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How Democrat Joe Biden's Catholic Faith Shaped His Life, Politics

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Joe Biden is known to carry a rosary in his pocket and to go to Mass every Sunday. If elected, he would be only the second Catholic president in American history. NPR's Asma Khalid reports on how his faith is central to how he sees the world and how it affects his politics.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When you listen to Joe Biden, you'll notice how he peppers his speeches with references to God. Here he is earlier this week speaking to the Poor People's Campaign.

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JOE BIDEN: All of you remind me of how Scripture describes the calling born out of the wilderness - a calling to serve, not to be served, a calling toward justice, healing, hope, not hate.

KHALID: It wasn't a one-off comment. This is how Biden talks.

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BIDEN: I believe we'll be guided by the words of Pope John Paul II, words drawn from the Scriptures.

Faith sees best in the dark, and Lord knows these days are dark days.

And may God bless you. And may God protect our troops.

CHRIS COONS: It's part of who Joe is.

KHALID: Delaware Sen. Chris Coons has known Biden for decades.

COONS: Joe is someone for whom the ways in which he sees issues around racial justice, around the treatment of refugees and immigrants. All of that is connected to a view of other people, who he sees as neighbor, who he sees as being made in the image of God.

KHALID: Coons says Biden's political positions go back to his upbringing.

COONS: ...A deeply rooted sense of fairness that he learned from his parents and from the nuns and priests who educated and helped raise him. So - and I think one of the mistakes Democrats have made over decades is to be very private about the values that move them into public life.

KHALID: With Biden, allies say, it's obvious what drives him. Sister Carol Keehan is the former CEO of the Catholic Health Association.

CAROL KEEHAN: When Joe Biden talks about faith, he talks very much about things like the Gospel of Matthew. But what you've done to the least of my brother and you've done to me. You know, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.

KHALID: Friends and staffers say Biden focuses on faith rather than religious doctrine. He prays with voters rather than proselytizes. And yet for some religious conservatives, all of that pales in comparison to the single issue of abortion. Earlier this week, a Catholic voter group released this ad.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions, sacrificing his Catholic values to kneel before the leftist mob.

KHALID: President Trump and his supporters have made religion into a cultural issue, painting Democrats as the party against religious freedom. Last month, President Trump accused Biden of being, quote, "against God." For its part, the Biden campaign has been expanding its faith outreach.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for joining this Biden-Harris campaign Catholics For Biden national kickoff call.

KHALID: One speaker, Sister Simone Campbell, said Catholics need to be multi-issue voters if they're really following Pope Francis's teachings.

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SIMONE CAMPBELL: Care for the unborn is critically important. Equally sacred is the care for the born, the marginalized, the poor, the immigrants, the earth.

KHALID: Joe Biden's campaign seems to think the personal is political. John McCarthy is national deputy political director.

JOHN MCCARTHY: It's about the vice president being who he truly is, which is a Catholic and a deeply devout person of faith. And why I think that that ultimately has electoral implications is because, at this moment, this election is obviously about a moral contrast.

KHALID: McCarthy says campaigns are obviously an extension of who the candidate is, and, because faith is such a core part of Biden's identity, it's become a core part of the campaign. But it's also a tightrope for religious Democrats to walk. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows the share of people who identify with no religion has jumped in recent years. They now make up almost 40% of Democratic voters.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.