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Why Biden can't keep his faith quiet

When it comes to personal religious beliefs, there couldn’t be a starker contrast between the two men running for president this year.
President Joe Biden greets clergy members while carrying a palm branch as he leaves St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., on March 23, 2024.
President Joe Biden greets clergy members while carrying a palm branch as he leaves St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., on March 23.Stephanie Scarbrough / AP

A video taken during a St. Patrick’s Day brunch at the White House with Catholic leaders offers a rare glimpse of President Joe Biden expressing his strong personal and private faith. It shows the president tearing up while listening to the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.”

When it comes to personal faith, there couldn’t be a starker religious contrast between the two men running for president this year: President Joe Biden is devoted to his Catholic faith, while Trump wears paper-thin religious observance, according to reports of his lack of genuine faith, brandished for all to see.

There's evidence Americans see through Trump’s laughable attempt at acting like a Christian, like his cringeworthy video on Tuesday hawking his own brand of “God Bless the USA” Bibles. A paltry 4% of Americans say Trump is very religious, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Twenty-five percent say he’s somewhat religious and 68% say he’s not too or not at all religious. Even 49% of white evangelicals, the group many say is a driving force in his run for the White House, say Trump is not too, or not at all religious. 

Given all Trump has done to surround himself with religious leaders and advance Christian nationalism, it’s good news that Americans see through it. The polls reflect reality there. But when it comes to Biden, the numbers reflect a less accurate read: The American public is largely unaware that Biden is in fact deeply religious.

Understanding Biden’s deep Catholic faith is a window into how he personally leads a moral and ethical life, even for those who are not Catholic.

Only 13% of Americans say Biden is very religious, while 41% say he’s somewhat religious. And 44% say the president is not too, or not at all religious.

This matters deeply when it comes to tapping into the Christian vote, which accounted for 64% of registered voters in 2020. Ninety-four percent of Americans say it is at least somewhat important to have a president who personally lives a moral and ethical life, according to Pew. Forty-eight percent say it is at least somewhat important that the president has strong religious beliefs, even if these beliefs are different from their own. 

Understanding Biden’s deep Catholic faith is a window into how he personally leads a moral and ethical life, even for those who are not Catholic or practice Catholicism differently from him. 

But why is there a disconnect between the president’s piety and Americans not seeing it? To better understand, I spoke to Sen. Chris Coons, one of Biden’s closest allies in the Senate and co-chair of his re-election campaign. He was the go-to religious surrogate for the Biden campaign in 2020. 

“He has gone to church services more than the previous three presidents combined,” Coons cited as evidence of how the president lives out his faith. “I know that Joe Biden takes time every day or almost every day to humble himself in prayer and to ask God, ‘Am I doing the right thing here?’”

But Biden “does not like or trust the act of talking about your faith. He is a classic American Irish Catholic of his generation, raised by nuns and priests, by a family intensely committed to their faith as an anchor that has helped them through both difficult times and good times, but where in their view and in his view, you should just live it and do it rather than giving speeches about it.”

Coons is also a graduate of Yale Divinity School. He told me that he and Biden “have a respectful, close relationship and he often will ask me to put my Divinity School graduate hat on or to talk to him from a place of faith. But that’s not something he is inclined to do publicly, or will naturally or comfortably ever do publicly.”

On one hand, Biden not wanting to grandstand about his devotion to his faith is admirable. Jesus warned his disciples, “Don’t be like hypocrites” when they pray. The hypocrites “love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them,” Jesus says in Matthew 6:5. As Biden runs against one of the most glaringly hypocritical Christians in history, it makes sense why Biden heeds Jesus’ warning against publicizing prayer.

On the other hand, the impact of his reluctance to talk much about his faith shows up in the polling. “In the absence of Joe Biden waving a Bible around or quoting scripture all the time, they’re filling that silence by inferring that he is someone who’s not particularly religious,” Coons said. 

“It took an effort to persuade him to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast the last three years,” Coons recalled. “He gave great remarks. He was very engaged and genuine. But his faith is private. It’s personal. It’s a core part of who he is. But he’s also someone very aware that this is not a theocracy. And that he represents millions and millions of people of different faiths, of uncertain faith, or who are humanists or ethicists who have no faith at all, and that he has to treat everyone with mutual respect.”

“The way that Joe Biden lives his faith is obvious to anyone around him,” Coons said. “But the general public doesn’t get to be around him.”

Trump’s outreach to white evangelicals is nearly ever-present in the media narrative. It’s a regrettable but unavoidable fact of political coverage today. Yet the Biden campaign can and must create opportunities for more Americans to understand the role of religion in his life. He could speak about the dangers of theocracy, which would fit nicely with his campaign’s theme of protecting democracy. The campaign should also invest resources in religious outreach and deploy more surrogates who speak from a faith-based perspective.

“Those of us who know and love and support Joe Biden, need to speak up more about his heart,” Coons told me. “There’s dozens and dozens of us connected to the campaign who need to speak up about it. People who are also people of deep faith and who have gotten through the hard things in life by leaning on the arms of Jesus need to be willing to say that.”

To help remedy this, Faith Forward is relaunching this campaign cycle with a six-figure ad-buy targeting religious voters around Easter. It will run nationally with intensive buys in swing states. I was one of the 500 religious leaders the group organized to endorse Biden in 2020.

Faith Forward has a new executive director in the Rev. Jen Butler, a longtime leader in faith-based advocacy. She spoke to me for her first media interview since starting on the job.

The series of ads targeted at religious swing voters will be aimed at helping them “understand the moral choices that are at stake,” Butler said. “We’re going to make sure, through really targeted outreach strategies, that we’re able to give people a really clear moral choice that we need to put God and human dignity of all people first and foremost as we consider our choices in the election.”

There are some who will object to more overt religious appeals in politics out of fear of infringing on church-state separation. That’s a valid critique.

“What you’ll see from us is a whole lot of ads contrasting the two people, and contrasting the ways in which they lead, both personally, but also in terms of how their leadership impacts the most vulnerable among us,” she said, referring to the contrast between religious views of Trump and Biden. 

There are some who will object to more overt religious appeals in politics out of fear of infringing on church-state separation. That’s a valid critique given the resurgence of Christian nationalism in the country. It’s incumbent on any candidate or group arguing for more faith-based appeals to make it clear that there is no religious test for public office and that people of all faiths — and none — are equal under the law. Nobody should fear that the outreach suggested here is theocratic. Biden is clearly not trying to push his Catholic faith on others.

Our religious diversity in the United States is a strength. The Democratic Party should be the leader in celebrating all forms of diversity and building a multireligious, multiracial coalition to defeat Trump.

Addressing the gap in voter perception about Biden’s religiosity may not be as important as addressing the gap in voter perception about the strength of the Biden economy, but even a marginal impact could help in a close election.

“We’ve failed to recognize the centrality of family, faith, opportunity, and community,” Coons said of the Democratic Party. Let’s not fail to recognize how important these values are to Biden, lest we lose a valuable opportunity to galvanize voters in November.