Font Size: A A A

Night and Day

Joe and Jill Biden
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
Joe and Jill Biden watching fireworks during the Democratic National Convention, Wilmington, Delaware, August 20, 2020

The grammar of American presidential elections is, for obvious reasons, Christian. The other party’s candidate is mired in sin and error; ours will bring redemption and salvation. But not this time. Joe Biden is a devout Catholic, yet the shape of his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination at its virtual convention was based on the cosmogony of one of Christianity’s great early rivals, Manichaeanism. The Manichaeans believed that the world had been taken over by an evil demiurge, the Prince of Darkness; while he was in the ascendent, humans had lost their reason and became “like unto a man bitten by a wild dog or serpent.” The great battle of existence is between these forces of darkness and those of light, which must reconquer the universe.

In the twenty-five minutes of his stirring address, Biden used “dark” or “darkness” seven times, “light” or “bright” twelve times. Usually, the terms appeared together in the absolute Manichaean opposition of “a battle for the soul of this nation.” There was no doubt who the Prince of Darkness was. Biden did not name Donald Trump, but his refusal to do so merely served to magnify the president into a vastly malign force who has “cloaked America in darkness,” plunged the country into “this season of darkness,” and written “this chapter of American darkness.” Biden modestly stopped short of identifying himself, as the logical implication would have it, as the god of light, suggesting merely that “I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”

Biden did not want this grand framing of his candidacy to be understood as a flight of poetic fancy. “The choice could not be more clear,” he said. “No rhetoric is needed.” Light and darkness are not, for him, rhetorical constructs, but the defining energies of our present political reality. He truly does want voters to see the election in November as an existential and even cosmological struggle rather than as a normal part of the electoral cycle.

In the buildup to Biden’s speech, the Catholic nun Sister Simone Campbell, delivering the opening blessing of the final night, summoned into the cyberspace of the convention a divine spirit that would create the world all over again:

The very first paragraph of the Scripture that informs the three Abrahamic traditions tells us: The Divine Spirit breathed over the waters of chaos and brought forth a new creation. Encouraged by this promise that a new creation can come from chaos, let us pray: O Divine Spirit!

Normally such prayers can be cynically dismissed as just another part of the established ritual of party conventions, like the balloons and placards. But Campbell’s startlingly millenarian supplication was fully in tune with the political mood music.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.