Joe Biden’s Pauline acceptance speech draws on hope, light and love

It was all about love and light versus darkness.

(RNS) — There wasn’t a lot of explicit religion in Joe Biden’s speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night. Just a handful of largely conventional references to the Deity: “As God’s children…God-given ability…one nation, under God…God bless you…God protect our troops.”

But the speech was profoundly Christian, combining theological concepts from the letters of St. Paul in a powerful way.

Biden began with civil rights leader Ella Baker’s famous quote, “Give people light and they will find a way,” but quickly pivoted to the Pauline division between light and darkness.

 ”For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord,” Ephesians declares. “Live as children of light.” First Thessalonians puts it this way: “You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.”

“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division,” said Biden in his acceptance speech. “Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness.

Even as Biden blamed Donald Trump as the source of the current darkness, he modestly claimed to be only an “ally,” not the giver of light to the people. His message was that “We the People,” by coming together, could “overcome this season of darkness in America” and live (again) as children of light—light in the sense of “hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.”

The nominee then turned to one of the most famous Pauline texts, 1 Corinthians 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

However, just as Thomas Jefferson changed John Locke’s “life, liberty and property” into the Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” so Biden substituted “light” for “faith” in Paul’s triplet.

This is, he said, “a moment that calls for hope and light and love. Hope for our futures, light to see our way forward, and love for one another.”

It’s clear that, as for Paul, for Biden the greatest of these is love.

“Love” appears eight times in the speech, “loves” another two times.

The kind of love for which Corinthians 13 uses the word agape—empathy and lovingkindness for all people—lies at the core of Biden’s appeal as a politician. The stories told of him by family, friends and incidental acquaintances make it impossible to doubt that it lies at the core of who he is as a person. 

He concluded his acceptance with a moving amalgamation of the themes of light-hope-love and light versus darkness:

For love is more powerful than hate.
Hope is more powerful than fear.
Light is more powerful than dark.
This is our moment.
This is our mission.
May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation.
And this is a battle that we, together, will win.
I promise you.
Whether he will win the election remains no more than a promise. But there’s no doubt that the spiritual battle has been joined.