Among the history-making aspects of Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president, here’s one that hasn’t attracted much attention: He will be only the second Catholic elevated to the country’s highest office in its 244-year history.
The first one, of course, was John F. Kennedy, who was elected in 1960 — 60 years ago.
“I am so happy Joe won,” said Rosemary Baron, a Catholic chaplain at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.
Baron was attending a Catholic high school when Kennedy won the White House and “everyone had a tremendous love for him,” she recalled. “And some of that was because he shared our faith.”
Decades later, Baron is pleased to know Biden is a practicing Catholic, who regularly attends Mass.
It was inspiring to see a candidate who is “centered in his faith and turning to it for sustenance and grace,” she said. “It makes such a significant difference in how he sees issues.”
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M. J. Ahlin, a Catholic mom in Holladay, was “thrilled” by Biden’s triumph.
“I loved that he is a man of faith, who started Election Day going to Mass and knowing that there is a higher power than he,” Ahlin said. “All day long, I bet his family has been praying together, and finding strength with one another and asking for guidance.”
She is not proud that Biden is a Catholic, per se, but that he’s a believer, she said, “who has a moral compass because of religion.”
Editors at the progressive National Catholic Reporter congratulated Biden on his win.
“The media love the external symbols of Biden’s faith: the rosary beads he is known to clutch during a crisis, the rolled-up bulletin in hand as he leaves Mass on Election Day, the quoting of papal encyclicals on the campaign trail,” noted an editorial Saturday. “But his rosary is not just a fashion statement, nor is his faith merely a campaign talking point. His belief in God — and in resurrection and redemption — is the spiritual foundation that carried Biden through the tragic loss of his wife and 1-year-old daughter in a car accident, and the later death of his son Beau from brain cancer at 46.”
And Catholic social teachings have informed much of Biden’s politics, the magazine declared, including his care “about the common good, the dignity of the human person, stewardship for creation, a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.”
Today’s Catholic voters live in a much more diverse religious universe than Kennedy’s.
Though the two men are similar — both were “cradle” (lifelong) Catholics and of Irish descent — the faith’s role in American society nowadays tells a very different story.
When Kennedy was the Democratic candidate, many Americans were worried that his highest allegiance would be to a foreign leader, namely, the pope. So the charismatic senator went to Houston to address the problem head-on, telling attendees at a ministerial meeting that his first commitment was to the U.S. Constitution, not to his religious leaders.
Six decades later, Pope Francis is not seen as some kind of ominous threat but rather as a beloved figure to many Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the United States. He even addressed Congress in 2015. Many in this country admire rather than fear him.
And as it has grown, the Catholic community in this country has become more ethnically diverse. For the Beehive State’s 300,000-plus Catholics, said Jean Hill, government liaison for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, there are Masses in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic and Tagalog.
These days, tensions are often within Catholicism itself, especially on the issue of abortion, rather than with the greater U.S. society, and that is reflected in the voting outcomes.
During simpler times, Kennedy won nearly 80% of the Catholic vote, while in this election, Catholic voters were virtually evenly split between Biden and President Donald Trump.
In other words, Catholics are as divided along partisan lines as everyone else in the nation.
Utah Bishop Oscar Solis declined to comment on the president-elect’s religion, saying only that he and the diocese “believe a candidate’s religion is not as important as his character and how his policies impact the most vulnerable.”
Biden’s election “indicates we have come a long way in this country from the time of JFK, where there was so much hostility and prejudice toward Catholics,” said Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald.
Still, in some ways, the country hasn’t come far enough.
“Prejudice and bigotry continue to be a problem here,” he said, “just not against Catholics.”
Ahlin’s son, Nicholas, turned 18 on Nov. 1, so the family went together to cast their votes in person.
That morning, the excited teen called up to his mother and asked, “Should I wear something special?”
Ahlin was touched that the Judge Memorial student viewed his first voting experience as a reason to dress up.
He chose to wear Statue of Liberty socks.