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Two faiths dominate Biden’s Cabinet picks

Secretary of transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg speaks at a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. (Ken Cedeno/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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President Biden’s Cabinet is set to make history in a number of ways.

If all the nominees he has chosen are confirmed, the Cabinet — including the vice president, the heads of 15 executive departments and eight other key positions — will be the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. Among them are six African Americans, four Hispanics, three Asian Americans and one Native American.

Half the nominees are women — the most ever nominated for a presidential Cabinet.

In terms of their religious backgrounds, the Cabinet nominees are also diverse. Like Biden, the majority — at least eight — are Catholic.

But five Jews have also been nominated, two Black Baptists and, if the surgeon general is included (often not), two Hindus. (A handful of Cabinet picks do not appear to identify with any religion.)

One group not represented? White evangelicals, the group most loyal to President Donald Trump.

Trump not only won an overwhelming majority of White evangelical support, both in 2016 and 2020, he also appointed many to his Cabinet, well beyond their demographic representation. (White evangelicals make up 15 percent of the U.S. population.) There was Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, as well as several others, including former secretaries such as Rick Perry, Jeff Sessions and Scott Pruitt.

Biden is a cradle Catholic who attends Mass regularly and often quotes from scripture. But unlike President Barack Obama, who made overtures to White evangelicals — inviting megachurch pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to deliver his 2008 inaugural invocation, or picking Orlando megachurch pastor Joel Hunter as his spiritual adviser — Biden has not yet extended such invitations to White evangelicals.

And even if he wanted to, he might have a hard time finding an evangelical Cabinet member for one simple reason:

“Most evangelicals tend to lean Republican,” said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah University.

And while White evangelicals could legitimately critique the omission, Fea said they probably won’t notice because, in their eyes, “an evangelical Democrat is not an evangelical, anyway.”

Of course, the Constitution specifies there should be no religious test for holding office. And Biden was probably more interested in picking nominees who would be broadly representative in terms of ethnicity, race and gender — not religion.

“For picking Cabinets, the two things are qualifications and experience, and then how representative of the country,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of PRRI, the public opinion polling group. “It’s very difficult to check off every aspect of what the country looks like.”

One area that would be interesting to watch, Jones said, is whether Biden revives the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, now called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. That would be a place to look for a more balanced representation of America’s religious landscape.

Josh Dickson: The evangelical behind Joe Biden’s outreach to religious voters

Catholics dominate

If confirmed, the Catholics include: Deb Haaland (secretary of the interior); Xavier Becerra (secretary of health and human services); Tom Vilsack (secretary of agriculture); Gina Raimondo (secretary of commerce); Marty Walsh (secretary of labor); Denis McDonough (secretary of veterans affairs); Jennifer Granholm (secretary of energy); and, sometimes included in lists of Cabinet-level appointments, John F. Kerry (presidential envoy for climate). Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was confirmed Friday, is also Catholic.

Among the most publicly Catholic is Walsh, the Boston mayor, who is fond of saying, “Thy will be done,” if not the entire Lord’s Prayer, before speaking in public. He carries a rosary in his pants pocket and brought a gym bag full of rosaries to be blessed by Pope Francis when he was introduced to the pontiff alongside other U.S. mayors in 2015, Crux reported.

Several Jewish nominees

If confirmed, Jewish nominees include: Antony Blinken (secretary of state); Janet Yellen (secretary of the treasury); Merrick Garland (attorney general); Alejandro Mayorkas (secretary of homeland security); and, sometimes included in Cabinet rank positions, Ron Klain (chief of staff). Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who was confirmed Wednesday, is also Jewish.

Two of the Jewish nominees are children of Holocaust survivors. Mayorkas’s mother, Anita, was a Romanian Holocaust survivor who fled Europe to Cuba, where she married Mayorkas’s father, who is also Jewish. Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was a Polish Jew who survived four concentration camps and was liberated by the U.S. Army in Bavaria, Germany. Blinken’s stepmother, Vera Blinken, fled communist Hungary as a young girl.

2 Baptists, 1 Episcopalian

Vice President Harris and Marcia Fudge (secretary of housing and urban development nominee) are both Baptists. Pete Buttigieg (secretary of transportation), if confirmed, may be the lone mainline Protestant. As a presidential candidate, he spoke repeatedly of his faith.

A few Hindus

Neera Tanden (nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget) and Vivek H. Murthy (surgeon general nominee) are Hindus. (The surgeon general requires Senate confirmation but is not typically included in the Cabinet.) Harris is also of Indian American descent and attended Hindu temples as the daughter of an Indian immigrant. She identifies now as a Baptist.

The Cabinet picks do not include any Muslims.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Vera Blinken. She is Antony Blinken’s stepmother. This version has been updated.

— Religion News Service

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