Editor’s note: This post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
A few nights after President-Elect Joe Biden’s Nov. 7 victory speech, I spoke to a group of Harvard students, and one of them asked me how I felt about Biden citing a Catholic hymn. I thought I would share my response here.
In case you missed it, which I doubt you did if you watched, Biden infused his remarks with a heavy dose of religiosity. He quoted from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “The Bible tells us to everything there is a season, a time to build, a time to reap and a time to sow. And a time to heal.”
“This is the time to heal in America,” Biden proclaimed.
He shared the words of his and his deceased son Beau’s favorite Catholic hymn called “On Eagle’s Wings,” explaining that it “captures the faith that sustains me, which I believe sustains America.”
Biden concluded by recalling his grandfather telling him to “keep the faith” and his grandmother chiming in: “No, Joey, spread it.”
“Spread the faith,” Biden repeated, before his final words of “God love you all. May God bless America, and may God protect our troops. Thank you. Thank you.”
As a Jew, I always notice when politicians cite the Bible or reference God. It signals that I am likely not their intended audience. That may sound curious to some of you, especially since Biden’s first reference was to the Hebrew Bible. You may think to yourself that Jews also pray to God. But many Jews like me, including those with strong Jewish identities, are suspicious of rhetoric that makes assumptions about shared religious views among our diverse population.
It also tells me that the politician probably (though not always, as we learned with Trump) has a strong religious identity. We know that Biden is a Catholic who has found much solace in his faith through hard times. Biden was being sincere at a pivotal moment in sharing his Christian faith, from which he derives meaning. I don’t have a problem with that either as a religious minority or the as leader of Americans United.
But when a politician incorporates his or her faith into a public speech, I expect them to acknowledge in some way that not everyone shares their faith – or to universalize what they are saying. This not only makes everyone feel seen, but it also conveys that the political leader is likely to govern with equal respect for all, no matter what our belief system. This is critical from a church-state separation standpoint.
When Biden followed his citation of the Book of Ecclesiastes by declaring that “this is a time to heal in America,” he appeared to be translating his use of a religious text into a universal, non-religious statement that all of us living through the year 2020 could access, no matter what our faith or non-faith. He also explicitly recognized the need to make “the promises of the country real for everybody, no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity or their disability.”
On the other hand, when he proclaimed that faith “sustains America,” he failed to include the growing non-religious segment of our population.
Similarly, while Biden’s closing statement to “spread the faith” could have been intended to mean spread the hope (e.g., that we can once again be a nation united), it felt intentionally double entendre and walked a thin line. And hearing a public official end a speech with references to God, though typical, certainly tells nontheists that they aren’t the target audience.
Despite some concerns over the language in his speech, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful as I listened to Biden. Remember, rhetoric is one thing – actions are another. All indications are that when it comes to action, Biden will respect separation of religion and government. His political history shows support for that principle, and he has already vowed to repeal some dangerous Trump policies. Biden is not now and never has been in the thrall of Christian nationalists.
Let’s also not forget Biden’s line from a 2005 interview: “This is a nation founded on the idea of the separation of church and state. After 200 years, why the hell would you want to go messing with that?”
Americans United plans to be vigilant, but remains optimistic that during the next four years, we can repair much of the damage done by the Trump administration. With your help, we’re ready to work with the Biden-Harris administration not just to undo that damage, but also to reclaim and advance religious freedom as the inclusive ideal it was intended to be.