When Joe Biden takes the oath of office in January, he will be only the second Catholic president of the United States since John F. Kennedy was elected 60 years ago.
Kennedy’s victory in 1960 was a historic moment for Catholics, partly because his religion was at the forefront of the political conversation. Kennedy had to dispel fears he would have divided loyalties,famously telling a group of Southern ministers in a speech three months before the general election, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
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Biden’s achievement has — so far — been more of a narrative footnote than a cause for much fanfare, partly because of a greater acceptance of Catholicism and how politically divided members of the faith are today.
“The religious divides in this country were just massive for the first 150 years,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, the Philadelphia Democrat who cochaired Biden’s Catholic outreach campaign. “So now, to get to the point in which it’s only the second time a Catholic is elected president and it’s just not a big issue, is a great sign of progress.”
The other U.S. presidents have been Protestant Christians, predominantly Episcopalian or Presbyterian.
Kennedy won 70 to 83 percent of the Catholic vote in 1960 and became an icon to millions of American Catholics who framed his photo alongside pictures of Pope John XXIII.
Biden won somewhere between 50 and 52 percent of the Catholic vote in 2020, according to exit polls. Today, registrations and election results show Catholics are split about 50-50 between the major political parties.
The questions Catholic candidates face today are also different. While Kennedy defended against accusations he would be too closely aligned with his faith to govern objectively, Biden had to counter criticism that his liberal views on abortion rights and gay marriage conflicted with some teachings of the church.
“It went from, ‘Will he be too Catholic?’ to ‘Is he Catholic enough?’” Boyle said.
But it’s still an important moment for Democratic Catholics like Mara Smith, 29, of Haddon Township.
“Catholic Democrats have long felt they couldn’t marry the Democratic and Catholic parts of their lives,” she said. “And so seeing a president-elect who is Catholic and a Democrat and not just a single-issue voter but who — in his actions, words and practice of his Catholic faith — is really looking out for marginalized populations, is incredibly exciting.”
Smith attends Old St. Joseph’s parish in Philadelphia and volunteered with a Philadelphia Catholics for Biden group. She said she screamed when Biden quoted from “On Eagle’s Wings,” a hymn popular with Catholics, in his victory speech.
“It’s refreshing for Catholics to have a president who is a Democrat speak about his faith so proudly,” she said.
For Catholic Democrats, having Biden in the oval office and a pope more favorable to the party in the Vatican, is a double-win, said Steve Krueger, president of Catholic Democrats. “The leader of our church is Pope Francis and now the leader of our country is Joe Biden,” he said “and I think that that is very consoling for a lot of Catholic Democrats.”
While it’s been six decades since the nation had a Catholic president, it has long had Catholic justices of the Supreme Court (six of nine current members), members of the House and Senate, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Catholics make up about one-fifth of the electorate and are a perennial swing group that has voted for the winner in 75% of presidential elections over the past 50 years. Once largely Democratic, the church’s antiabortion stance started to pull Catholic voters to the right in the 1970s. Today, Latinos are the largest growing group in the church and tend to vote more Democratic.
That’s rare among religious groups, said Mark Gray, who directs Catholic polling at Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research. A majority of Protestants are consistently Republican, agnostics tend to be Democrats, as do Jewish voters. Catholics swing back and forth, he said.
CNN’s exit poll showed Biden winning the Catholic vote nationally by about 4 points, similar to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Pennsylvania, where the Catholic population is whiter than in other states, Trump won the Catholic vote narrowly.
Gray said he’s not surprised that the Catholic vote appears to have remained split. That’s the way it’s been for decades.
“Part of it is just Catholic teachings — some are consistent with Republican planks and some are consistent with Democratic issues,” Gray said. Catholicism is very pro-labor, pro immigration but at the same time Catholic teachings reject abortion and same-sex marriage.
“Catholic voters choose their partisanship and then they choose the parts of their faith that are consistent with their partisanship.”
And Gray isn’t surprised that Biden didn’t perform better. In 2004, John Kerry, an adherent, lost the presidency and the Catholic vote to George W. Bush.
Having a Catholic president in the White House could feel somewhat different, though, said Dr. Anthea Butler, who chairs the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania.
“You’re going to see someone going to Mass all the time, speaking about their faith in a different way and not how evangelicals talk about power, God and how everything is going to be triumphant,” she said. “When you look at what’s happening during this virus, people are hurting, dying. Catholicism does have a strong way to help people through suffering and understanding suffering. And Joe Biden, he’s had a lot of losses in his life.”
Biden grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Scranton, a background he emphasized to appeal to voters who had abandoned the Democratic Party. He attended Catholic school in Scranton and then Delaware. (Several nuns from the order that taught him, celebrated his victory at a block party near his childhood home.)
His public schedule includes Mass every weekend in Wilmington. In speeches, he has quoted Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II and often spoken about how faith helped him through the deaths of his wife and daughter and, later, his son Beau.
“Joe Biden’s faith is not put on,” said Michael Wear, founder of Not Our Faith, a pro-Biden political action committee. “I think there’s a respect for the sincerity there.”
Wear said in contrast, Trump’s controversial photo-op outside St. John’s Church swayed some politically conservative Catholics to vote for Biden. Wear also credited Biden’s campaign with “unprecedented” outreach to faith communities.
Butler, of Penn, said she thinks part of the reason Biden didn’t perform better with Catholics is how politicized the church’s leadership has become.
“The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops … have behaved more like evangelicals than they have Catholics,” Butler said, referring to a recent meeting of the bishops in which Biden’s stance on abortion was discussed and some reports suggested the conference would consider banning Biden from receiving communion.
“His bishop in Delaware is fine with him; they’re close,” Butler said. “This is all just politics.”
Boyle, the congressman from Philadelphia, noted even Kennedy didn’t enjoy favor with the bishops. He recalled a famous quip from the 1960 election, when Kennedy reportedly said: “The bishops are with Nixon, but I have the nuns.”