His administration can bring a more “catholic”—that is, a more inclusive—way to advocate for fundamental human rights. We need to create a political space in which we can foster and advance an integral ecology of human rights.
We need to create a political space in which we can foster and advance an integral ecology of human rights.
This administration, and President Biden personally, can find new ways at the Department of State and other government institutions to facilitate the valuable contribution that religion can make to society. Internationally, we continue to face incidents of persecution of religious minorities and other state-sponsored forms of human oppression. Sadly, many of these acts that threaten, oppress, and even kill human life are justified on erroneous interpretations of religious texts and traditions. In all of these instances, political and religious voices have failed to practice hospitality toward their neighbors, especially their most vulnerable neighbors. Committed faith and civic servants should come together to overcome the impasse that has grown over the years between defenders of religion and religious freedom on the one hand, and defenders of human conscience and other fundamental human rights on the other. How we act at home can then model and impact what we seek to achieve diplomatically abroad.
The “signs of the times” speak to the need to bridge fundamental rights associated with worship of God and those associated with the love of one’s neighbor. President Biden can tackle this challenge and make it one of the lasting legacies of his administration. I offer the voice of Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., the great champion of religious freedom, to speak to us anew as we welcome the possibility that President Biden and his administration will address this salient issue. Murray encouraged us to see that persons—not ideas—have rights, for after all they are our neighbors, not our adversaries.