(RNS) — “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
Those words of St. Francis to his followers come to mind this week as we mark the one-year anniversary Monday (Feb. 14) of President Joe Biden’s reestablishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a little over a year since he put his hand on the Bible and took the oath of office as our 46th president.
Looking back over that year, it’s evident that President Biden believes deeply in the words of St. Francis.
Our president’s faith is private and personal; with rare exceptions, such as this month’s National Prayer Breakfast, he doesn’t discuss it at length in public. Rather, he demonstrates his faith through works and deeds. Over the past year, President Biden has used his service to our nation to show us his faith — a faith of empathy and compassion, a faith rooted in both the Social Gospel movement and the words of the Gospels themselves.
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I’ve had the blessing of calling President Biden a friend for many years and was honored to speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention about his belief in the power of prayer. I’ve seen it at the hardest moments — when his beloved son Beau died from brain cancer, or when my own father was in hospice — and at moments of celebration, such as before being sworn in as president.
The president’s belief in the power of faith led him to put his support behind the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, whose anniversary we are celebrating today. The office was born of a bipartisan idea, launched by President George W. Bush and sustained by President Barack Obama.
In the year since its reestablishment, it has been part of the administration’s efforts to bring people of all backgrounds and faiths together, to connect both faith-based and secular organizations to efforts addressing racial injustice, supporting global humanitarian work, promoting pluralism and combating the pandemic.
Since last February, the office has collaborated with faith organizations and houses of worship, from historically black churches in Arkansas to Hindu temples in California, to convey the facts about the COVID-19 virus and administer more than 300,000 vaccinations.
It has connected congregations and nonprofits across the country with resources to ensure their members have the necessary tools to access the child tax credit and other crucial relief programs in the American Rescue Plan. It has even begun preparing to help nonprofits and religious institutions make their buildings more energy efficient so they can save money and save the environment. It is a key part of the administration’s work, in President Biden’s words, “to heal the soul of our nation.”
Over the past year, his actions too have helped lead much of that healing. With the tragic loss of life in the pandemic, and greater natural disasters from wildfires to tornadoes due to global warming, far too often this year President Biden has been called on to comfort Americans enduring physical, emotional or spiritual pain. We have seen him delivering moving eulogies for friends and former colleagues, or embracing a Colorado man wearing shorts in the middle of winter because he had lost everything else in a fire.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote: “praise be to the … Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” President Biden has felt personal grief beyond the imagining of many of us, and found strength in God; because of that, he has also been able to bring comfort to many of the Americans now struggling with their own challenges and grief.
President Biden’s faith has informed far more than his individual acts of consolation, however. His legislative agenda continues in a tradition of Democratic and progressive leaders who have been inspired by the Social Gospel movement. Sparked a century ago by spiritual leaders like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel’s belief in “social salvation” as a necessity for personal salvation led its followers to commit to the principles of social justice. The Social Gospel’s influence was clear in the policies of the early 20th century progressives and the New Deal, the Great Society and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The social inequalities in the nation that greeted President Biden when he was inaugurated looked in many ways the same as those seen by the leaders of those previous eras. Into that world, he and Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which contained the most effective tool in memory the United States has had for reducing child poverty.
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During the Biden presidency, wages have risen, and they’ve risen faster for low-wage workers, bucking the trend of the last 40 years. He’s signed into law a bipartisan infrastructure bill that will help as many as 2 million Americans know the dignity of a good-paying job over the next 10 years, while also working to make universal child care, stronger labor rights, environmental justice and affordable higher education part of the fabric of America.
These are the policies of a man who believes we are all made in God’s image, that we are all, as Rauschenbusch wrote, “fundamentally the same … hungry for bread, sweaty with labor, struggling to wrest from nature and hostile men enough to feed (our) children.”
It reflects who Joe Biden is, someone who has leaned on his beliefs in moments both shatteringly terrible and truly joyful. It’s the man I know he will continue to be throughout his service as our president.
(Chris Coons is a U.S. senator from Delaware. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)