Just Biden Our Time: What Should an Atheist Think of (or Do About) a Devout Catholic President?

Joe Biden

Joe Biden As The President, and Atheism In The United States

On January 20, 2021, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden seemed to ignore entirely the millions of his fellow Americans who lack religion as he spoke to the nation. 

Exactly a dozen years earlier, then newly sworn-in President Barack Obama said, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”


As an American who is also a devout Catholic, Biden is entitled to believe that abortion is murder—but not to act on that belief in his capacity as an elected official.


Many of us took strong satisfaction at what was apparently the first time any important American national leader had prominently and explicitly included, however generically, all the atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, rationalists, etc., in America as part of the citizenry. 

American Atheists issued an immediate congratulatory news release in 2009, noting that “every American politician, every elected leader should routinely acknowledge [atheist Americans] as the good, patriotic, taxpaying, and contributing citizens we have always been.” 

We added, “His mother would have been proud, and so are we. Congratulations and best wishes on your presidency, Mr. Obama. And thanks for including us all, right from the start.” (In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama had said of his mother that in Indonesia “she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.”) 

News outlets worldwide, from Oklahoma to Slovenia, picked up our congratulations, many including the comment about the President’s late mother. 

But… Obama’s inaugural address also referenced “God” five times, and he closed with the tired, irritating (to many of us, anyway) words: “Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.” And Obama continued to pay occasional dutiful homage to religiosity thereafter. 

Later that year, in the Politico article “Atheists Keep Faith with Obama,” reporter Daniel Libit claimed that “George W. Bush offered similar acknowledgments of nonbelievers during his presidency”—but gave no examples. 

Libit’s essay quoted me on Obama: “The fact that our best shot of making things better still goes around saying God stuff all the time in some ways maybe makes it worse.” 

Interestingly, he quoted Sam Harris, too: “The one important thing to recognize, is [Obama] is so much better than the last guy in the Oval Office, and everyone is feeling so much relief for the change he has brought that they are inclined not to gripe too much about all the delusional stuff he may be paying lip service to or holding over from the previous administration.” 

Many secular community members responded to President Joe Biden’s more recent inaugural address with worry, even though Biden maybe “so much better than the last guy.” 

In the previous issue of the American Atheist Magazine, they concluded that, despite Biden’s religious talk, the “early Biden administration actions on religion are promising.”

But we need good balance in both the actions and words of this administration on atheists (I’ll just write “atheists” hereafter, but in this piece I mean atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and other irreligionists, and in some senses religious Americans committed to secularism).

Joe Biden gives every appearance of being a longstanding, consistent, devout Catholic; Kamala Harris also seems pretty religious, if more ostentatiously ecumenical—a practicing Baptist, married to a Jewish man, and whose family background has considerable Hindu influence.

Joe Biden Inaugural Speech

Those of us who’re more or less patriotic Americans want Biden-Harris to succeed in general—but we’d also like atheists to be treated with respect and as first-class citizens. 

We’re not all Democrats; some of us are conservative or libertarian and prefer less government; others range from liberal to socialist and expect the government to be bold in solving societal problems. 

Being an atheist has no obvious connection to where we fall on political-ideological spectrums. This is about religiosity and the need for separation of government and religion. 

My friend and former colleague Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, recently wrote in a letter to members: “Biden subjected us to one of the most faith-based inaugural addresses in history.” 

Flynn detailed the number of references to “soul,” “God,” and the like in that inaugural address and—probably the most outrageous thing—that Biden interrupted his own address for a moment of silent prayer. 

Flynn noted that all of this could reasonably be interpreted as meaning that “our brand-new president told more than a third of Americans that they don’t belong…” Not everyone will agree with Flynn about this, but I certainly do. 

We can probably take satisfaction and encouragement from Biden’s Secretary of State appointment, Anthony Blinken. Blinken, surely without objection from Biden, was sworn in with his hand resting not on the usual, traditional Bible or another allegedly sacred book, but on the U.S. Constitution. 

This sends a clear signal to all the nations of the world and to all the citizens of the U.S. that, as the famous 1796–7 Treaty of Tripoli declared, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” 

It is important to note that my own problem with Joe Biden is neither with his religious beliefs nor with the depth of his commitment to those beliefs. 

From the president to the guy who cleans the grease trap at the local hamburger joint, every American must have real religious freedom, true liberty of conscience. 

As an American who is also a devout Catholic, Biden is entitled to believe that abortion is murder—but not to act on that belief in his capacity as an elected official. 

On that matter, Biden seems to have been consistent with his secular role, whatever his religious beliefs. 

But abortion rights are not the only things at risk when Catholics are in charge of healthcare institutions, and we do not yet know if Biden will come down in a wise and thoroughly secular way on all such things. 

The distinction between religious ideas and governing principles confuses many Americans, to be sure. If there is universal acceptance of what is right, no arguments are needed. 

But if, as happens with most things decided by legislatures or governing leaders, not all religious beliefs are in agreement, then other political or constitutional grounds must be brought to bear. And executives in a secular government must apply the proper ones, not personal beliefs. 

The crucially important legal, constitutional, more narrowly First Amendment aspects of this can best be addressed by competent and inspired attorneys like American Atheists’ own Alison Gill and Geoffrey T. Blackwell. 

My interest here is in wondering about the political question of just how much pious political theater may still be necessary for success in governing this nation. 

I think we should avoid getting too optimistic just because the Religious Right attacks this administration. It was inappropriate as ever that the president of all of us participated in the National Day of Prayer this year and endorsed it with his appearance there. 

The fact that the Religious Right made a mostly phony kerfuffle—attacking Biden for not using the word “God” in his National Day of Prayer statement— was more posturing by the Religious Right than evidence of wise secularism by Biden. Most recent U.S. presidents have at least paid lip service to default godliness-is-goodness nonsense, ending nearly all political addresses with “God bless the USA” or similar phrasing. 

As a personal belief, this is unremarkable, but when it is spoken in a context that suggests it represents the views of all Americans, it is unacceptable. 

In most Western nations, this pandering would be seen by the public as embarrassing and weak. Even within the U.S., most Americans probably don’t see it as religiously serious. 

I’d guess if pressed, that Donald Trump is actually an atheist. And I’m reasonably confident that Joe Biden is actually deeply religious. 

But is an honest theist who understands secularism better than a dishonest atheist who cares nothing for American liberty of conscience? 

Or are we at risk of merely being satisfied with what Sam Harris called being “so much better than the last guy?” History will judge.


Ed Buckner served as American Atheists’ President from 2008– 2010, Interim Executive Director in 2018, and a board member for several years in between. He co-wrote, with his son Michael, In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty, published by Prometheus Books in 2012.

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