Religion, politics and principles: Thoughts on the Passing of Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo, who served three terms as New York State’s governor, was a respected public figure of unusual complexity.  Since his recent passing at the age of 82, a large quantity of ink (or bandwidth) has been expended memorializing him, yet some facets of his career have received less attention than they deserve.

I have resided in the Forest Hills section of Queens for more than thirty years.  Back in 1972 — a decade before I moved into the neighborhood and long before he became governor — Cuomo (then a little known Queens lawyer) played a critical role in forging the compromise that resolved the Forest Hills housing crisis.  The compromise that Cuomo helped to broker ended the acrimonious standoff between the mayoral administration of John V. Lindsay and the mostly middle class, disproportionately Jewish residents of the neighborhood.  The Lindsay administration wanted to build a large public housing project in Forest Hills, and the local residents feared the effect that the planned project would have on the community as a whole.

The Forest Hills crisis was a focus of national attention at the time, though by now it has been largely forgotten, except by locals and specialists. The compromise that Cuomo helped forge substantially reduced the size of the project and reserved a significant portion of the units for senior citizens, thus helping to calm the fears of the local residents.  By the time I moved into the area ten years later, the housing crisis was seldom discussed among the locals.  As a Forest Hills resident, however, I have always been acutely aware of how different this neighborhood would be today had the project been built as originally contemplated.

Today, more than forty years after the crisis was defused, the compromise version of the housing project is still operative, and the remainder of the neighborhood, despite unrelated demographic changes in the intervening years, remains a vibrant, predominantly middle class community.  Whether the compromise that resolved the crisis could have come about without Mario Cuomo is unknowable.  What seems clear, however, is that without that compromise, the neighborhood’s subsequent history would have been a far less happy one.

It is ironic that Mario Cuomo first came to public notice as a man who forged a compromise to resolve a crisis, for readiness to compromise is not a quality commonly associated with him. As a politician, Cuomo understood that compromise is essential in order for a democratic government to function.  As a man of conscience, however, he also understood that some principles must be beyond compromise, that there is a time to stand up for what you believe to be right, regardless of the political cost.  His tenure as governor coincided with an era in which much of what he stood for politically was increasingly being called into question.  He compromised on some issues when necessary, but on matters that touched his core principles, he stood firm.

The best known example of Cuomo’s refusal to compromise his principles was his implacable opposition to the death penalty.  This was not an easy position for a public official to take during that period because capital punishment then had broad public support.  More recently, public opinion (at least here in New York) has become less one-sided on that issue, but that shift was not predictable during the Mario Cuomo’s gubernatorial tenure and is not universal even today.  In any event, however unpopular his stance on capital punishment was at the time, Cuomo never wavered in his principled opposition to it.  His unbending stand on that issue, many believe, was one of the main reasons he lost his 1994 bid for a fourth term.

Politicians able to forge pragmatic compromises have not been uncommon historically, though they seem to be harder to find in recent years.  Politicians willing to stand on principle even when it hurts them politically have been less common, though by no means unheard of.   But a politician who takes seriously both the political principles that flow from his partisan outlook and the religious principles deeply rooted in his faith and who thinks deeply about how to reconcile the unavoidable tension between the two is truly a rarity in any era.

Mario Cuomo was that rarity.  He was by faith a devout Catholic and by partisan ideology an unabashed liberal, and he thought long and hard about how to reconcile those two commitments.  The best known exposition of his views on that dilemma was his 1984 address at the University of Notre Dame, which was entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective”  (The text of that address, can be found on-line at

In his speech at Notre Dame, Cuomo sought to explain how he reconciled his devotion to the Catholic Church with political positions seemingly at odds with the Church’s teachings.  He was not speaking solely about abortion, but the conflict over legalized  abortion was uppermost in everyone’s mind, and he sought to meet it head on.  He began with the premise that “[o]ur 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.”  He cautioned “that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us” and asserted that “[t]he 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.”

Turning specifically to abortion,  he asserted that “[e]ven a radically secular world must struggle with the questions of when life begins, under what circumstances it can be ended, when it must be protected, by what authority.”  As a Catholic, Cuomo affirmed his acceptance of the Church’s teaching authority: “As Catholics, my wife and I were enjoined never to use abortion to destroy the life we created, and we never have.”  But, he acknowledged, “not everyone in our society agrees.” Those on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate “aren’t a ruthless, callous alliance of anti-Christians determined to overthrow our moral standards.” Rather, he explained, they include many sincerely religious individuals, many from faith traditions that view abortion in less absolutist terms than does the Catholic Church.  Having acknowledged that reality, he explained that

The breadth, intensity and sincerity of opposition to church teaching shouldn’t be allowed to shape our Catholic morality, [but] it can’t help but determine our ability — our realistic, political ability — to translate our Catholic morality into civil law, a law not for the believers who don’t need it but for the disbelievers who reject it.

In the course of that speech, Cuomo also addressed the parallel often used by pro-lifers between antebellum slavery and abortion in our time.  Rather than seeking to undermine that parallel, he acknowledged it but pointed out that it could lead to a different conclusion than the one pro-lifers usually draw.  He noted that “few if any Catholic bishops spoke for abolition in the years before the Civil War.”  That failure, Cuomo said, resulted from a “practical political judgment” that took into account the fact that “[a]t the time, Catholics were a sm0all minority, mostly immigrants, despised by much of the population, often vilified and the object of sporadic violence.”  He thus concluded:

The parallel I want to draw here is not between or among what we Catholics believe to be moral wrongs. It is in the Catholic response to those wrongs. Church teaching on slavery and abortion is clear. But in the application of those teachings — the exact way we translate them into action, the specific laws we propose, the exact legal sanctions we seek — there was and is no one, clear, absolute route that the Church says, as a matter of doctrine, we must follow.

Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech was – and to a large extent remains – controversial among devout Catholics.  For those trying to reconcile loyalty to the Church’s absolutist stance on abortion with an instinctive political liberalism, Cuomo’s may be the best available approach.  Those Catholics who believe that the Church’s doctrine requires efforts to ban all abortions presumably find Cuomo’s speech to be an exercise in justifying the unconscionable.

Can traditional Jews learn anything from Cuomo’s approach?  There may be some issues, after all, in which the requirements of halakhic Judaism and the political instincts of most American Jews seem to be in conflict.  Can Cuomo’s remarks at Notre Dame provde us with any guidance on how best to address such conflicts?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be no. The Catholicism which Cuomo sought to reconcile with his political liberalism is rigidly hierarchical while Judaism (in case you haven’t noticed) is not.  The magisterium of the Church — its teaching authority as defined by the pope and bishops — is binding on every believing Catholic; halakhic Judaism has no contemporary counterpart. Some within the halakhic community — notably though not exclusively in the chareidi world — appear to favor creating a pseudo-hierarchy by acclamation, but Jews don’t give up their right to dissent easily.

Another critical difference is that the Catholic Church views itself, both historically and by aspiration, as the dominant religious voice of the civilized world.  From the Catholic perspective, it is merely historical happenstance that the Church today must function as one spiritual voice among many in a pluralistic society.  As a result of the Jewish historical experience, halakhic Judaism  has approached the world very differently.  There are elements of anticipatory triumphalism in some classical Jewish texts, but those elements are typically relegated to either the mythic past or the messianic future.  In the here and now – the world in which we actually live, work and pray — we have no aspiration to control how others live.  All we have asked of the world around us, for the most part, is that it leave us alone to study Torah and live lives devoted to mitzvot.

But is that approach really the entirety of traditional Judaism’s view of the world?  Ours has never been an evangelical faith in the sense that Christianity has, but there have been historical periods, including much of the period of Bayit Sheini (the Second Temple),  when we viewed conversions as desirable.  Today, it sometimes seems that our most prominent rabbinical authorities are looking for any excuse to reject converts, even to the extent of retroactively annulling conversions based on the converts’ subsequent actions – although such a decision would appear to be a clear violation of Halakha.

Over centuries of exile, Jews have understandably developed an instinctive caution in dealing with the non-Jewish world.  That instinct sometimes make it difficult for us to distinguish between medieval tyrannies and modern democracies.  When prompted, today’s rabbinical authorities will acknowledge our obligation of hakarat hatov (gratitude) to America. Here, we are equal citizens who not only can protect our own interests but can even bring our religious insights to bear on the challenges faced by the larger society.  Most Orthodox rabbis, however, seem to prefer to focus on the ills of modern society rather than its achievements.

In the larger non-halakhic Jewish community, to be sure, involvement in the problems of the broader world is often encouraged, as long as it parallels the policies favored by those on the left side of the political spectrum.  Unfortunately, most of those who are engaged in the political and cultural currents of the world around us are too estranged from halakhic Judaism to bring its perspective to bear on current challenges, or even to contemplate the possibility that there could be a diverse assortment of authentic Jewish voices.  It often seems that the likelihood of a Jew’s involvement in the broader society is in inverse proportion to his knowledge of or participation in  his own heritage.  Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech at Notre Dame exemplifies how a deeply religious human being can engage fully in the political culture of his time while continuing to draw inspiration and insight from the wellsprings of his religious tradition.

The specific issues that Cuomo  addressed at Notre Dame in 1984 are not the issues on which halakhic Jews are likely to focus attention, and the obstacles he sought to overcome are different from the ones we face.  But his thoughtful approach to the tension inherent in the engagement of political ideology and religious authenticity can and should be both an inspiration and a challenge to all religious Americans, including, of course, religious American Jews.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.