aleqm5ggyrzz83ocna897xd-w5snazuo8qPerhaps you saw this image this morning, of Vice President Joe Biden. When I saw it on the news, my first thought was, “What happened to his forehead? Maybe he had a fall after Obama’s speech to Congress last night?” After a moment, of course, it dawned on me that today was Ash Wednesday, and that Biden is a Roman Catholic.

It’s a remarkable image. Never before in the United States have we had a public official of Biden’s position who has engaged in such a public display of this kind of religiosity. (Biden is the first Catholic Vice President. While many of the mainline churches from which previous presidents and vice presidents have been drawn do officially observe Ash Wednesday with the ash-spreading practice, I can’t find any record of a previous Pres or VP who wore them to work.) In some important ways it’s as worth remarking as Obama’s skin color.

As one who every day wears my religion on my head, the image of Biden holding an official meeting while wearing such a symbol was validating. But as an observer of public religion, it was fascinating, and opened up lots of questions: What are the limits of acceptable public displays of religiosity? Would Joe Lieberman ever consider wearing a kippah had he been the Vice President? Would a Sikh wear his turban? Would a Muslim woman wear a veil?

Obviously the examples I raise are daily, not occasional, observances like the ashes of Ash Wednesday. So is it more acceptable to engage in occasional ‘exotic’ religious behavior? Probably. Could we ever imagine the day when a religious practitioner can occupy high office and not have to pass as something else?

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