Happy like God in America

Joe Biden, the second Catholic president of the United States after Kennedy, represents a relative break from tradition. Is this proof of a shift in the American religious landscape?
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. © Joseph Barrientos

God is on the move. On January 20, for instance, on the occasion of Joe Biden’s inauguration, he was seated, invisible but present, on the front row of the crowd gathered in front of the Capitol. The whole ceremony was undeniably stamped with religiosity at least as much as with republican public spirit. The atmosphere was even more religious than is customary, perhaps in order to mark the contrast with Donald Trump, but also because the new president is a devout Catholic.

This inauguration was preceded, moreover, by a high mass in a Washington cathedral, which was attended by all (living) former presidents, except Trump. The personal faith of Bill Clinton might be doubted, but the profoundly religious Protestant faith of the Obamas and the Bushes is well known. Jimmy Carter, excused from the inauguration owing to his advanced age, preached for years on Sunday before his Baptist congregation in Georgia. Trump, for his part, adheres to a kind of evangelical cult that celebrates material success as a gift from God, and he recently renounced Presbyterianism, a branch of Calvinist Protestantism, in order to declare himself a “non-denominational Christian.”

Still, Joe Biden represents a relative break from tradition. As the second Catholic president of the United States, his affiliation is on full display, whereas John Kennedy’s was very discreet. This is a proof of a trend away from secularism in the United States; the country has always been Christian, from its beginnings to the present day, but this Christianity has constantly changed and is becoming more pronounced – quite the opposite from France, where people tend to consider that skepticism indicates progress. JFK’s Catholicism was problematic, but Biden’s no longer is. The United States was Puritan and Protestant at its founding, but now we find it to be more and more Catholic. Biden’s inauguration was telling in this sense: Not only did the president cite St. Augustine in his speech, but it is also notable that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, before whom Biden swore the oath, is himself Catholic, as is the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, along with the two singers at the ceremony, Lady Gaga, of Italian origin, and Jennifer Lopez, a Latina. It was left to country singer Garth Brooks, incidentally an outspoken Republican, to perform “Amazing Grace,” a Protestant hymn.

“Amen,” voiced Joe Biden at the end of a silent prayer in memory of Covid victims. He had of course sworn the oath on the Bible, swearing to protect the Constitution, a document infused with the spirit of the Enlightenment that clearly separates God’s kingdom from Caesar’s – a paradox that does not trouble a single citizen. The vice president, Kamala Harris, raised by her parents in the Christian and Hindu religions, also swore on the Bible, in the presence of her husband, who happens to be Jewish. Only Muslims, of whom there are still but few in the United States, were absent in this ceremony, but if one had been present, they would have made do with the inaugural invocation which, although pronounced by a Jesuit, was totally ecumenical. In this great syncretism, only militant atheists would have felt excluded. Could there be an atheist president in the United States? Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or gay – all these are possible. But atheist is unlikely.

Viewed from France, this intimate alliance between piety and the Republic is perplexing: Our own republic was founded and then forged in opposition to the Catholic Church, and we are still in the process of relegating God to the margins of politics and of society. France’s inexhaustible debate on the presence of Islam can be explained in part by an intransigent conception of laïcité or secularism as well as by a particular reticence towards Muslims – for these French Muslims are guilty of being believers as well as being Muslims. In the United States, on the other hand, even after the September 11 attacks, one will not find hostile prejudices against Muslims just for being believers.

God’s pervasive presence in the United States was not assured from the beginning. Of course, the founders of New England were mystics in search of a promised land, a divine “city upon a hill,” to quote the famous sermon of the Puritan John Winthrop, pronounced at Southampton, in what is now Massachusetts, in 1630. But we should not forget that the other pillar of the American republic took root in Virginia; neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson was particularly religious. Washington did not attend any church service and, like most of the Founding Fathers, he called himself a deist on the French model popularized by Voltaire. American religiosity, as we know it today, took hold only gradually beginning in the 19th century, punctuated by great bursts of collective mysticism, the Great Awakenings. African-Americans and later immigrants from Latin America contributed enormously to this process, infusing all the faiths of the United States, including all denominations, with a jubilant enthusiasm – evangelical, pentecostal, and charismatic – which is unknown in France and in Europe.

This enthusiasm, in the literal sense of the term, brought the faiths together and explains why, in the case of Joe Biden, an ecumenical attitude can so easily prevail over religious rivalries: The United States discriminates by race, not by religion. Doubtless this is because Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mormons, Orthodox and Reformed Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Sunnis – and surely I am forgetting some – all converge and take part in what the writer Harold Bloom called “the American religion.” Bloom was right: Whether in a church, a temple, a synagogue, or a mosque, God, for the faithful, is American. To believe in the United States is to believe both in God and in America, the Promised Land. Mormons, an American religion from its found-ing, are the most explicit: Jesus will return to the United States. Jews hesitate: Is the Promised Land America or Israel? No doubt both.

French skepticism must have its say: Some of our sociologists, such as Alain Touraine, consider the American religion not so much a religion as a collection of social communities, clubs one is supposed to belong to, a form of citizenship rather than a faith. But this radically secular thesis does not explain why, according to a study from the Pew Research Center, 55% of Americans, whatever their religious or community affiliation, say that they pray at least once a day – a silent, personal prayer, like Joe Biden’s. The difference must thus be acknowledged: No French president will ever say “Amen” in public and no American president will ever call themselves an atheist. In order to understand the United States, Tocqueville wrote, it is essential to recognize how different it is from France. This remains good advice.

Editorial published in the March 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.