The pushback that Joe Biden, whose devout Catholic faith is a prominent aspect of his public persona, has faced in recent weeks from his own church, has been extraordinary, but not exceptional.
In fact, it neatly parallels the criticism directed at Naftali Bennett, Israel’s first-ever religiously observant prime minister, by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and political leaders his governing coalition displaced from the inner sancta of Israeli political power.
By their refusal to disassociate themselves from their religious beliefs and identities, both Biden and Bennett are making an implicit, but acute theological argument for faith to transcend partisan divides, to be more than a weapon for one side to brandish against the other. In an ever more polarized world, this argument is especially critical.
Biden, only the second Catholic president in American history, has been the focus of intense discussion by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which voted overwhelmingly to draft a pointed "formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church." It is widely believed that the document will set guidelines to justify denying the president communion because of his pro-choice position, which contravenes church doctrine.
Oregon’s Bishop Liam Cary, who supports the bishops' move, described the Biden presidency as an "unprecedented situation in the country...where the executive is a Catholic president opposed to the teaching of the church."
However, critics argue that any theological argument the USCCB advances will be little more than a fig leaf covering a nakedly partisan position in the American culture wars. This is especially so, they claim, in light of the many other aspects of Biden’s agenda that are solidly in line with Vatican priorities, including a renewed focus on child poverty, refugees, and climate change.
These issues, despite their significance for the Vatican, are not in line with the unfettered capitalism and ethno-nationalism that characterize the contemporary Republican party.
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It is similarly telling that the American bishops did not react with the same concern when Attorney General Bill Barr, also Catholic, reversed a moratorium on federal executions in the last months of the Trump Administration, greenlighting the largest number of executions in one year in a century, despite clear opposition from the Bishop of Rome. Three years ago, Pope Francis revised the Catholic Catechism to clarify that capital punishment is "inadmissible" in all circumstances.
Meanwhile in Israel, Bennett has faced calls from ultra-Orthodox party leaders, including MKs Moshe Gafni, Aryeh Deri and Ya'acov Litzman, to remove his kippah and stop presenting himself as a religious Jew.
Gafni, Deri, and Litzman were key figures in former PM Netanyahu’s coalition, and used their leverage to secure funding and legal protections for their communities. Thanks to Bennett, they now find themselves on the outside of Israel’s governing majority, at the mercy of a coalition that includes many of their avowed political and ideological opponents.
For a Haredi leadership that sees itself as the authentic manifestation of religious Judaism and is increasingly aligned with the nationalist right-wing, it must be particularly alarming to see Israel’s first kippah-wearing premier lead the country alongside secular and Muslim parties while they languish in the opposition.
With religious and political identity as deeply intertwined as they currently are, especially on the nationalist right, it is too easy to conclude that a political opponent and co-religionist simply cannot authentically share the same religious values or traditions. Indeed, in a recent essay, right-wingers Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy underscored this view particularly dramatically, labelling their political opponents "unJews." Even the USCCB stopped short of explicitly calling Biden an "unCatholic."
For these religious hardliners, it would certainly be easier if Biden or Bennett could be dismissed as charlatans whose religion was practiced for political effect, but who acknowledged, deep in their own consciences, that they were not really observant followers of their own faiths. It would mean that both sides fundamentally agreed with the hardline interpretation of religious doctrine; the only issue would be how hypocritical Biden or Bennett might be in their public presentations.
This impulse to define and exclude is bipartisan. For every bishop who votes to rewrite the rules of communion, there was a rabbi who, perhaps a little tongue in cheek (but also not), referenced Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller when teaching Maimonides's assertion that compassion is an innately Jewish trait, but cruelty points to an impure lineage. Just a more subtle way of calling those Trump advisers "unJews."
It is much harder to live with the awareness that the same religious tradition could authentically lead to different, even diametrically opposed political conclusions.
First, that awareness forces one to actually engage with those people on the other side of the aisle with whom they disagree fundamentally on any number of critical issues. It would mean, for example, that there are different ways to be Catholic in America, or a religious Jew in Israel, or a proudly identifying Jew in America.
Second, knowing that the same faith tradition can accommodate different political perspectives forces one to maintain one’s own stances from a stance of humility and introspection, not self-assurance and ownership. If the politics do not flow inevitably from the religious tradition, there is room within that tradition for things to change, even within Haredi communities or American dioceses. There is also room for accountability when choices turn out to be wrong.
Bennett himself alluded to this when he referenced some of the mistakes that the Haredi leadership made in recent months, including lax adherence to COVID-19 protocols and the negligence that led to the Lag B’Omer disaster at Mount Meron, for which those communities paid dearly.
One American Catholic thinker, Notre Dame’s Professor Timothy O’Malley, responded to the U.S. bishops by wryly noting that the debate over whether to deny communion to President Biden is legitimate - but that any Catholic who feels vindicated in denying the president communion should seriously consider whether or not they, themselves, should be receiving it.
As he wrote earlier this year, "belonging to the Church is not akin to joining a political party. Rather, it is communion through belonging to one another in Christ."
In other words, being more dedicated to a definitive interpretation of deliberately selective areas of religious doctrine than to flesh-and-blood co-religionists, being more willing to expend effort anathematizing co-religionists rather than actually living one’s own faith and building a faith community, is the very definition of missing the point.
Biden’s focus on bipartisanship, national healing and unity, and the restoration of American democracy speaks directly to "communion through belonging to one another." By putting his own hardline religious nationalist worldview in direct tension with much of his diverse coalition for the sake of revitalizing Israeli democracy, Bennett is taking a similar position.
That Biden and Bennett are doing so while continuing to take communion and wear a kippah respectively, staking a claim to an authentic religious life despite the inevitable backlash of hardline gatekeepers, is a lesson for us all to reflect upon and emulate.