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Opinion: How Joe Biden can be religious and ‘pro-choice’

Though Biden is a devoted Catholic and arguably the most religious president in recent years, he supports a pro-choice position on abortion. How can he be both?

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President Joe Biden walks from St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church after attending Mass in Wilmington, Del., Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

A friend of mine belongs to the same Roman Catholic parish as President Joe Biden. She said she sees Biden frequently at mass at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., when he is in the nation’s capital. And this has gone on for many years. In fact, Biden is one of the most religious presidents in recent history.  

That fact is remarkable given the growing secularization in the United States where the percentage of people who profess to hold no religion has skyrocketed in recent years. And it is a contrast to the religiosity of recent presidents. Donald Trump did not go to church or make personal references about his own faith. Barack Obama only rarely attended church.  And George W. Bush, although religious, was not a regular churchgoer while president.

But Biden goes further than merely attending church on a weekly basis. He also integrates his faith into his speeches. After the electoral college count that solidified his electoral victory in 2020, Biden quoted St. Francis. In his inaugural address, he cited St. Augustine, who he called “a saint of my church.” 

Biden often proclaims that his Catholic faith has been pivotal in his life. And he has had several crises in his life that have tested that faith. In 1972, Biden’s wife and daughter were killed in an auto accident. In 1987, Biden nearly died when he suffered a brain aneurysm. Then, in 2015, his son, Beau, died of cancer at the age of 46. Biden credits his faith with helping him endure these tragedies. He said his faith has helped him “through the darkness” in his life.

He once told Stephen Colbert in an interview on “The Late Show” that he prays with the rosary and meditates while attending mass. He considers what he learned of Catholic catechism as helping ground him in public life. He told Colbert that the Catholic tradition helps him know that “I am here to know God, love God, serve God.”

Biden has been roundly criticized by anti-abortion advocates and many Catholics because he takes a pro-choice position on abortion. In reality, he does not oppose his church’s teachings on abortion; he has said that he is personally opposed to abortion. However, he feels that he cannot seek to impose his personal religious views on the rest of society.  

The distinction between a politician’s personal views on an issue and his approach to public policy is difficult for many citizens to understand. They believe it is a politician’s job to make public policy that conforms to personal views. However, there are other areas of public policy where that is not the case. For example, although many people feel that alcohol use is bad for society, they do not seek legislation that would ban alcohol use. Personal beliefs and public policy do not necessarily mix.

The president speaks about his faith and Catholicism in a way that is natural and not forced. He is applying his Catholic faith in his life and that comes out in the way he talks about his priorities as a president. He does not leave the impression he is trying to evangelize. Rather, he is merely showing that his faith has shaped who he is.

And, perhaps most importantly, he does so in a way that is not demeaning towards others. 

Biden is not insisting his faith is superior to the faith of others. He does not question others’ faith or claim some special divine dispensation that suggests disagreement with him places one in peril with God, as some religious believers (including some politicians) do.  Refreshingly, he is a religious believer as president who is confident in himself and his faith, while respecting the faith of others.  

Biden has set an example for future presidents. It is possible to be naturally open about one’s religious beliefs. But he has set an example for religious believers that one should not use religion as a bludgeon to divide, but merely as an expression of who we are and what is important to us personally.

Richard Davis is the author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”