January 25, 2022

The Tension of Religious Presidents

By: Lydia Switzer

On the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, President Biden tweeted, “The constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade 49 years ago today is under assault as never before. We must recommit to strengthening access to reproductive care, defending the right established by Roe, and protecting the freedom of all people to build their own future.” Biden’s support of abortion rights has caused turmoil in the Catholic Church, of which he is a member; official Catholic teaching states that abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”

The tension between Joe Biden’s political identity as the president and his professed faith in Catholicism has never been more evident. In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Donald Trump suggested that Biden was “following the radical-left agenda…no religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God.” Biden responded by calling his own faith the “bedrock foundation of my life,” and accusing Trump of being “someone whose actions are completely at odds with the values and teachings that he professes to believe in.”

So who’s telling the truth?

Even before former President Trump won the 2016 presidential election, prominent evangelical leaders endorsed and supported him. In a statement urging voters to choose Trump over Hillary Clinton, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, suggested that Trump was a “baby Christian” who simply did not yet understand how to talk and act like a believer. Once in office, Trump became the protector of religious liberty, issuing executive orders in support of conservative values and reversing Obama-era practices. During his four years as president, he confirmed three justices to the Supreme Court, changing the political makeup of the Court to a conservative majority. In October of 2021, Trump stated, in typical Trump fashion, “Nobody has done more for Christianity or for evangelicals or for religion itself than I have.”

However, Trump’s language and demeanor, not to mention actions, consistently forced Christian leaders and supporters to defend the president’s faith. The former president has historically mistreated women as a married man, has mocked people with disabilities, and veterans; and he has publicly degraded those who do not support him. Not to mention Trump is on his third marriage with wife, Melania. Perhaps most unforgivable to today’s voters, is Trump’s role in the Capitol riots of January 6th, 2021.

Despite these clear moral failures, close to 80% of American evangelical voters cast their ballot for Trump in 2020. To them, Trump’s flaws were secondary to the importance of keeping a pro-life, conservative president in the White House.

After Joe Biden was elected, news outlets and supporters immediately referenced his devout faith, beginning with his election victory speech. The Atlantic contrasted Trump with Biden, calling Trump’s religious actions “a performative act…a way of appealing to a prized constituency” while saying that Biden’s were “public expressions of faith are also personal.” The same article described Biden’s regular attendance at mass and how he carries the rosary that belonged to his late son, Beau. A Politico article used similar examples to impress an image of devout Catholicism onto Biden: “…the president’s faith is one of the most public things about him. You can read it on his body: the way he turns his eyes upward, or crosses himself, or fingers the rosary around his left wrist, his late son Beau’s, the one he wore before he died. Biden’s faith is always on display.”

While some praise Biden for outward symbols and signs of faith, other religious leaders criticize the way his political positions clash with the official beliefs of his Church. Last summer, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held a serious discussion on the role and meaning of the Eucharist, partially in an attempt to address whether someone who held pro-abortion views, such as Biden, could receive it. Similarly, Catholic bishops have denounced Biden’s support for same-sex marriage, another position considered antithetical to Catholic orthodoxy.

The faith of each president is, like most issues in politics tend to be, a deeper question than many believe. The left has accused Trump of faking Christianity to win votes. The right accuses Biden of discarding legitimate Catholicism for the same reason. One consistently speaks and acts in a way that conflicts with the faith he claims to profess. The other does much the same. In that way, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are alike.