I have been asked to reflect upon the experience of elected officials who try to reconcile personal religious convictions while serving a pluralistic American constituency. In discussing the matter I don’t pretend to be a theologian or philosopher. I speak only as a former elected official and as a Catholic baptized and raised in the pre–Vatican II church, attached to that church first by birth, then by choice.

I speak mindful that time and space constraints threaten to make my attempt at simplifying this complex subject an exercise in simplistics. It’s a slippery slope, but I’ll do my best.

Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as the heart, and to be a Catholic is to commit to dogmas that distinguish our faith from others. Like most religions, it also requires a lifelong struggle to practice that faith day to day. The practice can be difficult. Today’s America is a consumer-driven society filled with endless distractions and temptations for people struggling to live by spiritual as well as material impulses.

Catholics who also happen to hold political office in this pluralistic democracy—and therefore commit to serve Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Protestants, as well as Catholics—undertake an additional responsibility. They must try to create conditions under which all citizens can live with a reasonable degree of freedom to practice their own competing religious beliefs, like the right to divorce, to use birth control, to choose abortion, to withdraw stem cells from embryos...or even to fight the belief in a God.

Like all other public officials, Catholics take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees this freedom, and they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for others they guarantee their own right to live their personal lives as Catholics with the right to reject birth control devices, reject abortion, and refuse to participate in—or contribute to—removing stem cells from embryos—if they believe their religion requires them to. This freedom is perhaps the greatest strength of our uniquely successful experiment in government, and so must be a dominant concern of the public official.

There are other general legal principles, operating at the same time, that affect officials’ decisions. The First Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids the preference of one religion over others, also affirms one’s legal right to argue that his or her religious belief would serve well as an article of our universal public morality; that it is not just parochial or narrowly sectarian, but fulfills a human desire for order, peace, justice, kindness, love—any of the values most of us agree are desirable, even apart from their specific religious origin.

I can, if I choose, argue that the state should not fund the use of contraceptive devices—not because the pope demands it, but because I think that, for the good of the whole community, we should not sever sex from an openness to the creation of life. And surely I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law to prevent abortions and stem-cell retrieval from embryos, not just because my bishops say such practices are 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.

But again—and crucially—the Constitution that guarantees your right not to have to practice my religion, guarantees my right to try to convince you to adopt my religion’s tenets as public law. Whenever that opportunity is presented, the questions for the religious public official become: Should I try? Would the effort be helpful? Would it produce harmony and understanding? Or might the effort itself be divisive in a way that weakens our ability to function as a pluralistic community? So, for me as a Catholic former official, the question created by my oath, the Constitution, and my personal inclinations, was: "When should I argue to make my religious value your morality, my rule of conduct your limitation?"

As I understood my religion, it required me to accept the restraints imposed by my religion in my own life, but it did not require that I seek to impose all of them on all New Yorkers—Catholic or not—whatever the circumstances of the moment. So, having heard the pope renew the church’s ban on birth control devices, I was not required to veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my state, if I did not believe that to be in the interest of the whole pluralistic community I was sworn to serve.

My church understands that our public morality depends on a consensus view of right and wrong: our religious values will not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large. The plausibility of achieving that consensus is a relevant consideration in deciding whether or not to make the effort. Catholics have lived with these truths of our democratic society fairly comfortably over the years.

There is an American Catholic tradition of political realism: the church has always made prudential, practical judgments about attempts to interpolate Catholic principles into the civil law. That was true of slavery in the late nineteenth century; it is true of abortion, contraceptives, and stem-cell retrieval today.

I conclude that religious convictions—at least mine—are not a serious impediment to efficient and proper service by a public official in today’s America. In fact, I’m convinced that some of the fundamental propositions common to all our religious convictions actually enrich rather than inhibit public service and make public service especially inviting to people trying to be religious. Let me try to explain.

Religion’s place in our system of government is an elusive topic. The legal precedents and social attitudes that attend it are complex, shifting, and sometimes contradictory. Even trying to define the basic words can be an adventure. Most nonlawyers—and maybe even lawyers—would assume that the word "religion" necessarily implies a belief in God, and perhaps even monotheism. Not so. Religion has been defined by the Supreme Court to include belief systems such as secular humanism, that, by and large, reject the notion of God.

"God" is an even more difficult concept to capture in words. Black’s Law Dictionary doesn’t try. Some authorities say "God" is too big a reality to be literally embodied. Maybe that’s why it appears nowhere in the law of the land—the Constitution. And in the Declaration of Independence, which was not a law and therefore would not be subjected to rigorous interpretation and enforcement, the word appears only in the context of the natural law—when it refers to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God."

It has always seemed to me that such language deserves more attention than it has received. Two of the most basic principles of the natural law—derived from our nature and from human reason, without the benefit of revelation or a willing suspension of disbelief—are shared by most, if not all, of our nation’s religions, whether or not they specifically include "God."

Look at the earliest of our monotheistic religions, Judaism. It is built on these two specific principles: Tzedakah—the obligation in righteousness and common sense that binds all human beings to treat one another charitably and with respect and dignity. And tikkun olam, the principle that says we should come together as human beings in comity and cooperation to repair and improve the world around us.

Christianity, founded by a Jew, was built on precisely the same principles. His words, approximately, were: Love one another as you love yourself for the love of me; and I am truth. The truth is, the world has been created but not completed, and it is your mission to collaborate in its completion.

Indeed, in a number of places the great writings of Christianity and Judaism describe those two simple ideas as "the whole law." The Qur’an honors both of these basic principles, as do the other major religions. It seems to me, as it did to Alexis de Tocqueville and so many others, that these two basic religious principles are of great benefit to our nation, and can be even more beneficial if focused on and stressed.

That’s one of the principal reasons that I and many others were attracted to public service and, personally, I haven’t seen any reason to change my mind since then. What better guidance can our society be given than this intelligent acceptance of the benefit of mutuality and a commitment to promoting a moral and healthy society together, in this increasingly interconnected and interdependent nation and world?

Nor do I think it’s terribly difficult to nail down these two grand natural-law religious principles to the Procrustean bed of reality dealt with by government day to day. Much of the discussion and debate concerning government’s role in our life revolves around the competition between the virtues of individualism and of community. I think Abraham Lincoln—not surprisingly—provided the simplest and most useful instruction in how to reconcile these virtues. "Government," he said, "is the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all privately and individually." All we have to do is apply that simple test to the facts of a changing world as they confront us.

What our religious principles urge upon us comes down to this: We need to love one another, to come together to create a good society, and use that mutuality discreetly in order to gain the benefits of community without sacrificing the importance of individual freedom and responsibility. In these admittedly broad terms, that would be good government—a concept also inviting to people who think of themselves as religious. With that, I will stop, before proceeding any further down the slippery slope.

This article is based on Cuomo's remarks at a conference on politics and faith in America sponsored by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, held in Washington, D.C., October 2, 2002. Published with permission of The Pew Forum: www.pewforum.org.

Mario M. Cuomo is a former governor of New York.

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Published in the 2002-12-06 issue: View Contents
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