Religious Belief and Public Morality…

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.

William Willimon for Southern Baptists…

One of those added benefits of my education in North Carolina was the proximity of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to the campus of Duke University some thirty miles away. One of the frustrations concerned the unwillingness of my pastoral ministries professor — in spite of my many and sustained protestations — to utilize the most comprehensive and valuable text I’ve ever read on pastoral theology and ministry. In Willimon’s book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, the man who’s been called one of the greatest preachers in America had this to say about the pastor as prophet:

The prophetic community is composed of young and old, maids and janitors, sons and daughters, those who have not had much opportunity, in the world’s scheme of things, to speak. In other words, the Holy Spirit produces uppity speech. When I once asked an African American friend of min, “Why does African American preaching tend to get loud and raucous?” he replied “Because my people have been told so often, for so long, that we ought to be seen and not heard, or better, invisible and quiet. We are to stand politely on the margins while the majority culture does its thing. So the church gathers my people and enables them to strut and shout, to find their voice, to stand up and be heard.

…The consequences of Spirit-filled speech tend to be political, economic, and social, therefore we must discipline ourselves to read Scripture congregationally, ecclesially, and therefore politically, rather than therapeutically, subjectively, inductively, or relevantly, as the world defines relevance. Harold Bloom has demonstrated that the peculiarly American religion is the notion that we and God are tight. We sense little disjunction between us and God…. The world, when it is in the mood for change, seeks some efficient, significant, usually legislatively coerced means of modifying itself. When Jesus wanted to change the world, he summoned a rather ordinary group of inexperienced, not overly talented folk to be his disciples. This is the typical way Jesus does revolution. Although to the world means such means may seem hopelessly ineffective, unrealistic, and impossible, the church is, for better or worse, God’s answer to what is wrong in the world. Just let the church begin telling the truth, speaking the truth to power, witnessing to the fact that God, not nations, rules the world, that Jesus Christ is really Lord, and the church will quickly find how easily threatened and inherently unstable are the rulers of this world. If Christians were not being persecuted in China and the Sudan, and being ridiculed in Hollywood and Athens, we might think that the age of prophecy had ended. That thousands still pay for this faith with their lives and their freedom is proof positive that God is still able to raise up a family of prophets. At least give the principalities and powers, as well as the rulers in high places, credit for being able to look at the poor old church and see there a threat to everything upon which their world is built.