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.