Two factoids about Joe Biden that you might not know: just as Andrew Yang was the sole nonwhite candidate on the debate stage in Los Angeles last week, Biden was the sole Roman Catholic. There has been quite a winnowing of Catholic candidates: former 2020 aspirants Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke are members of the Old Faith, as are current candidates (but latest debate non-qualifiers) Julian Castro and John Delaney.
If Biden beats his Democratic rivals, he’ll be just the fourth Catholic to win a major-party nomination (he was preceded by Al Smith, John F. Kennedy, and John Kerry). If he wins the presidency, he’ll finally give his coreligionists a second president after JFK (and after a 60-year gap).
While there was most definitely a “Catholic vote” in JFK’s time (he won at least 70 percent of that vote in the 1960 general election, according to most estimates), American Catholics today tend to closely resemble Americans as a whole in their partisan preferences (white Catholics lean Republican, while Latino Catholics lean even more strongly Democratic).
It’s less clear whether being Catholic helps a candidate during the primaries. John Kerry reportedly ran better among Catholics than among Protestants in the 2004 primaries. On the Republican side, though, in 2012 the very conspicuously Catholic Rick Santorum lost the Catholic vote to Mitt Romney, and did significantly better among white evangelics. And in 2016, Presbyterian Donald Trump did exceptionally well among Catholic Republican primary voters in key northeastern contests he used to nail down the nomination. He beat Catholic candidates Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Marco Rubio, and Santorum.
Biden’s Catholicism probably helps burnish his identification with midwestern white-working-class voters and his appeal to Latinos, though only at the margins. And his faith tends to come to the fore when he talks about the tragic loss of children (and a wife) that mark his biography, as Phillip Wegmann notes:
The former senator has spoken at length about his faith, sharing a testimony that would sound scripted if the tragedy described weren’t real, well-documented, and heartbreaking.
It was the winter of 1972 and Biden had just won election to the Senate when a tractor-trailer smashed into the family station wagon. His two sons made it out alive. His wife and infant daughter did not. They were going Christmas shopping.
Biden would say later that he felt “God had played a horrible trick on me.”
It was the spring of 2015 next when Biden’s eldest son succumbed to brain cancer. A veteran and an accomplished lawyer, Beau was destined to be governor of Delaware, party brass believed. Beau died at Walter Reed. He was just 46.
Biden still wears under his sleeve the rosary that Beau held as he died.
For any Catholic Democrat, though, faith can be perilous given the Donkey Party’s increasingly militant support for reproductive and LGBTQ rights. In 2004 Kerry had to be careful about where he went to mass during the campaign because some bishops and priests vowed to deny him communion if he appeared at any altar they supervised. A South Carolina priest let it be known he had excluded Biden from the Eucharist this very year. That looks bad even though Biden’s views on cultural issues are generally in line with that of Catholic lay-people.
All in all Biden’s Catholicism as an thing in itself probably won’t matter in 2020. But it will obviously influence the picture of him voters develop over time, particularly at a time when Republicans and many media outlets view the Democratic Party as aggressively secular. And if Biden wins the presidency, it will certainly become better known that he’s just the second member of his faith community–the single largest U.S. religious denomination–to occupy the White House.