Cuomo on Church and State

Mario Cuomo, governor of New York from 1983-1994, died on New Year's day. He is a throwback to a time when Democrats weren't cowards, and were actually capable of articulating a compelling and humane vision of how society should be. Consider this speech, delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. Cuomo was a devout Catholic, and was discussing how he reconciles his religious faith with his politics.

We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.

This freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government. In the complex interplay of forces and considerations that go into the making of our laws and policies, its preservation must be a pervasive and dominant concern.

But insistence on freedom is easier to accept as a general proposition than in its applications to specific situations. There are other valid general principles firmly embedded in our Constitution, which, operating at the same time, create interesting and occasionally troubling problems. Thus, the same amendment of the Constitution that forbids the establishment of a State Church affirms my legal right to argue that my religious belief would serve well as an article of our universal public morality. I may use the prescribed processes of government -- the legislative and executive and judicial processes -- to convince my fellow citizens -- Jews and Protestants and Buddhists and non-believers -- that what I propose is as beneficial for them as I believe it is for me; that it is not just parochial or narrowly sectarian but fulfills a human desire for order, peace, justice, kindness, love, any of the values most of us agree are desirable even apart from their specific religious base or context.

I am free to argue for a governmental policy for a nuclear freeze not just to avoid sin but because I think my democracy should regard it as a desirable goal.

I can, if I wish, argue that the State should not fund the use of contraceptive devices not because the Pope demands it but because I think that the whole community -- for the good of the whole community -- should not sever sex from an openness to the creation of life.

And surely, I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion not because my Bishops say it is wrong but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life -- including life in the womb, which is at the very least potentially human and should not be extinguished casually.

No law prevents us from advocating any of these things: I am free to do so.

So are the Bishops. And so is Reverend Falwell.

In fact, the Constitution guarantees my right to try. And theirs. And his.

But should I? Is it helpful? Is it essential to human dignity? Does it promote harmony and understanding? Or does it divide us so fundamentally that it threatens our ability to function as a pluralistic community?

When should I argue to make my religious value your morality? My rule of conduct your limitation?

What are the rules and policies that should influence the exercise of this right to argue and promote?

I believe I have a salvific mission as a Catholic. Does that mean I am in conscience required to do everything I can as Governor to translate all my religious values into the laws and regulations of the State of New York or the United States? Or be branded a hypocrite if I don't?

The speech is quite long, but I recommend reading it in full. I don't agree with all of it, and I am always put off by rhetoric that suggests that bishops and other prelates have any particular teaching authority on anything. But underneath it all is a lucid and powerful defense of church/state separation, both on moral and practical grounds. Regrettably, there are very few Democratic politicians around today who speak this clearly and persuasively on contentious public issues.


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ah but you see - there's no way now that a lucid argument can be delivered unless it's printed on a throw-away coffee cup and can be delivered in 140 character tweet

bugga, i think that was more than 140 chars



By The Peak Oil Poet (not verified) on 03 Jan 2015 #permalink

Of course Cuomo has been out of the limelight for a long while, but still his death seems to mark with finality the end of a certain era... as you say, "a time when Democrats weren't cowards."

Cowards? I see plenty of hardball played by Democratic politicians. If they do not as you want I would think that they are vote-maximizing rather than being cowards. Or maybe they just do not plain share your views.

Yes, cowards. Example: 2014 midterm elections, when instead of taking the offensive and defending Obama"s policies (which their opponents were happy to note their 90%+ voting records in support of), most tried to disassociate themselves from him, with disastrous results.

Jr: will you provide an example of hardball?

By Walt Jones (not verified) on 04 Jan 2015 #permalink