Two memorable speeches were delivered in the early 1980s on separation of church and state. The first was by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and was given – at all places – before an audience at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Because of the unusual venue, Kennedy’s speech on Oct. 3, 1983, attracted a lot of attention. But about a year later, another politician delivered an equally impressive speech, and it also grabbed some headlines. This was New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s address to Notre Dame University on Sept. 13, 1984.
Cuomo, who died Jan. 1 at age 82, is best remembered as a prominent voice for progressive politics during a time when the country was firmly in the grip of Reaganomics and was drifting rightward – but his talk at Notre Dame was a bold statement about personal piety and public politics that should not be forgotten.
Those who recall the speech associate it with a defense of legal abortion. It certainly was that. Cuomo, a practicing Roman Catholic, offered a defense of the pro-choice view. But in doing so, he also put forth a powerful advocacy of the separation of church and state and a reminder that government is ill-suited to perform the role of theological referee.
“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,” Cuomo observed. “I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us.”
In another meaningful passage, Cuomo, speaking as a man of faith, warned against forces that would link religion and politics. (Remember, this speech was given during a time when the Moral Majority was at the height of its power; this issue was on many people’s minds.)
“Way down deep the American people are afraid of an entangling relationship between formal religions – or whole bodies of religious belief – and government,” Cuomo asserted. “Apart from constitutional law and religious doctrine, there is a sense that tells us it's wrong to presume to speak for God or to claim God's sanction of our particular legislation and His rejection of all other positions. Most of us are offended when we see religion being trivialized by its appearance in political throw-away pamphlets.”
He continued, “The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman. To most of us, the manipulative invoking of religion to advance a politician or a party is frightening and divisive. The American people will tolerate religious leaders taking positions for or against candidates, although I think the Catholic bishops are right in avoiding that position. But the American people are leery about large religious organizations, powerful churches or synagogue groups engaging in such activities – again, not as a matter of law or doctrine, but because our innate wisdom and democratic instinct teaches us these things are dangerous.”
The speech is long, but I recommend that you take a look at it. It contains a lot of good material.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this speech is that it was delivered at all. In the years since Cuomo’s address, Catholic universities have become increasingly wary of allowing pro-choice politicians to speak. In May of 2009, conservative Catholics and a number of U.S. bishops went ballistic after President Barack Obama was invited to deliver a commencement address at Notre Dame. (I discussed this issue with William Donohue of the Catholic League in a spirited debate on the Fox News Channel.)
Aside from this eloquent speech, Mario Cuomo is remembered for many other things. One of them is the presidential campaign that never was. Cuomo grappled with running for the nation’s highest office but in the end never did toss his hat in the ring.
We are perhaps a poorer nation for that. As president, Cuomo might well have been the strongest defender of church-state separation in the White House since John F. Kennedy, another Catholic politician who once gave a notable speech about the intersection of religion and government.