President Joe Biden catches a lot of flak. Most of it well-deserved. He mumbles nonsense. Then repeats himself. He constantly makes up stories. (“I was at Ground Zero on 9/12.” “I was raised in a synagogue.” “No, wait, make that by Puerto Ricans.” “I taught at university.”) Biden also falls down a lot, and hits his head on helicopter doors. No wonder the White House staff has to send the Easter Bunny to save him. And those embarrassments are separate from his administration’s poor handling of issues — notably the (lack of a) border, and foreign policy miscues.
Biden Crosses Himself: Media Panics
But I come to praise Biden in this instance (if half-heartedly), not to bury him. Last week, the President met with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu at the United Nations, during which Biden made the sign of the cross. This was right after Netanyahu said “we’ve been friends for, I’ve checked it, over 40 years.” The media reacted to Biden’s Catholic gesture with varying degrees of cluelessness. The New York Post referred to it as “bizarre.” RedState termed it “weird.” American Military News’ secularized headline said Biden made a “religious gesture,” then in the article body mischaracterized the sign of the cross as a “Catholic sacramental gesture.” (The writer probably meant “sacred.” Only a priest can perform sacramental functions.)
Glenn Beck Waxes Cinematic
The most pointed criticism came from Glenn Beck at The Blaze. Beck, a Mormon, said about Biden doing so that “generally I don’t think is a good idea to do while you are in the presence of the Prime Minister of Israel which…has a few Jewish people in it that tend to, I don’t know, maybe have a problem especially with the Catholic church. I mean, they’ve got a history….If I’m Bibi Netanyahu, and I see the President make the sign of the cross, this is what happens in my head…” Whereupon Beck played a clip from Fiddler on the Roof. Beck seems unaware that 1) the movie is fiction, albeit somewhat grounded in reality; and 2) the Russian Empire and its soldiers were Orthodox, not Catholic.
So Beck’s critique is misguided on several levels. Plus, ironically, he’s exhibiting typical Leftist behavior by being offended on someone else’s behalf. Bibi Netanyahu has been around the block a few times. If Joe Biden making the sign of the cross had really offended him, religiously, he’d probably have said something afterwards. But he didn’t.
This Isn’t Biden’s First Public Sign of the Cross
Besides, this isn’t the first time Biden has crossed himself in public. In 2021 he did so in a California speech after mentioning that Orange Devil, former President Donald Trump. In 2012 then-Vice-President Biden crossed himself—right before speaking to a group of rabbis in Atlanta. The reaction? “Rabbis Giggle.” If only Glenn Beck had been around to let them know how offended they should have been.
Popes, Patriarchs — and Luther?
Many Stream readers are probably unfamiliar with the sign of the cross. Largely because the modern Evangelical Protestant movement, coming from the Calvinist/Reformed side of the Reformation, abandoned it. But it’s been a staple in the other two major branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, since the fourth century. (Here’s an excellent podcast on the topic.) Also, many Protestants of the Lutheran and Anglican persuasion still practice crossing themselves. In fact Martin Luther, in both the Small and Large Catechism, recommends making the sign of the cross before praying.
Six Purposes for the Sign of the Cross
Bert Ghezzi, in his book Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, lays out six purposes for this symbolic movement. (Whether you do it left to right, like western Christians, or right to left, like Orthodox.) Confession of faith, renewal of baptism, mark of discipleship, acceptance of suffering, defense against the devil, and victory over self-indulgence.
Biden is by all accounts a pious, practicing Catholic (if out-of-step with the Church’s teaching on abortion). So when he made the sign of the cross while mentioning Trump, he may have been sarcastically invoking the Trinity against evil. In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden seemed to indicate by crossing himself that decades of “friendship” with Bibi entailed suffering. How Joe meant it when he did so in front of the rabbis can perhaps be generously seen as his trying to overcome his penchant for self-indulgent tall tales, even then?
A Public Profession of Faith
Look, there are plenty of things to criticize Joe Biden for. This is really not one of them. In fact, Ghezzi says, “it’s a shame that many non-Catholics [and non-Orthodox] see it as something they shouldn’t be doing. It comes from an ancient church that we all share.” The sign of the cross should be taken seriously. “It’s not a good-luck charm,” Ghezzi reminds. (As some baseball players seem to forget, alas.) In fact, it can be a powerful, public confession of one’s Christian faith — as last month when Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo crossed himself after scoring a goal in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, a few years ago a Muslim cleric from that very country tried to get FIFA, the world soccer authority, to ban Christians from doing what Ronaldo did. And Glenn Beck’s going after Biden for crossing himself not only smacks of Islamic intolerance — it goes against the very teachings of his own church. “Even though we do not believe in using the cross as a symbol in our Church, we do not criticize others for wearing or using the cross in their religions.”
Caesar is Still Second-Fiddle
As Ghezzi also points out, the government “can tell us that we can’t have the Ten Commandments in a public building, but they can’t stop us from making the sign of the cross publicly.” Joe Biden is a weak vessel, but he’s the head of our government. When he makes the sign of the cross, that shows that Caesar is still mindful of a higher authority. Specifically, the Triune God. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.