What Biden Catholics could learn from Evangelicalism – and why they should listen

An article by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter referred to Biden’s inauguration as ‘the most Catholic one ever’, and proceeded to castigate the US Bishops’ Conference for drawing attention to the ways in which Biden’s policies were at variance with his professed beliefs.  The message was clear: how dare those nasty bishops rain on Biden’s parade, especially when the occasion was such good PR for Catholicism.  Besides, why should people listen to the official spokesmen of the Catholic faith when we journalists are a much more reliable guide to what really counts as Catholic

While the tone or the timing of the bishops’ statement may be up for debate, its content should neither surprise us nor vex us.  Biden may be Commander in Chief, but if he or his party start being recognised as spiritual authorities then that is both unwarranted and dangerous

If this sounds a little familiar, it should.  We have just had four years where a President with no credible faith or witness was happy to identify with a religious group and – more gallingly – many of them were willing to identify with him.  As a result, the word ‘Evangelical’ became used in common parlance to describe political positions, beliefs and attitudes that were a world away from true Evangelicalism and which historic evangelicals would not recognise or want to have anything to do with.  A political agenda was baptised by those who decided they were religious nationalists first, and biblical Christians second.  

Reading Smith’s article I began to wonder if the symptoms are different, but the same sickness is still here.  Biden’s faith was presented as personal and real, but his political agenda would indicate that he is a progressive democrat first, and a Catholic second; so much so that the latter is so diluted by the former as to render it unrecognisable.   This is a heresy as ancient as Israel in the Old Testament, and the bible has a word for it: idolatry.  

If this sounds familiar, it should. I wonder if the symptoms are different but the same sickness is still here

When we move beyond the pomp and circumstance of the day, with its justifiable triumphalism at America’s emerging from what was narrowly avoided at the Capitol a week previously, with its inspirational poetry, and with the welcome return of something approaching statesmanship and oratory after the bluster of the previous incumbent, a nagging question remains: is Biden’s appropriation of Catholicism for his political ends any different from Trump’s appropriation of Evangelicalism to boost his ratings and further his agenda?

Given the disjunction between his policies and his church, Biden could have chosen to keep the inauguration a purely political and civic event and work out this tension in the privacy of the White House and the confessional.  Or – and this would indeed be a stroke of true statesmanship – he could make good on his vision for unity and start to de-radicalise and diversify his party.  

There are many who wanted rid of Trump and who would support a broad Democratic foreign and domestic agenda, if only there was latitude for dissent on, for example, the abortion issue, on the grounds of conscience. What exactly this might look like, is the topic for another blog, but the reality is that by making an increasing liberalisation of the abortion legislation a de facto Democrat Statement of Faith they have effectively excluded many centre-left-leaning voters (including many people of faith) who are committed to pleading the cause of the most voiceless and vulnerable in our society (including millions of young unborn women).

When the spiritual marries the political it is inevitably an abusive marriage, and there is only ever one winner.

This is not to snipe at Biden, or to underestimate the dilemmas Christian politicians will often face in the execution of their duties, that is why we are instructed to pray for our leaders.   Nor do I believe Christians, of whatever hue, should expect government policy to cohere with their beliefs – the New Testament would infer the opposite. It is simply a warning to those, especially Catholics, who will look to Biden’s administration as some sort of new dawn.  When the spiritual marries the political it is inevitably an abusive marriage, and there is only ever one winner.

American Catholics would do well to listen to Evangelicals who have been left battered and bruised by what Trump, and sadly some of their own number, have done in their name over the last four years. We have seen our faith adapted and adulterated on the altar of political expediency; we have seen what is precious to us twisted beyond recognition in the interests of a cause which is not tangential to what we believe, but is actually the antithesis of it; we have seen some of our fellow-travellers give in to the temptation to sell the values of the kingdom of God for the lure of temporal power.  We know where that road leads and it is not pretty; if we take the bible’s warnings about idolatry seriously, it is indeed the highway to hell.

Those representatives who said ‘’Amen” to Father O’Donovan’s prayer at the inauguration while preparing legislation that no Catholic in good conscience could consent to, may regard themselves as millions of miles distant from the mob that stormed – and then prayed – in the Capitol building; but in their willingness to use religion as a flag of convenience they may be a lot closer than they would wish.

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