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A Catholic in the White House

April 5th, 2021 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor / comments

A Catholic in the White House

While browsing a library discard table I noticed the subjects of books that had become irrelevant. 

Several books dealt with the threat of the Soviet Union to world Christianity; others addressed the threat of John Kennedy compromising his oath to our constitution in favor of Catholic doctrine. Many Southern Baptists joined in expressing alarm about Kennedy’s religion until he saw the need to address the matter head on, assuring us that he only “happen[ed] to be a Catholic.” Kennedy’s Catholicism turned out to be a non-issue, as has the religious affiliation of most presidents since. 

Religion, particularly Romanist religion, again became an issue in 2020 as two Catholics being considered for great responsibility unashamedly owned their faith. Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice over objections that she held her conservative Catholicism too tightly. Joe Biden was elected president in 2020, partly because of the liberal political views he credited to his own Catholic devotion. 

Baptists may find the near hegemony of Catholicism in the popular understanding of religion to be vexing. I have many times briefed a non-religious reporter on how Southern Baptists work because the reporter assumed we were organized like Catholics (I, of course, always told reporters that we are not really organized at all). Religious representations in entertainment media are nearly all Catholics, for good or ill. It’s what the non-religious assume about the mysterious world of churchgoers. People as diverse as Justice Clarence Thomas and Speaker Nancy Pelosi speak of being “devout” Catholics.  

But President Biden has more than once brought the issue of his own faith to the fore. This has divided the Catholic bishops as they defend or critique the president’s devotion based on his selection of social issues and Church doctrine. I’m not hacking on Mr. Biden as a Catholic hypocrite for being radical on some social issues, because the last two Southern Baptist presidents held the same views. Everyone tends to be selective in the beliefs to which he or she is devoted. A conservative Catholic disregards some of what Pope Francis says and a more liberal Catholic tends to ignore earlier, more conservative popes. The remarkable thing is watching an enormous and influential religious tradition blow with the winds of change. That is why both Catholics and Baptists form subdivisions and factions—the nearly unavoidable temptation to change what God says according to the whims of men.

In passing, I’d observe that churches do this also, following a conservative pastor for a few years and then calling a winsome liberal pastor who keeps his sermons shorter. Protestant churches can blow in the wind as well. 

I wince at that word “devout” as it’s thrown around. It often describes someone who has to explain at length what he is and is not “devoted” to. A recent informative essay in the Wall Street Journal explained the different views on President Biden’s social agenda as derived from Catholic views of natural law and the common good. The only appeal to Scripture in the article, which quotes several biblical scholars, is to Romans 2:15 (“They [those without the law] show that work of the law is written on their hearts…”) and the scholars proceed to argue that we can reason out what is good and bad without becoming “fundamentalists,” too focused on biblical revelation. Ironically, the Romans reference is used way out of context. The law written on our hearts makes us accountable to God, but it doesn’t make us good or justified. Our sinful response to it will always lead us to Romans 3:23. 

There’s the rub, friends, with devout people in general. Those who are devoted to human reason or conventional wisdom regarding what is for the “common good” can do whatever you might imagine, and have done so. It’s why we are not Catholics of any sort or Baptists of the liberal sort—those subsets of Christianity are thoroughly mixed with man-made religion. It’s why some of us have seen fellow Baptists, once moderate in their beliefs about biblical authority, become true liberals over the last 30 years. The small disdain of God’s Word becomes bigger as the years roll on. 

Don’t hear me saying that Catholics can’t be saved or orthodox; there is huge span of beliefs called “Catholic.” But I am saying that “reasonable” or humanistic filters for Christian doctrine will manifest when a pastor, priest, pope or president becomes the one who tells us what God really means when he speaks in Scripture or even nature. At that point, the reasonable is not reliably true and stylish morality is not reliably good. God has spoken—and he has spoken in some ways I can’t figure out, but I am fundamentalist enough to believe that when God speaks, I am bound to that. 

I am not troubled by a Catholic in the White House nor comforted by a born-again Baptist in the White House. Their devotion to a religion assures me of nothing if it is not the faith once delivered to the saints.