by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 20
January 2021

The two faces of Christianity in Joe Biden’s America

The practising Catholic inherits a country divided by faith
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Joe Biden 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.

Join the discussion

  • To use this “goat-horned shaman” as a representative of one side of American Christianity is, in my view, an affront to the many million of serious and committed Christians in that country. It is easy to use the Name of Almighty God in vain to legitimise your words and actions, but those who do need to know there is a judgement awaiting those who take His Name in vain.
    There are in fact 3 faces to Christianity in the USA. There is “cultic”Christianity which is a distorted and perverted misrepresentation of the Faith. Some, but by no means all, current tele-evangelists would be examples of that. There is also liberal Christianity which basically sits loosely to the authority of the Bible and seeks to serve the prevailing culture through compromise. Finally there is conservative Christianity which takes the authority of the Bible seriously and is willing to espouse teaching and policies which is definitely counter-cultural.
    The conservative Church has been recognised as having significant political power because of its numerical strength and common platform and is therefore habitually wooed by presidential candidates. Donald Trump broadly won their support in two elections. But conservative Christians are not naive. They were fully aware of his character and behavioural flaws and contradictions. But they believed he would be sympathetic to their priorities and they were generally proved to be right.
    I think it’s absurd to suggest that the Church’s reputation was damaged by the antics of the wannabe Viking in the Capital on 6th. January. The fact is that the Church in America remains strong and despite some decline is vibrant and growing in its conservative manifestation. It remains respected and highly regarded where it really counts – at the local level.

  • I see the fluffing of Biden has begun. Sure, he’s “a practicing Catholic” who is wildly at odds with the church’s most fundamental principles.

    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.
    so savvy that he had little problem insulting those not like him with various comparisons to Hitler, white supremacists, and so forth.

  • You are mistaken in two ways :
    1. Sneering at something you do not understand.
    2. Writing off Christianity in the UK just yet, there are still around 1 million regular C of E church goers, and over 4 million Catholics, + all the people who count themselves as Christian but do not go to church.

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