On Religion/Opinion

Yes, Joe Biden is an ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ Catholic

With its lilting pop melody and sweet God talk, "On Eagle's Wings" is the hymn that conservative Catholics love to hate and Catholic progressives often wave like a red flag.

President Joe Biden loves it.

"My prayer, my hope is we continue to believe our best days are ahead of us -- that as a nation we continue to believe in honesty, decency, dignity and respect. We see each other not as enemies but as fellow human beings, each made in the image of God, each precious in his sight," said Biden at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Before his latest nod to "On Eagle's Wings," the president stressed that Americans "believe everyone deserves a fair shot. We give hate no safe harbor. ... In my church, we've taken the 22nd Psalm and turned it into a hymn. And it says, 'And he will raise you up on eagle's wings and bear you on the breath of dawn and make you to shine like the sun. Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.' ...

"We have really tough, tough differences. ... But remember -- let's remember who the hell we are. We're the United States of America. It's all about dignity and respect."

Actually, Father Jan Michael Joncas based this folk Mass hymn on Psalm 91, the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of St. Matthew. The White House transcript corrected many gaffes in the 81-year-old Biden's talk but missed that biblical detail.

Few would deny that "On Eagle's Wings" has become an American Catholic standard, especially during funerals. Biden quoted the hymn in his 2020 victory-night address, and it was performed during the 2015 funeral Mass for his son Beau.

"The 'On Eagle's Wings' debate was never just about a hymn. It was about whether Catholics will rip each other apart during the Biden presidency," wrote Father Bill McCormick in the Jesuit journal America in early 2021 -- just weeks into that presidency.

Attitudes about this hymn underlined real differences, he stressed. "Indeed, by President Biden's inauguration, the disagreements had extended to the U.S. bishops. After Archbishop Jose Gomez issued a statement that criticized Mr. Biden's support for abortion rights on the day of his inauguration, Cardinal Blase Cupich publicly rebuked the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calling his statement 'ill-considered.'"

The challenge for Biden in the Prayer Breakfast talk, and in the tense 2024 White House campaign, is addressing moral issues in ways that resonate with as many Catholics as possible, while still appealing to Protestant voters in his party's base.

This is tricky territory, noted political scientist Ryan Burge, because voters who are religiously unaffiliated or secular are now the Democratic party's largest faith bloc. While 17% of Democrats are "evangelicals," in a variety of racial groups, the number of active Catholics in the party has declined sharply, especially among white Catholics, he noted in his Graphs about Religion online newsletter.

There are also clear trends indicating that Democrats attend worship services in much smaller numbers than before. But the big story, Burge stressed, is "the nones. That's the future of the Democratic party. ...

"In 2020, 13% of Biden's voters were atheists, 10% were agnostics and 22% were nothing in particulars. That's 45% of the Democratic coalition being nones now. I don't think it's a stretch to think that half of the Democrats who vote in 2028 (or even 2024) will be nones."

This affects how candidates discuss religion. Before the 2020 election, Burge "scraped" the Twitter (now X) accounts of Democratic candidates in primaries and, out of 58,000 tweets, found 69 references to "Islam," 61 to "Muslim," 59 to "Christian," 15 to "Jesus" and 11 to "Bible."

President Biden's Prayer Breakfast text mentioned "antisemitism" and "Islamophobia," with zero references to "Catholic" or "Jesus."

The president did note that "Scripture tells us, 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness'" and spoke of a "covenant" that continues to hold America together.

"We're the beacon to the world. The entire world looks to us," he said. "That's not hyperbole. This is an idea. This idea was made real before the soul became flesh, before this dream became a fact. It was prayed for, it was hoped for, it was believed in. That's the story of America."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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