Remembering Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech

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Mario Cuomo giving a speech in 1987


Mario Cuomo giving a speech in 1987

Mario Cuomo giving a speech in 1987

Mario Cuomo giving a speech in 1987

Mario Cuomo was the most charismatic politician I’ve ever seen in the flesh, and that includes Bill Clinton. I only encountered Cuomo once, but the impression was indelible. I was covering the 1988 presidential campaign for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and flew up to Raleigh to hear him give a speech rallying North Carolina’s Democratic pooh-bahs.

They were, as I recall, not very happy at the prospect of front-runner Michael Dukakis carrying the party’s standard in the fall. North Carolina was then a state that only a Southerner, such as Al Gore from Tennessee, could hope to carry. Liberal Democrats from the Northeast were not their cup of tea.

But Cuomo absolutely wowed them. He was a pretty big man as it was, but in that room of pols he projected a personal and intellectual force that made him seem larger than life — much larger than any of the seven dwarves, as they were called, then seeking the Democratic nomination. “Why isn’t he running?” the North Carolinians began whispering to each other. “He’s someone we could really get behind.”

Over a quarter-century later, Cuomo’s playing Hamlet with a presidential run is well remembered, but his legacy to the nation’s political life will, I suspect, be “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” the speech he gave at Notre Dame in 1984. It is also remembered today, but mostly as just an effort to rationalize his own pro-choice politics. It’s much more than that.

In it, he lays out an approach to religion in the public life of a religiously pluralistic country that is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Emphasizing his belief in the right of Americans to bring their religious values into the public square, he at the same time insisted that it is wrong to impose those values on a society that does not generally embrace them.

Our public morality, then — the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives — depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.

This view has ever since been attacked by conservatives as the ultimate in moral relativism, but in fact, what Cuomo was calling for was a prudential approach to moral issues. And indeed, after his speech the pro-life forces changed tactics and stopped working for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Instead, they began chipping away at abortion rights, and made considerable headway.

No doubt, they pushed the envelope of sufficient consensus further than Cuomo would have wanted. They had no qualms about restricting access to abortion in a way that disproportionately affected poor women — something he bitterly opposed. Nor were they prepared to acknowledge, as he did, that those on the other side “aren’t a ruthless, callous alliance of anti-Christians determined to overthrow our moral standards.”

But what they acknowledged, by deed if not by word, was that when it comes to religion in politics, there are pragmatic limits to moral absolutes. And thanks to Mario Cuomo, we are all the better for it.


  • The gassy blather the man emitted in an attempt to reconcile things which could not be is of no account. He did two good things. One was to put Patricia Adducci in charge of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. She presided over dramatic improvements in the performance of that wretched agency. The other was to foster a re-assessment in the approach to crime control in New York by sponsoring a major expansion of prison capacity. Neither of these programs was ever something on the liberal agenda and liberals who do not have to stand for election are deeply repelled by the latter.

  • tz

    Mario’s speech was nothing more than moral three card monte….he was a liberal politician seeking to justify his world view and advance his career…he had no problem pushing his “moral” views on the public when it came to the death penalty.

    Mario was personally pro-life and wanted to bring a religious voice to the public square???? ….I missed the part of Mario’s life where he went about tireless emphasizing the dignity of each life, encouraged each man and women to think twice before engaging in acts that might end in abortion and DIDN’T promote legislation. I guess that was too personal of a belief.

    The good Dr manages to have his hated opposition concede points all over the place but the Dr of course concedes nothing. The signs of a true demagogue.

    Let us hope for Mario’s sake, that God doesn’t treat Mario with the same slight of hand, that Mario treated the unborn.

  • William Barnett

    Has it ever occurred to you that fellow citizens who hold a different position on abortion than you might, just might, do so on the basis of their own deeply held religious convictions? Presuming that to be the case, do you assume that they are simply wrong? Self-serving or not, Mario Cuomo’s position on this issue at least acknowledged the religious pluralism of American society.

  • tz

    An unborn child has a right to life based on biology, genetics and logic. This can’t be superseded by anyone’s “religious” beliefs. Just as slavery can’t be justified because some people thought africans were not fully human. People rationalize their decisions.

    Cuomo can’t claim that he is pro-life and then be indifferent to the plight of the unborn. That is moral three card monte.