Joe Biden 2nd Catholic U.S. president. How his reception is different from JFK’s

National News

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For many Americans, religion is an important part of politics, and the faith background of a president could potentially shape decisions that impact you.

Joe Biden’s presidency will mark only the second time a Catholic has ever led the nation.

Biden presents himself as a liberal and a devout Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday. But many Catholics don’t see him as a “legitimate” member of their faith because of his support of abortion rights and gay marriage.

That wasn’t the situation in 1960 when fellow Democrat John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic ever elected president. Kennedy did not challenge the Church’s positions on social issues.

President-elect Joe Biden leaves after attending mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President-elect Joe Biden leaves after attending mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“It was a really big deal that Kennedy was a Catholic in the 1960s coming off the rise of the Protestant establishment in the 1950s. The differences between Protestant and Catholics were pretty stark in the minds of most Americans,” said Dr. Chad Seales, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Exit surveys from Gallup show Joe Biden narrowly won the Catholic vote last November, coming in at 52% support to President Donald Trump’s 47%. By contrast in 1960, estimates show Kennedy got about 80% of the Catholic vote.

Seales says that in the last 60 years, denominational differences in the political realm have shifted. 

“It is now more important where you stand on a particular moral issue politically than whether you’re a Protestant or Catholic,” Seales said.

Seales noted it is similar to how major denominations within Protestantism have been split over moral issues in recent times.

“The same applies for future President Biden, in terms of  how he is claimed as a Catholic within the fold. And, it will be interesting to see, too, the direction the Catholic Church shifts, if at all, in the next four years with some of the stances Pope Francis has taken on certain issues as well.”

Joe Biden has said he wants heal “America’s hurting soul”. Dr. Seales wonders if Americans are ready to follow along.

“We’ve seen it in past presidents drawing on the worlds of civil religions to frame a shared American imagination,” Seales said. “That’s really been undermined the last four years to the extent that it is difficult to know if religion will resonate across political divides.”

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