Recent Supreme Court decisions and ongoing fights in public schools over the display of religious symbols indicate that one of the nation's oldest debates endures. The separation of church and state remains an ideal whose contention speaks to a perennial crisis for the United States: reconciling a secular democracy with a deeply religious citizenry.
Navigating a secular public square rife with religious fervor is perhaps most carefully done by those responsible for governing them. At least, that is ideally the case. Public officials of all kinds are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to the separation of church and state. They consistently, however, have opinions on the matter.
The recent passing of former Governor Mario Cuomo of New York offered a solemn opportunity to revisit one of the best articulations of this treacherous balancing act that most legislators face. In a lecture titled "Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective" given at the University of Notre Dame in 1984, Governor Cuomo laid out a deeply nuanced take on the role of religion in the governance of a diverse constituency.
Said the governor, "The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful." Governor Cuomo continued, "We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us."
The governor's remarks were focused on the issue of abortion--a topic of great concern to many Americans then, as it remains today. Beyond their topical context, however, Governor Cuomo's remarks ought to be commemorated for their greater political context. Speaking at a university that continues to make headlines for its conservative take on birth control, Governor Cuomo's expression of liberal Catholicism was a direct challenge to an increasingly powerful religious lobby that sought to incorporate its normative set of religious values into daily political deliberations. Although mentioning him only once, Governor Cuomo's take on governing the public square as a religious politician was in complete odds with the vision espoused by Rev. Jerry Falwell--leader of the Moral Majority. Arguably responsible for creating the "Religious Right," Falwell envisioned the very offices that Governor Cuomo occupied as the last stand for a national moral code in which religion took center stage. Falwell was no stranger to the political limelight; President Reagan had benefited greatly from the Moral Majority's politicking, and had reciprocated the help with open arms for Falwell in the White House.
It is this context that makes Governor Cuomo's remarks especially valuable for discourse today involving gay marriage, birth control, and other issues in which public officeholders find themselves weighing religious scruples against political exigencies. In a political environment in which religion is a calling card exercised by conservatives, liberal legislators can take a note or two from the logic manifest in Governor Cuomo's lecture. Religion need not imply a normative take on politics. Conversely, as Governor Cuomo demonstrated, honoring the American tradition of religious freedom as a pious politician means enabling other individuals to exercise their faith (or lack thereof) as they see fit.
In this sense, Governor Cuomo's words from 30 years ago remain an exceedingly relevant lesson in the fine line that politicians often find themselves straddling between piety and proselytizing. While some see public office as a pulpit from which to act upon a normative set of religious ideals, the legacy of Governor Cuomo reminds us that others see public office as a means to enable Americans to thrive in their spirituality.