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Michelle Boorstein writes about religion for the Washington Post. In this article, she explores the roots of Biden’s deep faith. This is an excerpt of a longer article.
Pitching himself as president, Joe Biden promised to heal America’s hurting soul. His experiences with suffering and healing were well known, including the deaths of his wife and two of his children, his struggle against stuttering and many political losses.
On a bigger stage than ever, Biden was trying to show the country how he did it. Through his Catholic faith.
“For me, faith, it’s all about hope and purpose and strength,” Biden said in a February video ad. “Faith sees best in the dark.” “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning,” he quoted from the Book of Psalms in October.
Now, Biden will lead a nation deeply in need of healing — with soaring coronavirus cases, thousands dying daily and millions out of work and hunkered down in isolation. But he is facing not one America but two, each claiming with new religious fervor that God and righteousness are on its side.
As divided as any are Biden’s own people, U.S. Catholics, with millions who don’t even see him as a legitimate Catholic at all, because of his support for abortion access and LGBT equality.
The question is how the country will adjust to a man whose faith doesn’t feature literal Bible-waving promises to “save Christianity” or threats that political opponents might eliminate God (all Trumpian moments).
Biden presents a less common image: a devout, churchgoing liberal. The country will soon observe for the first time a president who goes to Mass every Sunday, plus on Catholic feast days, and sprinkles conversation casually with scripture, religious hymns and references to religious history but describes faith’s purpose in general, inclusive terms — as sustenance for the weary, encouragement for the suffering and an obligation to welcome and care for one another.
Can Biden heal today’s America? Catholicism and its structures — its poetry, humor, teachings, rituals — have always been how Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has understood healing, others and himself.
“Catholicism and family provide the substructure of his life. … That’s his whole conception of how society works,” said Evan Osnos, a writer for the New Yorker who recently published a book on Biden and his 2020 run for president. “It’s more personal than political. That’s what separates him from 2021 in Washington, D.C., where there are few ways in which religion is not part of politics. Biden doesn’t go out of his way to make it that.”
“I think he’ll try very hard like he always does at everything to bring people together and build bridges,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat who grew up in the same Catholic community of Scranton as Biden. “He’ll have more patience than I would have.”
Millions of Americans hungry for a faith focused on healing and inclusion will embrace it — especially on the left, where believers have felt trampled by the religious right into nonexistence since the 1970s. Millions of others will reject Biden’s version of religiosity, one that’s less tied to doctrine, less likely to honor religious conservatives’ legal demands, less invested in America as a Christian nation. This is problematic for many on the right. A 2020 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found sharp partisan divides on the issue of religious diversity, with 43 percent of Republicans preferring the country to be made up “primarily” of Christians, compared with 16 percent of Democrats.
Some further to Biden’s left will also bemoan his unwillingness to draw a direct line from the gospels to policy changes like free higher education and universal health care.
But what makes Biden different, says Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli — whose spiritual biography of the president-elect is being published this month — is that he’s unapologetic. “Joe Biden is a Catholic in the public square who doesn’t take lectures from bishops about what being Catholic is about. This is totally new,” Faggioli said.
His desire to be a uniter will be tested quickly on the religious front. On Jan. 29, nine days after Biden’s inauguration, perhaps the largest annual gathering of U.S. Catholics will take place blocks from the White House: the March for Life, where tens of thousands of mostly Catholic abortion opponents rally. The march has become heavily Republican in recent years, filled with abortion opponents willing to overlook President Trump’s record-breaking number of executions and his laissez-faire approach to a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands in the United States. In 2020, Trump became the first U.S. president to speak live at the march. This year, it will undoubtedly feature many speakers and signs challenging Biden’s faith.
But Biden has long pushed back on the idea that, for him, faith must lead to policies. “I’m prepared to accept doctrine on a whole range of issues as a Catholic. … I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith — my wife and I, my family — the issue of abortion. But what I’m not prepared to do is impose a rigid view, a precise view … that is born out of my faith, on other people who are equally God-fearing, equally as committed to life,” Biden told the Jesuit magazine America in a 2015 videotaped interview.
Yet Biden has bound up his promises to make significant social change in areas from health care to the environment with that to “restore the soul of the nation.” If he is a healer, Biden has an epic pastoral challenge.
The shaping of Biden’s religiosity stems from two sources — his family and his era.
He was raised in working-class, Irish-Catholic communities, where faith routines and Catholic institutions such as schools and parishes were everything. When Biden talks about his Catholic upbringing, he usually repeats the word “dignity” multiple times. The dignity of work. The dignity of the poor.
“My father would say, ‘The cardinal sin of all sins is the abuse of power,’” Biden told America editor Matt Malone in the 2015 interview. “Whether it’s a man raising his hand to a woman, whether it’s economic power being evoked and asserted over someone else, whether it is the government abusing its power. And that’s how I look at what this is all about.”