'It’s like being in church', said my teenage son. It was a bit — two bursts of prayer, a religious song, a long sermon, and a general air of community-reverence, inclusive piety. We were watching Biden’s inauguration last week, grateful for a mid-afternoon break from other screens. These are quasi-religious events — I knew that. But this time it seemed more pointedly religious than ever. Let’s get back to the true faith, after a spell of gold-plated idolatry.
And, if you knew how to spy the signs, this ceremony reflected the new man’s Roman Catholicism — a Jesuit leading the prayers, a quote from Saint Augustine, songs from an Italian-American and a Latina. Has Catholicism become a natural — or even the natural — form of American religion? Or is there still a fundamental mismatch between the two grand ideas? Does Biden represent a liberal Catholicism that has routed Protestant doubts and internalised the American idea? Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for some sweeping historical summaries.
America has anti-Catholic roots. The first settlers in New England were sworn enemies of the church of old England because it failed to be cleanly post-Catholic. They hated the archbishop of Canterbury for being too like the pope — so their feelings towards the pope can be inferred.
A century later, these colonists were still fervently Protestant, but their ruling class was more into rationalism than the Bible. When it won independence, the new nation’s creed was two-fold — Protestantism for the masses, deism (a vaguely religious rationalism) for the elite. All, or nearly all, could agree that Catholicism was a bad thing, with its support for monarchs, its blood-caked superstitions, its stifling of liberty. This antipathy, along with the obvious racial ones, helped to unite the nation.
A century later still, in the late 19th century, Protestantism remained central to the American idea, and Catholicism was still seen as old-world and anti-liberty. Huge waves of immigration from Catholic countries worried white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant politicians, and were duly curbed. Again, anti-Catholicism was a useful national glue, binding posh Bostonians with rednecks.
And then, in the mid-twentieth century, the old narrative wobbled. Or rather, it softened, through success. America no longer needed its brittle Protestant hegemony. It could afford to admit Catholics to its ruling elite. In return, such Catholics displayed intense loyalty to the liberal national idea (Kennedy).
And then, at the end of the 20th century, something new happened: the religious right became ecumenical. Evangelicals looked admiringly at Catholics’ rigour on abortion, and also on the anti-Communist rigour of John Paul II. And conservative Catholics began to echo some of the old ‘national values’ rhetoric of the evangelicals. Of course there were also plenty of Catholics on the left, but they looked a bit dated, a bit sixties.
And then, this century, something else happened. Obama looked like a new dawn for liberal Protestantism but turned out to be a sunset. He seemed to show that the liberal vision needs a religious basis, and he seemed to show that there was still life in the liberal Protestantism of Martin Luther King. But there was no popular resurgence of such idealism — liberals just looked on at Obama’s cover version of King, instead of joining in. Instead, liberalism went in the direction of secularism and identity politics, as if aiming to rile the red states, conjure Trump.
As a result, liberal American politics seems to need the ballast of liberal Catholicism. Just a decade ago, this was unthinkable. It was axiomatic that liberal Protestantism was at the root of liberal politics, and that Catholic liberals were guests at the party — and slightly uncomfortable guests, on account of their allegiance to a partly reactionary ideology.
The ascent of Biden marks a new chapter in the story of America and religion. The liberal democratic vision was rooted in liberal Protestantism. But maybe it no longer is. For that religious tradition has crumbled. Can liberal Catholicism step in and replace it, in a more than temporary-emergency way? Will this cause the long-awaited liberal revolution in the Catholic Church?
Is this the first sign — you heard it first here — of the reunification of the Christian West?