WASHINGTON – As President Joe Biden tells it, the nuns who taught the future president based their religious instruction on the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
That tenet was echoed during his first days in office, when Biden signed orders to ensure fair treatment for marginalized groups on housing and other issues.
“We’re all God’s children,” Biden said. “We should treat each other as we would like to be treated ourselves.”
Another of his earliest actions strengthened anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people. On Thursday, Biden was expected to sign a memorandum to protect the rights of LGBTQ people worldwide, including providing protections to gay and lesbian refugees and asylum seekers.
But what to Biden is an “advancing equity” agenda grounded in his deep Catholic faith appears to some Christian conservatives as attacks on their own intensely held beliefs that will unravel the “religious freedom” protections championed by the Trump administration. Those protections treated religious beliefs as paramount, even if they conflicted with another person’s rights – to an abortion, to marry a person of the same sex, or to be transgender.
“It absolutely is a direct conflict with Trump’s approach,” said history professor John Fea, author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
Stark contrast to Trump White House
Biden, only the second Catholic president, has brought to the White House a different approach to faith, both personally and through policy.
Unlike Trump, Biden regularly attends church. His Catholicism has played as large a role in his life as his outsized family Bible did at his inauguration. Biden wears his son’s rosary beads, made the sign of the cross when paying his respects to fallen Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick Tuesday, and quotes Bible passages.
“The contrast couldn’t be starker,” said John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “We’re going from one of the least overtly religious presidents in modern times to one of the most overtly religious presidents in recent history.”
The difference is already clear in policy.
Trump was a hero to the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns running homes for the elderly, which challenged the federal requirement that insurance plans cover birth control. At Trump’s renominating convention, a nun from the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary questioned Biden’s religion and called Trump the “most pro-life president.”
Biden is praised by Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention about caring for all of God’s creations. She’s thrilled by Biden’s efforts to expand health care coverage, address racism and reverse Trump’s anti-immigration actions.
“One of the ways that he’s living out his faith is by centering the issues of equity at the heart of his administration, which I find super-exciting,” she said. “It’s never happened before.”
Advancing the ‘common good’
Biden has not yet announced a faith-based adviser or created a faith outreach office. But he has declared that “advancing equity has to be everyone’s job.”
Biden’s focus on “the common good” is a central concept of the centuries-old Catholic social tradition, Massimo Faggioli wrote in the new book “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.”
In remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Biden said his faith provides hope and solace, clarity and purpose.
“It shows the way forward, as one nation in a common purpose, to respect one another, to care for one another, to leave no one behind,” he said.
National Prayer Breakfast:Biden urges a turn to faith at event notable for absence of Trump
But Biden’s emphasis on social justice issues over social policy flashpoints like abortion mirrors an ongoing struggle in the Catholic Church between Pope Francis, with his pastoral approach, and the church’s more conservative wing. (A photo of Biden with Francis was among the personal photos arrayed behind Biden when, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, he took steps last week to expand health insurance access and to allow federally funded family planning groups to provide or refer patients for abortion services.)
“We are deeply committed to making sure everyone has access to care – including reproductive health care – regardless of income, race, zip code, health insurance status, or immigration status,” Biden said in a joint statement with Vice President Kamala Harris last month recognizing the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right to an abortion.
Far from creating a more equitable society, Christian conservatives say, Biden’s actions are reverse discrimination – particularly his first-day move to ensure workplace and other protections for people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“With a stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden has turned 50-year-old civil rights legislation on its head, hollowing out protections for people of faith,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.
Trump’s strongest supporters
White evangelical Protestants were Trump’s strongest supporters, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s despite Trump having been one of the least religious to ever run for the presidency.
But Trump promised on the 2016 campaign trail that the “first priority of my administration will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty.” Religious freedom became a signature issue of both his domestic and foreign policy.
Recent cultural and demographic changes have made evangelicals feel not only that the idea of America as a Christian nation is under siege but that their own liberty is being threatened, said Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
“Trump provided the kind of fighter, the strong man, to protect their interests,” he said.
The feeling of both loss and victimization is reflected in Pew Research Center surveys. In a 2019 poll, a majority of adults who identify with or lean toward the GOP said that religion is losing influence in American life and that this is a “bad thing.” A 2020 survey suggests that Republicans who have experienced some form of harassment online are more likely than Democrats to say they believe their religion was a reason.
“We live in a time when the freedom of religion is under assault,” then-Vice President Mike Pence told Liberty University graduates in 2019. During the Trump administration, Pence’s strong faith-based views on abortion and homosexuality made him a target of Democratic criticism, including from those seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Biden had to backtrack after being lambasted by progressives and LGBTQ activists for calling Pence a decent guy.
“There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President,” Biden tweeted.
Biden’s own positions on gay marriage and abortion evolved over the years. After voting to block federal recognition of same-sex marriages 16 years earlier, he backed legalizing gay marriage in 2012 – jumping out ahead of President Barack Obama in his announcement.
Biden has become a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade and, in 2019, reversed his support for a longstanding provision that bans federal funding for most abortions.
Rabbi Hara Person, head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said she’s encouraged that Biden is not imposing his faith-based opposition to abortion on others.
“Religious liberty means not only freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, but it’s also freedom from having the religious views of others imposed on us,” she said. “That was something that was really missing these last four years.”
Carr, of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said he backed Biden, in spite of Biden’s “going along with the extremism of the Democratic Party on abortion.”
“I think character matters, competence matters and treating people with respect matters,” Carr said. “Lifting up the poor and vulnerable matters, and Trump failed those tests for me.”
But Carr is waiting to see what Biden will prioritize.
“Is it going to be overcoming COVID, bringing us together, caring for creation? Or is it going to be sort of a culture war?” he asked. “I think what Biden campaigned on, and who he is, is pursuing justice in unity – not a culture war agenda.”
Carr, who in a former role with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped develop their documents on political responsibilities of Catholics, recently organized a discussion of how Biden’s Catholicism affects his presidency and the role its playing in the divide within the church.
The split was highlighted when Pope Francis’ congratulatory message to Biden on Inauguration Day emphasized “respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable, and those who have no voice.”
Issuing his own statement, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that Biden “has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
“Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences,” wrote Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez.
Biden’s presidency could contribute to “the difficult realignment of American Catholicism with Pope Francis’s vision – a process resisted by `culture war’ bishops since the time of Francis’s election, but also interrupted by Trump,” Faggioli wrote in his book on Biden and Catholicism. “The mere possibility of such a realignment will being a lot of attention to this particular Catholic moment.”
More broadly, there’s a stark divide along religious lines on whether people see the United States as having an essential culture and values that immigrants take on or whether it’s a nation made up of many cultures and values that change as new people arrive, according to Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life.
White Christians – including white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Catholics – believe the U.S. has a central culture, surveys show. The majority of everyone else believe culture and values adjust, Cox said.
“That’s a fundamentally different conception of the country and where it ought to be headed,” Cox said.
Biden will have to take that into account as he tries to weave together the disparate groups that make up his coalition and fulfill a central campaign promise – one that’s also rooted in his faith – of bringing the country together.
“I think,” Cox said, “that’s really going to be challenge.”