No surprise, American Catholics are as split as the nation over Biden

Divisions reflect disagreements on doctrine and centrality of racial justice

President Joe Biden, here with his wife, Jill, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington on Jan. 20, presents his faith as essential in his life and politics, but many, including his fellow Catholics, are not convinced, Curtis writes. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, here with his wife, Jill, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington on Jan. 20, presents his faith as essential in his life and politics, but many, including his fellow Catholics, are not convinced, Curtis writes. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted January 28, 2021 at 6:00am

At the memorial service on the eve of Inauguration Day for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from COVID-19, it was symbolic and fitting that a prayer was offered by Cardinal Wilton Gregory. It was a reminder that the other half of the presidential ticket made history in 2020.

While Kamala Harris’ groundbreaking vice presidency has garnered most of the attention, Joseph R. Biden Jr. also is only the second Roman Catholic president of the United States, with John F. Kennedy’s ascension as the first coming 60 years ago.

Gregory’s words that night provided comfort to a mourning nation: “Our sorrow unites us to one another as a single people with compassionate hearts. May our prayer strengthen our awareness of our common humanity and our national unity at a time when harmony is a balm that seeks to comfort and strengthen us as a single people facing a common threat that is no respecter of age, race, culture, or gender.” 

But his brief address that night emphasizing “common humanity” and “national unity” did not mention something Gregory himself acknowledged in an interview with Religion News Service, a subject the first African American to hold that rank in the Roman Catholic Church was well-equipped to voice: “The Catholic Church exists within society. … It is supposed to be a source of renewal, conversion. But we are Catholics who live in the American environment, and therefore we share some of the very same problems that the wider society does: racism, inequality, a lack of opportunity.”

It was a divide that I’ve felt throughout my life, as a cradle Catholic with 16 years of Catholic education under my belt. I spent my elementary years in an all-Black school taught by an order of nuns founded in Baltimore by a Black woman and a French priest in 1829 to educate Black children, and high school and college at predominantly white Catholic institutions, never far from reminders of my race and my place in the church. My experiences, good and bad, loomed as large and real as the sacraments.

And it is that divide that also was reflected in the way faith influenced Election 2020.

Though hardly an accurate or complete view of religious sentiment in America, when faith and politics have been paired, it’s often the image of white evangelicals that surfaces. They have been the strongest and most steadfast piece of Donald Trump’s base in his two presidential campaigns. The Rev. Franklin Graham has defended Trump through his latest impeachment battle, comparing House Republicans who joined Democrats to vote “yes” to Judas, which makes Trump, I suppose, Jesus, in his scenario. On my “Equal Time” podcast last month, Graham highlighted his support for the previous administration’s policies on abortion and LGBTQ rights, and dismissed all of Trump’s outrages as a matter of personal style.

The Catholic divide

To a lesser extent, this dynamic echoes among Catholics, no longer as monolithic as when Kennedy garnered an overwhelming percentage of their vote.

Socially conservative interpretations of the Catholic faith elevate priorities similar to Graham’s. They downplay issues on Pope Francis’ list of “equally sacred priorities” in the 2020 election, including social justice positions on immigration, racial justice, the death penalty and opposition to discrimination against LGBTQ and disabled people. The list, which makes clear that abortion certainly matters but is not the only issue that matters, is controversial even within the church.

Black evangelicals have questioned their white spiritual brethren on how robust support of Trump can coexist with a commitment to reconciliation and racial justice. And justice-minded Catholics have questioned, for example, how an independent, conservative Catholic group could honor Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, when his Justice Department rushed to execute federal inmates at a record pace, considering the church’s anti-death penalty stand and criminal justice inequities that see disproportionate outcomes in communities of color.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has released statements opposing executions, but also one criticizing Biden for pledging “to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity” — clear attacks on his pro-choice and same-sex marriage positions, words that drew pushback from other bishops.

Biden, who attends Mass regularly, has tested the competing narratives. He has never shied away from presenting his faith as essential in his life and politics —portraying his candidacy as a fight for America’s “soul” after the deadly violence of Charlottesville. His campaign reached out to people of faith, but some were and still are not convinced.

Just as in the rest of America — where if only whites voted, Trump would have been the man with his hand on the Bible on Jan. 20 — Trump gained a majority of white Catholic votes, though with a smaller percentage than among white evangelicals. But Catholics of color backed Biden, resulting in a pretty evenly split faith electorate.

Was it a question of doctrine or how that doctrine is viewed through the prism of race and culture?

Cardinal Gregory made clear in his RNS interview that he would not deny the new president communion over his politics, as others have called for, saying, “I want to begin a relationship with him that allows us to have a serious conversation, knowing full well that there are issues that he and I will be diametrically opposed to, but hopefully also being able to capitalize on issues that we can advance together.”

America is not a theocracy, but it was impossible to miss or not be appalled at the religious imagery invoked at the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection and assault on the U.S. Capitol, from crosses to riotous intruders taking a break from vandalizing congressional chambers and wishing death on elected leaders to pray.

Expect the next four years and beyond to bring more debate about who speaks for God and whether any person or party should. Of course, it’s not a new conversation, as religion has been used to promote good works and to justify evil, with Ku Klux Klan crosses illuminating the night sky.

While it’s uncomfortable and, some would say, un-American to connect faith and politics in a country where freedom of and from religion is a guiding principle, it’s a necessary conversation when that line of separation is regularly crossed, with race too often a jarring fault line.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.