When Joe Biden spoke before a small fleet of parked cars in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7, it was more than a declaration of victory in the 2020 election. It was a declaration of faith.
The newly minted President-elect only made it about midway through his address before dropping in a Bible reference, reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. He then invoked a Christian hymn written by a priest—“On Eagles Wings,” a favorite among Catholics like himself—insisting it speaks to a faith that has sustained both himself and the country at large. “He will raise you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, and make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hand,” Biden said. To drive his point home, he dedicated his final paragraph to a story about when his grandparents used to tell him not just to “keep the faith,” but to “spread the faith.” He concluded: “God love you all. May God bless America and may God protect our troops.”
It’d be easy to dismiss this embrace of the spiritual as a sort of formality, a throwback declamation of traditional God-talk so common in American presidential rhetoric that scholars have their own fancy name for it: “civil religion.” But as Inauguration Day draws ever closer, the soon-to-be second Catholic president is giving the distinct impression that he’s up to more than just metaphysical nostalgia: He’s preaching an unapologetic—and unapologetically liberal—form of public faith rooted in traditions that have thrived throughout American history but have rarely seen their messages proclaimed so fervently from presidential podiums.
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