The practising Catholic inherits a country divided by faith
In the lead up to the presidential inauguration, when Joe Biden will put his hand on a Bible and swear to defend the Constitution (so help him God), the US has been occupied with two very different faces of political Christianity.
The first has been burnt into memories by a goat-horned shaman, covered in tattoos of the Norse pantheon, thanking Almighty God and a very New Age “white light” for “allowing” the Capitol insurgents to “send a message to communists, globalists and traitors” in the Senate chamber. Ridiculous, yes; heretical, almost definitely; but followed by pastors and many bearing Jesus banners.
The second, celebrated two days before the ceremony, is Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. His legacy is often neutered into a twenty-first century liberal fit for Instagram quotes, his brimstone-Bible preaching carefully tidied away. Nevertheless, he took the scriptural principle of “turn the other cheek” and used it to lead a revolution.
One political Christianity sees the faith as an identity marker, an ‘us and them’ system, the other draws from it a much larger “we”. One uses the symbol of the cross to exclude and terrify, the other sees it as a world-changing symbol of sacrificial love and reconciliation. But to deny that both are, in some sense, Christian would be as disingenuous as well-meaning politicians who claim Islamist terrorism is nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. In both cases there are many degrees of separation, but the Capitol insurgents are nevertheless mainstream Christianity’s distant cousins.
As President Biden, himself a lifelong practicing Catholic, takes office, he faces two temptations. One is to deny the “Christian” in this ugly Christian nationalism, which fails to tackle the problem. The other would be to swing the distinctly American brand of noisy, religiously vibrant secularism towards a harder-edged, more exclusionary French direction. While I am sure he faces pressure from some in his party to do just that, Biden’s reflections on his own faith and politics make it unlikely. He is also a savvy political operator and understands that in a country where 75% still affiliate with religion, it wouldn’t go down well.
From his public statements, I think President Biden knows that the antidote to bad religion is not no religion. The antidote to thin, exclusionary political Christianity is not no Christianity, but deep, theologically rigorous, humble Christianity which serves the common good, as almost all churches continue to do. I hope President Biden resists doing further damage to the fragile pluralism of his country. But there is damage he cannot fix, the damage to the reputation of the church that those scenes inflicted. Only the church, by showing up and bearing the second face of political Christianity, can hope to fix that.