In one of the more articulate and compelling speeches he ever delivered, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo addressed the students and faculty of Notre Dame in 1984. At the time, Cuomo was a leading Democrat with presidential possibilities and a strong chance of becoming a United States Supreme Court Justice. In earlier days, I would have dismissed anything spoken from the lips of any New York liberal as unworthy of any substantive interaction or intellectual engagement on my part. Something about higher education, however, triggers within any aspiring scholar the desire to read honestly, critique fairly, and integrate cautiously the ideas of your ideological counterparts.
This search for an exposition of moderate and liberal political philosophy has led me to believe that Mario Cuomo is one of the more careful exegetes of the modern Democratic Party — both the philosphical commitments and practical legislative agenda thereof. In fact, compared to the likes of Howard Dean, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and John Murtha, Mario Cuomo stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is, to be sure, a moderate/conservative Democrat rather unlike the brand of social tinkerers and legislative amateurs who have seized the Democratic Party by the throat and lost the ability to understand or sustain the core values of the American Republic. Reading Cuomo makes political thinkers — both liberal and conservative — pine for earlier days when Kennedys and Moynihans and Humphreys steered the course of the Democratic Party.
I commend to you heartily Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech, entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality.” I trust that its reading will reassure or introduce you to the fact that you that were days long ago in a land not so far away when Democrats had a coherent — albeit quasi-utopian — political philosophy. And now, for two of the many money quotes:
Politics as an improper use of ecclesial authority:
Now, of course the bishops will teach — they must teach — more and more vigorously, and more and more extensively. But they have said they will not use the power of their position, and the great respect it receives from all Catholics, to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties. Not that they couldn’t do it if they wished to — some religious leaders, as you know, do it. Some are doing it at this very moment. And not that it would be a sin if they did. God does not insist on political neutrality. But because it is the judgment of the bishops, and most of us Catholic laypeople, that it is not wise for prelates and politicians to be too closely tied together.
Religion as an improper basis for political discourse
I’m 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 I am 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.
Now, no law prevents us from advocating any of these things. I am free to do so. So are the bishops. 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? Would 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 to promote?
To download the entirety of Cuomo’s speech, click here.