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Joseph Biden: a frank and abiding faith

How Catholic ideals of fighting the abuse of power have shaped the life and politics of the presidential hopeful.

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From his childhood bedroom in a treeless industrial suburb of Wilmington, Del., Joe Biden looked out on Archmere, an Italianate mansion and Catholic boys high school that he called "the object of my deepest desire, my Oz."

Archmere was also the home of financier John Jacob Raskob, who ran the 1928 campaign of Gov. Al Smith (D) of New York, the first Roman Catholic to become the presidential nominee of a major US political party.

Against long odds, Senator Biden aims to be No. 4. He sees faith and values, as well as his own deep experience in public policy, as a key to that race.

"The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home, was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power," he said in an interview with the Monitor. "It was not only required as a good Catholic to abhor and avoid abuse of power, but to do something to end that abuse."

The issues that have most engaged Biden in public life draw on those teachings, from halting violence against women to genocide. At a personal level, his faith provides him peace, he says. "I get comfort from carrying my rosary, going to mass every Sunday. It's my time alone," he says.

But the interface of faith and policy has long been problematic for Catholic presidential hopefuls. Governor Smith faced withering criticism over whether Catholic politicians are obliged by their church to take policy orders from Rome. John F. Kennedy famously disavowed "outside religious pressures or dictates," swept the Catholic vote, and won the presidency. By the time another J.F.K. from Massachusetts ran for president in 2004, the ground had shifted. Sen. John F. Kerry lost the Catholic vote because many of his faith questioned whether he was Catholic enough, given his strong support for abortion rights.

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