“Joe Biden”| Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0
On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy made history when he became the first Catholic president of the United States a seemingly impossible feat because of the strong “anti-Catholic prejudice” in America at the time. JFK’s upbringing was steeped in Catholicism, with his devout Irish Catholic mother Rose supervising the Kennedy family after the manner of Catholic school nuns, according to biographer Barbara A. Perry, author of “Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch.”
Kennedy regularly heard mass at St. Stephen’s Church in Boston when he was a senator, and when he was president, he also attended the Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, the St. Stephen Martyr Church and on various occasions at St. Matthew’s Cathedral where most of us at the embassy go to mass. St. Matthew’s is a five-minute walk from the Philippine embassy.
JFK’s faith was a big issue during his candidacy, with pastors, evangelists and other prominent Protestant leaders warning that a Catholic president would be dictated on by the Vatican. Kennedy faced the issue head-on, saying, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
In his now-famous speech to a large gathering of Protestant ministers, JFK talked about the importance of separation between the Church and State: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
Exactly 60 years after John F. Kennedy became president, America and the whole world witnessed the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. – only the second Catholic US president.
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”–President John F. Kennedy
Also of Irish descent like JFK, Joe Biden was raised as a devout Catholic. He went to St. Paul’s Elementary School in Scranton, Pennsylvania as well as St. Helena School and the Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school in Delaware.
In fact, he even thought of going into the seminary and becoming a priest.
President Biden’s grandfather taught him to pray the rosary, and people close to him say he always carries a rosary (the one that belonged to his son Beau who died of cancer) in his pocket – a practice that was taught to us by the Jesuits at the Ateneo. The president and his wife Jill, an educator, regularly heard mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Church in Delaware. Now that he is president, he will most likely go to St. Matthew’s Cathedral (where he attended an early service before his inauguration) and the Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown.
While things are different now, with religion no longer playing a very prominent role or influence in American politics, many believe President Biden’s faith will figure in how he will craft policy and the way he will govern.
In one of his interviews when he was still senator, he said, “The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by the church and home, was that the cardinal sin was the abuse of power… It was not only required as a good Catholic to abhor and avoid abuse of power, but to do something to end that abuse.” Yet President Biden’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion – which are contentious issues especially for Catholics – was the reason why several Filipino-American voters did not vote for him.
The last time I attended an inauguration was that of George Bush Sr. in 1989, where I was invited by the late Republican Party campaign adviser Lee Atwater. Thousands were in attendance with nonstop inaugural balls that lasted until three in the morning. The historic event last Wednesday was totally different – with armored vehicles, barricades and perimeter fences that sealed off the Capitol which is supposed to be the “People’s House.” The streets were quiet and almost empty, checkpoints were placed at intersections and the security was so tight with 25,000 troops deployed.
The security precautions were simply unbelievable, and the health protocols taken for us diplomats were very well-planned and coordinated by the State Department, with social distancing in reserved seating arrangements strictly observed.
It is noticeably clear that the new president’s biggest challenge would be the raging COVID-19 infection rate and uniting a very polarized nation. As a well-respected election analyst and CNN anchor put it, the United States has been fractured for so many decades, with the recent events making the division even more pronounced.
“To restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires the most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity… And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness.”— President Joe Biden
In his inaugural speech, President Biden said there is “Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build.”
With the violence at the Capitol having demonstrated just how fragile democracy can be when people are divided, he promised to be “a president for all Americans,” enjoining them to overcome the challenges that they face and come together as a nation and people.
“To restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires the most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity… And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness,” the US President accentuated.