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How Biden's faith shapes his politics: Will it decide the election?

Meredith Newman
Delaware News Journal

Surrounded by Catholics, in the dining room of the Number One Observatory Circle, Joe Biden was slouching.

A group of faith leaders gathered in September 2015 in the vice president’s residence to discuss over breakfast how to make Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the United States meaningful — but not political. 

It was Biden, the first Catholic to be elected vice president, who caught himself slouching again, recalls Sister Simone Campbell, who attended the meeting. He explained his wife, Jill, first noticed it. The second lady believed, he said, his body was grieving over son Beau, who died from brain cancer that spring. 

When the meeting reached its end, John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, raised his hand to ask a question.

Will Biden be running for president?

Biden said he felt qualified. He felt he was ready. But then, as Carr remembers, he began to cry. 

His heart, he said, was likely too broken. 

The next night, Biden went on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." The comedian, a Catholic who has also suffered great loss, asked what faith means to him during times like these. 

“For me, my religion is an enormous sense of solace,” Biden said, his eyes wet. “Some of it relates to ritual; some of it relates to comfort from what you’ve done your whole life. I go to Mass and I’m able to be, just, alone. Even in a crowd, you’re alone.”

“All of the good things that have happened,” he said, “have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion.”

More than five years later, faith has been at the core of his presidential campaign — and of the general election. Catholics and evangelicals, particularly in swing states like Pennsylvania, are seen as critical voters. 

FILE - In this  June 1, 2020, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden bows his head in prayer as he visits Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware. Photos in a campaign ad for President Donald Trump falsely show that Biden is "alone, hiding, diminished." The ad blurs details that show Biden is praying in a church. The ad was tweeted by @TeamTrump on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

Both groups are being courted by the Biden and Trump campaigns. 

Biden’s lifelong relationship with Catholicism is rooted here in Wilmington. He regularly attends Mass on Sunday and wears his son's rosary beads. He often cites the Bible in speeches and will make the sign of the cross when he is about to say something in jest.

In interviews, he has noted how he believes the Catholic social doctrine is in agreement with his politics. The idea that every American is entitled to dignity, the idea of helping the poor and the idea of being inclusive. 

But his political views on gay marriage and abortion stray significantly from the church, and some priests have refused to serve him Communion, a Catholic sacrament, and some Catholics are choosing to vote for President Donald Trump. 

“He doesn’t check his faith at the door when he enters into politics,” said Campbell, the nun. “He brings it with him.”

A Catholic education

The education of young Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. began with the nuns.

They were his first teachers. They taught him — first in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then in Wilmington — how to read, how to write, how to solve math problems. 

They also taught him about decency, fair play and virtue, Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir. A young Joe was taught that “man has no greater love than to lay down his life for another man.”

“You didn’t give your life,” Biden wrote, “but it was noble to help a lady across the street. It was noble to offer a hand up to somebody who had less. It was noble to step in when the bully was picking on someone. It was noble to intervene.” 

“The nuns," he wrote, "are one of the reasons I’m still a practicing Catholic."

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Yet there were times when his faith wavered, when he was angry with God. After wife Neilia and daughter Naomi died in a car accident, Biden was left to raise two young boys. In the weeks following the crash, he found himself walking the streets of Wilmington looking for a fight. 

In this Dec. 21, 1972 photo, U.S. Sen. elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. comforts mourners at the memorial service for his wife Neilia and baby daughter "Amy" at St. Mary Magdalen Church.

“No words, no prayers, no sermon gave me ease,” he wrote in his memoir. “I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry. I found no comfort in the church. So I kept walking the dark streets to try to exhaust the rage.”

Throughout his childhood, his parents modeled their Catholicism in two ways: His mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, took her children to Mass every Sunday. His father, Joseph R. Biden Sr., wasn’t as religious. He looked at faith through the lens of power. 

“My father would say: 'The cardinal sin of all sins, Joey, is the abuse of power,'” Biden said in a 2015 interview with American Magazine, which is published by Jesuits.

“Whether it’s a man raising his hand to a woman,” he continued, “whether it’s economic power being evoked and asserted over someone else, whether it is the government abusing its power. And that’s how I look at what this is all about, why my faith is so consistent with the public policy.”

Some of Biden’s political views haven’t always been in line with the Catholic Church, specifically on climate change, gay marriage and abortion. As a young U.S. senator, Biden was among the first to introduce climate change legislation. This topic — and its scientific backing — were not embraced by the Catholic Church until 2015.

As vice president, Biden publicly supported legalizing gay marriage in 2012 before then-President Barack Obama. Earlier this month, Pope Francis said he supported civil unions for same-sex couples, though still far from supporting marriage equality.

For decades, the issue of abortion has been complicated for Biden — and one he has openly struggled with. 

In 1974, as a U.S. senator, Biden said the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision "went too far" and he didn't "think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body." He voted to prevent federal employees from obtaining abortion services through their health insurance. 

His views have since changed, to where he believes Roe v. Wade is law of the land. 

“I accept my church's position that life begins at conception,” Biden said during the 2012 vice presidential debate. “But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews. … I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor, in my view." 

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a longtime friend of the Biden family and who has a master's degree in ethics from Yale Divinity School, said the candidate's faith is "woven into his daily existence."

He said that other colleagues in the Senate have struggled to balance their personal faith and politics. 

"Each of us who are called or elected to public life," Coons said, "has a tough series of decisions to make about how we balance the teachings of our faith through our church with what is the right thing for us to use the force of the state to impose on others.”

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden faced heat from his opponents — including his now-running mate Sen. Kamala Harris — for supporting a provision that bans federal funding for most abortions.

In June 2019, Biden reversed his position and announced he no longer supports the Hyde Amendment. Months later, while on the campaign trail in South Carolina, a priest refused Biden the Holy Communion during Mass.

The priest said it was because of his view on abortion.  

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden leaves St. Joseph On the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.

Praying for the Catholic vote

Even in the final weeks of the 2020 election, if it was a Sunday morning, Joe Biden was likely at church. 

Wearing a suit and a mask, and often with a grandchild, he has been often spotted walking out of Mass at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine in Greenville. Sometimes, he walked along the path of the church’s cemetery to visit his son’s grave.

For the past 15 years, a Catholic has run for president in every election. If he wins on Tuesday, Biden would become the country’s second Catholic president. John F. Kennedy was the first.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is given some flowers as he leaves church at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020.

As president, Biden would likely incorporate his faith in his governing in ways that Kennedy never did, said Gary Scott Smith, a historian and author of “Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents.”

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Kennedy went to church to please his mother, Smith said. And during his presidency, he “bent over backwards” to not show favoritism to the Catholic Church or the pope. Smith noted that, during this time, many Catholics preferred his opponent, Richard Nixon. 

“Biden is a deeply committed Catholic in a way that Kennedy never was,” Smith said. “It’s going to play a role in how he governs. Lots of people close to him say his faith informs his values. And values, as we know, shape politics.”

When it comes to politics, Catholics as a whole are deeply divided. According to the Pew Research Center, 52% of Catholics backed Trump in 2016 while 44% voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Pew also found that Catholics are more likely to align with their political party than with the church. Like other religious groups, Catholics are not necessarily looking for a president who shares their religious beliefs, but they do want someone who lives a “moral and ethical life.” 

Catholics and evangelicals are seen as key voters because so many live in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. Trump continues to lead Biden with white Christians, but support has dipped in recent months.

Since 2016, Trump has touted evangelicals' support for him. In his speech at the Republican National Convention this summer, he credited them for winning the White House.

His administration has continued to court Christian voters by advocating for religious liberty and opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights, most recently seen with the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett.

“Now more than ever, our nation needs a renewal of the values that this organization promotes and that the Catholic faithful live out each and every day in peace,” Trump said at the Al Smith Dinner in early October.

“We love the Catholic people,” he said. “We love the Catholic religion. And above all, we respect it greatly.”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett speaks after President Donald Trump announced her nomination to the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden at the White House, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington.

Several Catholic organizations have expressed their support for Trump, including CatholicVote.Org which launched a $9.7 million campaign against Biden. One campaign ad, funded by the organization, declared “Biden-Harris the most anti-life presidential ticket" ever.

"Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions,” the ad claimed, “sacrificing his Catholic values, to kneel before the leftist mobs."

For the first time in his career, Carr, with Georgetown University, endorsed a presidential candidate: Joe Biden. 

Carr said he views racism — and Trump’s inability to denounce white supremacists — as a major reason why. The former top official for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is pro-life and open about his disappointment in Biden’s stance on abortion. 

“Biden’s appeal to those people like me is personal — who he is, what he believes, where he comes from, what he says,” Carr said. “Trump’s appeal is transactional: ‘I may not be one of you, but I’ll protect you.’”

“My own sense is that the character issue has undermined the president’s appeal and has opened people’s minds to Biden.” 

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, believes some Catholics are getting off the sidelines in this election for these same reasons.

Campbell, who also supports Biden, has seen a shift in how many Catholics like herself view the idea of pro-life. It also includes fighting for health care, advocating for immigrants and ending racism. 

“I went for years never saying the word ‘abortion.’ It made me nuts,” she said. “Life is way more complex than that. I do think Catholics are speaking up."

Coons, Delaware's junior U.S. senator, said he believes there is a growing number of Catholics and evangelicals "for whom fighting racism, advancing criminal justice reform, tackling climate change, developing a more humane immigration policy" are high priorities. 

"These are faith issues," he said. "They look at those issues as issues based on which way they are going to vote."

The senator said he knows of a white evangelical pastor in Delaware who plans to vote for Biden despite disagreeing with the Democratic Party on reproductive rights and marriage equality.

"He just can't imagine voting for Donald Trump," Coons said, "given the ways in which he has divided our country along the lines of race."

In October, Pope Francis released his third encyclical, a document that warned against the rise of populism, xenophobia and polarization in politics. He also called leaders to reflect on their motives.

Biden directly referenced this during a speech to Georgia voters. 

“Pope Francis has asked questions that anyone who seeks to lead this great nation should answer,” Biden said Tuesday. “And my answer is this: To unite this nation. To heal this nation.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden bows his head in prayer at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., Thursday,

As he makes one last pitch to American voters, Biden’s message is almost identical to the one he first launched his campaign with.

He continues to call this election the “battle for the soul of this nation." He shares his father’s expression about a job needing dignity. He describes in many of his speeches how the president’s response to the Unite the Right rally for why he decided to run one more time. 

“It’s ironic,” Carr said. “After decades of ambition, now there is a calling. After being a young man in a hurry, he is now the older guy who can bring us together.” 

Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at mnewman@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @merenewman.