Joseph Biden’s Coat of Many Colors - Word&Way

Joseph Biden’s Coat of Many Colors

Amid calls by liberal pundits and some Democratic members of Congress that President Joe Biden end his reelection campaign, Biden insists he won’t be pushed out. Despite concerns about his age and competency after his debate performance against Donald Trump, Biden told George Stephanopoulos on Friday (July 5) there’s no way he’ll drop out.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get outta the race,’ I’d get outta the race. The Lord Almighty’s not comin’ down,” a defiant Biden exclaimed.

Stephanopoulos said, “I agree that the Lord Almighty’s not gonna come down” — a theological claim that seems beyond the purview of the political strategist-turned-television host (not to mention missing how there are other ways God can speak to someone, like through other people). But the ABC News interview wasn’t the only time the divine was invoked to justify Biden staying in the race. A committee member of the Democratic National Committee told the New York Times over the weekend that he would back Biden no matter what because of the importance of beating Trump.

“What I tell people is that they don’t have Jesus and Moses on the ticket,” the DNC leader said. “No one is perfect.”

The argument that no one’s perfect since Jesus can’t run is one that’s been used by conservative evangelical leaders over the last eight years to justify voting for Trump. As evangelist Franklin Graham put it in 2016: “There’s no perfect person — there’s only one, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ, but he’s not running for president of the United States.” What both remarks miss is that while Jesus isn’t on the ballot, there are other options besides voting for a specific imperfect candidate. By the logic of the “no one’s perfect” argument, any candidate could be justified and any behavior excused (as we’ve seen for eight years).

With more Democrats publicly urging Biden to drop out even after his ABC News interview, Biden tried a Hail Mary. He went to church Sunday, not to attend his Catholic congregation but to speak at a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that’s part of the predominately Black Holiness-Pentecostal denomination the Church of God in Christ.

President Joe Biden attends a church service at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7, 2024. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

While political reporters closely watched Biden’s remarks to see if he would slip up or how he would address the swirling questions about his competency and candidacy, the rest of the service is also worth considering as this campaign season heats up. So this issue of A Public Witness takes you to church to consider the dangers of transforming Sunday worship into a campaign rally.

‘Go, Joseph’

As the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia opened its worship service on Sunday, everything started out normal with announcements and music. Then about 18 minutes into the service, the church paused their worship to encourage congregants to rise and welcome “our honored guest.” As Biden arrived late (along with Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey), the choir sang “I Need You to Survive” by gospel musician Hezekiah Walker: “You are important to me, I need you to survive. … I pray for you, you pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.”

Bishop J. Louis Felton, the church’s senior pastor, came forward to pray, quickly slipping in election references that drew cheers: “Forgive us for division. Forgive us for allowing the enemy to drive wedges between us. Because if we ever lock arms and come together, there’s no election that we cannot win, there’s no enemy that we cannot defeat. We are together because we love our president. We pray for our president. We ask that you continue to give him strength. He’s an Eagles fan — renew his youth like the eagles!”

After his prayer, Felton noted the church’s founder, who is 91, was on stage next to Biden and therefore no one should talk about Biden being too old since he’s still “a young whippersnapper.” Felton did not note that Bishop Ernest Morris, who is just 10 years older than Biden, stepped down as senior pastor 14 years ago.

After more music, prayers mentioning Biden, and a responsive reading, Felton returned to preach before turning the pulpit over to Biden for a second message. Felton titled his message “God’s redemptive love for America.”

“We believe that God has called us to be the greatest nation in the world,” Felton declared.

After extolling the U.S. military and the U.S.’s status as the world’s superpower, the preacher shifted to talk about Biden. Felton first justified having Biden at the church.

“We are firm believers in separation of church and state. And we are separated, but we are not divorced. And since we are not divorced, we still have visitation rights,” Felton said. “The president has a right to be here.”

Felton’s mixed metaphor could perhaps suggest church and state ought to get back together in their marriage at some point since he seems to be glad to say there’s not been a divorce (with an odd reference to visitation rights that usually refer to children not the estranged significant other). Regardless, the question at hand wasn’t if Biden has a right to attend, but is it right for the church to turn its pulpit over for a campaign event. There’s a big difference between welcoming a politician into the sanctuary like any other visitor and turning part of the service over to that politician to speak about the upcoming election.

Felton also borrowed rhetoric that conservative evangelical preachers have used to justify bringing Trump on stage: that the Bible calls Christians to pray for people in authority. But that can be done without giving the ruler the microphone or even having the politician present. Praying for a ruler isn’t the same thing as listening to that politician preach.

Screengrab as Bishop J. Louis Felton preaches at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7, 2024.

Felton defended Biden’s debate performance and falsely criticized journalists for never challenging Trump’s lies while criticizing Biden for “stammering.” Felton also took shots at Trump and other Republicans.

“This president doesn’t sell Bibles, he actually reads the Bible,” Felton quipped to cheers and laughter. “We must challenge the so-called notion that there are individuals on the conservative wing of the political spectrum who are ‘right.’ We need to change that because you can’t be right and kill police officers on Jan. 6. You are not right; you are dead wrong.”

Urging his congregants to “never count Joseph out,” Felton switched to talk about the biblical patriarch Joseph as a moral example who prefigures Biden (and also compared Joseph to Jesus since both were betrayed for silver and went down into a pit).

“[Jacob] clothed his son in a cloak of many colors. But because of jealousy — and that’s what’s going on, Mr. President, people are jealous of you, jealous of your stick-to-itiveness, jealous of your favor, jealous of God’s hand upon your life,” the preacher declared. “Even when Joseph is in the pit, don’t count him out.”

“The pharaoh said, ‘I need somebody to help me to understand my dream.’ You have a dream. I have a dream. The president has a dream, a dream of keeping America safe for four more years, a dream of keeping democracy safe, a dream of giving us prosperity, a dream of keeping us in peace, a dream of reducing hatred, racism, sexism, and bigotry. Joseph has a dream. Joseph interrupted the pharaoh’s dream,” Felton said.

“It’s a tough race. It’s a tough battle. But we’re coming out of the pit,” he added. “Go, Joseph, you can make it. Go, Joseph, press home. Storm may rise, winds may blow. Go, Joseph. If God be for us, who can be against us? Somebody help me say: Go, Joseph. Go, Joseph. If Joseph could get out of the pit, if Jesus could get out of the pit, President Biden is coming back. He’s a comeback kid. He’s a fighter. He’s a champion. He’s a winner. Hallelujah.”

After Felton’s sermon, he invited Biden to the pulpit to offer remarks in the sanctuary with multiple U.S. flags. The president offered greetings and worked in several Bible verses to talk about the importance of faith. He then quickly pivoted to tout a number of accomplishments from his time as president on issues like addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, student debt, and more.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Biden said after joking about being 40 years old. “And I, honest to God, have never [been] more optimistic about America’s future if we stick together.”

At the close of his brief remarks, the congregation chanted a new litany: “Four more years!”

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The Lord Almighty Speaks

This isn’t the first time Biden has shown up in a Black church on the campaign trail. It’s a common campaign strategy for Democratic politicians, just as Republican politicians frequently show up in White evangelical churches. Amid a damage control effort, the Biden campaign clearly thought the optics of quickly adding a Black church visit to Biden’s schedule could help as he tries to reunite his party behind him.

The mere fact that campaign strategy led to a church visit inherently highlights a problem with Sunday’s service. Worse, this wasn’t just a visit. Biden has attended church more than any modern president, but usually as a sincere expression of his faith. He regularly goes to his Catholic church, quietly slipping in, worshiping, and then leaving. But at the Black church in Philadelphia, Biden came to speak. He clearly offered campaign-related remarks. Worse, the church endorsed his candidacy and pushed his campaign as both the right choice politically and as God’s chosen side (along with some Christian Nationalism). Such rhetoric in the prayers and sermon not only violates the political campaign activity ban (more commonly and inaccurately called “the Johnson Amendment”), but also distorts the purpose of gathering at worship.

In addition to the problems created for the church on Sunday, the visit also might not help Biden in two ways. First, it might not stop the calls for him to step aside. Dr. Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America and a religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explained the visit was intended to show Biden “has the support of the Black church and the black community no matter what.” But that’s not true, she noted, especially with the opposition among prominent Black leaders to Biden’s Israel-Gaza policies.

“What it does is give him a good photo op and an encouraging press story. Perhaps it may reassure steadfast Black Democratic voters. But it isn’t representative of all the Black community,” Butler added as she argued Biden needs to offer more than “uplifting sermons” and “canned responses” to “prearranged questions” in interviews.

A church service attended by President Joe Biden is pictured at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7, 2204. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Second, transforming Sunday’s service into a pep rally for Biden means he missed an opportunity personally. He went to the church to save his campaign, not to hear from God. Although he told George Stephanopoulos “the Lord Almighty’s not comin’ down,” that’s a misrepresentation of how God speaks to us. Let’s put aside the cartoonish vision of massive hands pulling apart the clouds so that a face with a long white beard can peek through and speak with a booming voice. The Lord Almighty comes down wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name. The Lord Almighty comes down to speak through prophets and average people (and even a donkey). The Lord Almighty comes down in the still, small voice.

Biden invoked God to justify his ongoing candidacy in his ABC News interview. Then he went to a church to use it as a backdrop for a quest to cling to power. It’s one more way his campaign has been acting Trumpian in recent days, adding the exploitation of religion to attacks on the media, claims about the alleged size of his crowds, insistence he alone can fix everything, and telling people not to believe what they saw with their own eyes.

The next few days remain critical for Biden’s efforts to reassure Democratic leaders he should still be the nominee. While he and other leaders in his party make their decisions, Christians must guard against the exploitation of holy spaces and language — just as we will need to throughout this campaign season. If we give into the temptation to turn Sunday worship into a campaign rally, we might just miss an opportunity to hear from the Lord Almighty.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

Read earlier reports in “The Partisan Pulpit” series from A Public Witness:

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