Joe Biden’s private faith: a public matter

By: S. Joseph Scott

Special to News Talk Florida

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On October 27 former Vice-President, now presidential candidate, Joe Biden did what he does most Sundays; on a campaign sweep through South Carolina, he attended a Catholic Mass. It likely caught him by surprise when he arrived at the high point of the Roman Catholic service, the serving of communion, only to have the communion bread withheld from him as an act of spiritual discipline. The pastor presiding later explained that “Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.” As one might imagine, the priest’s action sparked a public fury both within and outside the church. 

When questioned about the incident in an MSNBC interview Biden responded, “I practice my faith, but I’ve never let my religious beliefs, which I accept based on church doctrine…to impose that view on other people.” Others have debated the propriety of the priest’s actions. I want to consider Biden’s retort. 

Biden’s response is the essence of a modern-secular “faith.” Secularism allows room for “faith” as long as that “faith” is kept between one’s ears, or in one’s heart. Faith in a secular context is confined to private personal beliefs. Faith it is assumed, is that which exists in a space characterized by feelings, emotions, opinions, and religious experiences. All of which are fine to have and to hold. Faith, in this sense, is disconnected from the public realm of facts, sensory experience, scientific investigation and public moral government. One’s personal religious beliefs are not something that should be disputed, commended to others, the object of debate or persuasion. A secularized faith is simply a personal preference. You like chocolate, I like vanilla. There is no accounting for taste, or faith. And for a civil servant, one’s religious beliefs certainly ought not inform public policy. 

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Hence when Biden says he would never “impose that view on other people,” a secular world breathes a sigh of relief. He can believe whatever he wants, and as he puts it “accept [it] based on church doctrine” privately, but he will not “impose that view on other people,” in his public work. But, Joe Biden is a public official and all his public decisions, including policy decisions, are grounded on his willingness to impose his views on others. That is what lawmakers do. All law is an imposition of someone’s personal views about moral matters. It is impossible to keep private that which is inescapably public.

Furthermore, his views are imposed with great consequence on “other people” who just happen to be very small and vulnerable and unable to protect themselves. His comment about not imposing his views on other people begs the very question in view. Does the decision to abort impact only one person, or two? Joe Biden, like every public figure has a personal, private opinion about the nature and value of human life and with every vote he, like every other politician, “imposes” his view on the public. That is what elected officials do. The only issue is what beliefs and opinions will they impose.

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So, don’t be fooled by the rhetoric of, “I would never impose my views on other people.” Of course you will, you do, and you must. That is at the heart of being a civil servant. That is the cost and responsibility that public officials bear. Public servants should own the moral responsibility they bear, and then seek to rationally justify and persuade others that their positions will best promote the common good.

S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.

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News Talk Florida Staff