The Rev. Martin Diaz was 9 years old in 1960 when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president of the United States.
What the rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City remembers most from that time is the famous line from Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” But seeing a member of his faith rise to the highest office in the land meant something more.
“It was a source of pride,” Father Diaz said. “I’m a Catholic kid and one of my group is now president. ... I was devastated when he was assassinated.”
Sixty years later, Father Diaz was “quite pleased” to see Joe Biden become the second Catholic president to win the White House.
While Kennedy received close to 80% of the Catholic vote in 1960, Catholic voters were split between Biden and President Donald Trump. Father Diaz realizes times have changed and opinions are mixed, but he hopes the new president will use his understanding of Christlike values to engineer positive reform.
“Going forward, I think that he will put emphasis on issues that are important not just to Catholics, but to everyone,” said Father Diaz, one of more than 300,000 Catholics in the Beehive State.
It’s one of various opinions expressed by Catholics in Utah as Biden prepares for his inauguration on Jan. 20.
The first point made by Mickey Gallivan, a nonpracticing Catholic who lives in Salt Lake City, was that Biden’s Catholicity didn’t appear to be an issue in his campaign, although former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz called him “Catholic in name only.”
“I was not aware of any ‘Catholic’ political movement for or against Joe Biden. He certainly didn’t try to use it, or consciously avoid it, during his campaign,” Gallivan said. “So much of Catholic politics is built around the abortion issue. Biden certainly was open about his pro-choice position. But I didn’t hear any conversation about his Catholicism being an issue.”
If Biden were more aligned with the Catholic faith, especially regarding life issues, perhaps more Catholics might feel better about him as president, said Father John Evans of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Cottonwood Heights.
“Beyond the big political issues, the fundamental part of the respect for the dignity and the value of the human person is what is preeminently on the table for Catholics,” Father Evans said. “Because without that, everything else can fall like a deck of cards. You can claim moral goodness for the care of social services and all these other things, but if you are killing people on the back end, then you are undermining yourself. For us that’s a huge issue.”
Former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, a lifelong Catholic, said he was excited for Biden’s presidential victory — not necessarily because he’s a Catholic — but “because we needed to end the chaos of the prior four years,” he said.
But a church-going president with a moral compass should make a difference in the Oval Office, Corroon added.
“We’ve just seen what happens when we have a president without a moral compass. He’s just wreaked havoc on our country and divided our people,” Corroon said of Trump. “Whereas Joe Biden, I believe, will be a uniter and use what he’s learned in his Catholic upbringing to bring people together.”
Francis Lilly, Millcreek’s city planner and a lifelong Catholic, said faith wasn’t a major factor in his decision to vote for Biden, but he was happy with the outcome. His thoughts echoed Corroon’s.
“I’m not gonna say that everything the Democrats do are perfect, not by a long shot. Nor is everything Biden stands for something I agree with,” Lilly said. “But I do think there’s something to be said for integrity and dignity and how you carry yourself. To me, that’s been lacking in the last four years.”
Monica Rafferty, who considers herself a “cultural Catholic” but doesn’t attend church regularly, said Biden’s religion played zero role in her voting. But she supports the guiding principles of Catholic Relief Services, which promote human dignity and the responsibility to work together for the benefit of society.
“I am less worried about a president’s faith than if their policies are consistent with what I believe.” — Jean Hill
“It all comes down to the core values,” Rafferty said. “My hope is that he will be a president that will separate church and state ... and that his religion wouldn’t impact us, but that his character would, and that his character reflects these values. That includes taking care of the poorest, helping those that need help and living your own life in a way that helps society to grow. Those core principles are the principals that I would hope to see in any president, whether they are Catholic or not.”
Jean Hill is the director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Her thoughts reflected those of Rafferty.
“I am less worried about a president’s faith than if their policies are consistent with what I believe,” Hill said. “So it’s good to see a president who is faithful to his religion and is faithful about going to Mass on Sunday, because that is something that helps our Catholics see their faith in someone of that importance. That’s a positive experience for us. But his policies are what it really comes down to.”
While she disagrees with some of his policies, Hill believes Biden’s faith is sincere and that he is capable of moral leadership.
“I think overall he does bring to the presidency a real commitment to the common good, which is a huge part of Catholic social teaching,” Hill said. “And we all benefit when the focus is on the common good.”