The inauguration of our second Catholic president was, in its way, a very American-Catholic spectacle. A Jesuit delivered the invocation, the president quoted St. Augustine and paused for a moment of silent prayer just long enough for a quick Hail Mary, and the justices and celebrities represented various ethnic-Catholic inheritances — Irish for John Roberts, Italian for Lady Gaga and Nancy Pelosi, Latina for Jennifer Lopez and Sonia Sotomayor. (It was left to Garth Brooks, singing “Amazing Grace,” to represent Protestant culture.) As America Magazine’s James Keane noted, even Biden’s proposed cabinet is stuffed with Catholic Democrats, with few white male Protestants in sight.
It’s normal for American presidents to hew close to the country’s religious center. For a long time this meant almost every president belonged to one of the Protestant denominations called Mainline: Between 1881 and 1961, for instance, there were 13 Mainline-affiliated presidents (plus one Quaker and one Unitarian). The last of the 13, Dwight Eisenhower, proved the Mainline’s influence by being baptized into Presbyterianism early in his presidency, like a 16th-century prince accepting the state religion to claim a vacant throne.
The subsequent decline of the Protestant establishment, the most important fact in American religious life since the 1960s, has altered this dynamic. Instead of being connected to a clear religious center, the presidency has been passed among different religious tendencies that aspire, so far mostly unsuccessfully, to the status of the old Mainline.
Thus George W. Bush represented the cultural alliance between his own evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism, which envisioned itself as a new religious establishment — and then faded amid the Catholic sex-abuse crisis and a new wave of secularization.
Next, Barack Obama embodied an uneasy fusion between an attenuated liberal Protestantism and the African-American church — before the emergence of a more zealous, ‘woke’ progressivism, in his second term and after, left Obama’s more detached religious style behind.
Then Donald Trump, a Norman Vincent Peale “power of positive thinking” Christian without the actual belief, became an avatar for prosperity theology and Christian nationalism — a style of religiosity too fundamentally right-wing to lay claim to the religious center.
Now we have Biden. Many emergent forces are changing liberalism’s relationship to religion — wokeness, secularization, even paganism. But the new president personally embodies none of them. Instead he has elevated his own liberal Catholicism to the center of our national life.
Calling a form of religion “liberal” can mean two different things: On the one hand, a theological liberalism, which seeks an evolution in doctrine to adapt to modern needs; on the other, support for policies and parties of the center-left. In practice, though, the two tend to be conjoined: The American Catholic Church as an institution is caught between the two political coalitions, but most prominent Catholic Democrats are liberals in theology and politics alike.
But more than a set of ideas, liberal Catholicism is a culture, recognizable in its institutions and tropes, its iconography and allusions — to Pope John XXIII and Jesuit universities, to the “seamless garment” of Catholic teaching and the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council, to the works of Thomas Merton and hymns like “On Eagle’s Wings” (which Biden quoted in his victory speech).
And, of course, invocations of Pope Francis. A decade ago it was a commonplace to regard liberal Catholicism as a tradition in decline. Its period of maximal influence, the late 1960s and 1970s, had been an era of institutional crisis for the church, which gave way to the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Conservative Catholics felt that liberal ideas had been tried and failed, liberal Catholics felt that they had been suppressed.
But then Francis gave the liberal tendency new life, reopening controversies that conservatives assumed were closed and tilting the Vatican toward cooperation with the liberal establishment and away from associations with conservatism.
The papacy does not issue political endorsements, but there seems little doubt that many figures in Francis’ inner circle welcome a Biden presidency. When the American bishops’ statement on his inauguration included a stern critique of his position on abortion, there was apparent pushback from the Vatican and explicit pushback from the most Francis-aligned of the American cardinals. So the conservative Catholics who spent the election year arguing that Biden isn’t a Catholic in good standing find themselves (not for the first time) in tacit conflict with their pope.
That conflict belongs to the internal drama of Catholicism. In the internal drama of America, though, liberal Catholicism is an interesting candidate to claim the religious center, to fill the Mainline’s vanished role.
If you wanted to make a case for its prospects and potential influence, you would emphasize three distinctive liberal-Catholic qualities: an abiding institutionalism, in contrast to the pure dissolving individualism of so much American religion; an increasingly multiethnic character, which matches our increasingly diverse republic; and a fervent inclusivity, an anxiety that nobody should feel discriminated against or turned away.
This inclusivity means that liberal Catholicism sometimes seems to capture the universalist aspirations of the church better than its conservative and traditionalist subcultures. The latter are supposed to be for everybody, but at the moment they tend to appeal to distinctive personality types (he said, looking in the mirror) while remaining somewhat alien to the normal run of Americans — with “normal” lately meaning not just anyone who doubts certain of the church’s harder teachings but anyone who doubts the wisdom of a vote for Donald Trump.
On the other hand, liberal Catholicism sometimes achieves its feeling of universality by simply claiming for itself the whole Catholic-influenced world — sure, he’s no longer a practicing Catholic, but did you know that Dr. Anthony Fauci was educated by Jesuits? — without regard to whether that influence actually amounts to much more than a vague spirituality, a generic humanitarianism.
Which means that the liberal Catholic worldview is constantly in danger of simply being subsumed into political liberalism, with all religious distinctives shorn away — as Joe Biden’s past pro-life positions have now been entirely subsumed, for instance, by his party’s orthodoxy on abortion. Or alternatively, it’s in danger of being effectively taken over from within by rival forms of faith, like the new progressive orthodoxies that are likely to set our Catholic president’s agenda on the social questions of the day.
This is a challenge for any form of faith that aspires to supply a new religious center to our divided society — how to find a place to stand that’s actually outside partisanship, that’s clearly religious first and liberal or conservative second.
On this count it’s fair to say that religious conservatives of every tradition have often failed or fallen short.
But its equally fair to doubt that liberal Catholicism, brought back from what had seemed its twilight years to this unexpected apotheosis, is prepared to pass the test.