October 16, 2008
Certain elements in the news media are attacking Sarah Palin’s religious beliefs. This has included several bizarre articles, in mainstream publications, highly critical of her local church. One source blasted her “Neanderthal faith.”
As usual, the liberal press is demonstrating its lack of understanding of evangelicals and its gross double standard and bigotry toward conservative Christians. The extraordinary faith story in this presidential race is—obviously—the church of Barack Obama.
That said, scant attention is being devoted to the church troubles of Palin’s counterpart: the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee, Senator Joe Biden. I would like to highlight the turmoil that Biden has been facing:
The essence of Biden’s problem is the ongoing debate over pro-choice Catholic politicians, which has become a dominant issue in the Catholic Church. The subject flared up for Biden a few weeks ago when he was asked by Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press:” “If Senator Obama comes to you and says, ‘When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe,’ as a Roman Catholic, what would you to say to him?”
“I’d say, ‘Look,’” Biden forcefully instructed, “’I know when it begins for me.’ It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teachings in my Church.” Biden said that while he personally believes life begins “at the moment of conception,” there are people of other faiths with different definitions. Thus, “For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”
Much could be said about Senator Biden’s position—and officials in his Church have not hesitated to speak up. For one, it is a biological fact that life begins at conception; thus, to make that acknowledgment is not to impose a particular religious creed on anyone. And, indeed, the Catholic bishops responded by noting that the Church does not teach that life begins at conception “as a matter of faith” but, rather, “as a matter of objective fact.” Moreover, said the bishops, the protection of innocent human life “is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice.”
The Church is also disturbed by Biden’s belief that although life begins at conception, he favors the right to exterminate that life, whether by scientists dissecting human embryos in a lab or would-be mothers having abortions as a means of birth control. On embryonic research, Biden has made statements that have really rankled Church officials. He publicly criticized Sarah Palin, who chose to bring to term a Down syndrome baby, for alleged hypocrisy in opposing embryonic research—research, Biden assumed, that can help babies with Down syndrome. “If you care about it, why don’t you support [embryonic] stem cell research?” asked Biden.
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, there’s nothing here to criticize: Palin opposes embryonic research because it destroys life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it is not right to destroy life to try to help other life; Biden’s Church calls that an “intrinsic evil.”
Further, the bishops were troubled by Senator Biden’s understanding of church and state, and specifically his assertion that he as a public official cannot “impose” his moral values on other Americans. In truth, that’s not a proper understanding of what Thomas Jefferson, or any founder, meant by separating church and state. Every politician in the history of the American republic has imposed his or her moral values. That’s what making law is all about. Each law is based on the moral values of the lawmakers—values typically rooted in a religious belief system.
Senator Biden’s previous bishop, Michael Saltarelli, of the diocese of Wilmington, has pointed out: “No one today would accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to human slavery and racism but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’ Likewise, none of us should accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to abortion but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’”
Biden’s new bishop, W. Francis Malooly, has publicly stated that he would like to talk with the senator to help him “understand how crucial the sanctity of human life is to a just society.”
Likewise, Carl Anderson, the head of the huge Knights of Columbus, has requested a meeting with Biden. The Knights have been running ads telling Biden, “You now have a unique responsibility when you make public statements about Catholic teaching.” These ads urge the senator to make “correct” statements.
Particularly notable, Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, issued a statement saying that Biden’s remarks do “not reflect Catholic teaching.” And now, the entirety of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has requested a “discussion” with both Biden and Barack Obama.
In short, Joe Biden is in hot water. The secular media can try to redirect the fire to Sarah Palin’s little church in Alaska, but it’s Palin’s opponent who has major issues with a much larger church.
Does the press care? Will journalists devote some attention to Joe Biden’s church troubles? Are you kidding?
Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007), professor of political science, and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).