Mario Cuomo and Mark Souder
Faith and Politics in America
Mark Souder is a Republican representative from Indiana's 3rd district.
Mario Cuomo was the former Democratic governor of New York.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett and this is a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life presented by Minnesota Public Radio.
Even among deeply religious Americans, there is no consensus on the proper role of religion in politics. In October 2002, the Pew forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. invited two veteran politicians to address this issue, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, and Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana. They were asked to speak about how they have reconciled personal religious conviction with serving a pluralistic American constituency. These two men represent two perspectives which are usually far apart. Mario Cuomo, a lifelong Catholic, is a classic liberal Democrat. Mark Souder, a fundamentalist Protestant is a conservative Republican. Not surprisingly, they disagree on a great deal. yet they fundamentally concur that private religious belief can play a critical positive role in a life in politics. In the highlights of their remarks which you will hear in the coming hour, they also defy stereotypes of liberal and conservative, especially when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics.
Mario Cuomo, who spoke first is a well-known figure, he held several elective offices in the state of New York before becoming governor from 1982 to 1984. These are well-publicized details on his resume, as perhaps is the fact that he is a Roman Catholic. But how many of us were aware that Mario Cuomo displayed a painting of St. Thomas More in the New York governor ‘s office, or then among his busy schedule of public speaking. he often preaches in churches and synagogues. Mario Cuomo once wrote “the purpose of government is to make love real in a sinful world.” Here is an excerpt of Mario Cuomo’s extended remarks:
MARIO CUOMO: Thank you very much. In discussing the matter, let’s make it clear I don’t pretend to be a theologian, certainly or a philosopher. I speak only as a former elected official and as a Catholic who was baptized and raised in the pre-Vatican II church, attached to the church, first by birth and then by decision. Catholicism is a religion of the head as of the heart and to be a Catholic is to commit the dogmas that distinguish our faith from others, and like most religions, it also requires a lifelong struggle to practice the faith day-to-day. The practice can be difficult. Today’s America, as we all know, 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 serving Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists and Protestants as well as Catholics undertake an additional responsibility. They have to 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. Now this freedom is perhaps the greatest strength of our uniquely successful experiment in government, and so must be a dominant concern of every public official. There are other general legal principles which affect the official’s decisions operating at the same time. The First Amendment, of course, which forbids the official preference of one religion over others, also affirms one’s legal right to argue his or her religious belief and to argue that it would serve well as an article of our universal public morality. That it is not just parochial more narrowly sectarian but that it fulfills a human desire for order or peace or justice or kindness, or love, or all of those things.
Values most of us agree are desirable, even apart from their specific religious origin and so I can, if I choose, argue as an official that the state should not fund the use of contraceptive devices, not because the Pope or my bishop 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 I’m so inclined, demand some kind of law to prevent abortions, to prevent stem cell retrieval from embryos, not just because my bishops say it’s 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. I have the right to do all of that. 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 tenant as public law, whenever that opportunity is present. And it’s presented often. And so for me, as a Catholic former official, the question created by my oath, by my Constitution, and by my personal inclinations was ‘when should I argue to make my religious value your morality? My rule of conduct, your limitation. And as I understood my own religion, it required me to accept the restraints it imposed 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. Catholics have lived with these truths about democratic society fairly comfortably over the years. There is an American Catholic tradition, a clear one it seems to me, of political realism. The church, the Catholic Church, has always made prudential, practical judgments with respect to their attempts to interpolate Catholic principles into the civil law. That was true of slavery in the late nineteenth century, it’s true of contraceptives today, and it certainly appears to be true of stem cell retrieval.
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 of our religious convictions actually enrich instead of inhibit public service and make public service, especially inviting to people who are trying to be religious. Religion’s place in our government is obviously an elusive topic. The legal precedents and social attitudes that attend the more complex, shifting, sometimes plainly contradictory. Even trying to define the basic words can be an adventure. Now, most nonlawyers, maybe even most lawyers, would assume that the word religion necessarily implies a belief in God, perhaps even monotheism. Not so. The word religion has been defined by the Supreme Court quite clearly to include belief systems like secular humanism, Buddhism, ethical culture. Belief systems, which by and large reject the notion of God. God is an even more difficult word. Try finding it in Black ‘s Law Dictionary. They don’t even attempt a definition of the word God. If I may, just to break the tedium of these carefully written sentences and tell you a true story about Elie Wiesel. Now you all know Elie Wiesel. He’s a great saint of a man, and I was asked by the 92nd Street Y — for those of you not familiar with our magnificent culture in New York, that is a lecture hall, it get’s a thousand, two thousand people to listen to almost anything. And they decided that they wanted to do a lecture on God. Who is God? What is God? And why?
So you can’t find a definition of God in Black’s Law Dictionary.
And some authorities say, Gary Wills and others recently in talking about it, say that God is just too big a reality to be literally embodied. I mean, the world is endless, and you’re talking about an infinite power, infinitely powerful and effectual, et cetera, et cetera, and we are a couple of hundred thousand years old perhaps, still within reach of our animal forebears, just learning to reflect, learning the meaning of civility with tiny, tiny intellects. It’s no surprise that people would conclude that it’s too big a reality to be literally embodied, and maybe that’s why it appears nowhere in the law of the land, the Constitution. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they didn’t use the word God.And in the Declaration of Independence, which was not a law and therefore wouldn’t be subjected to rigorous interpretation and enforcement, the word appears only in the context of the natural law. The reference we all remember is to the laws of nature and nature’s God. And it has always seemed to me that language deserves more attention than it has received, especially now.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re listening to remarks of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo presented to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington D.C. Mario Cuomo is a devout lifelong Catholic. He reconciles religious belief and political life in part, through a strong conviction that there is such a thing as natural law. There is a rich tradition of reflection on natural law within Catholic theology. Mario Cuomo likes to imagine natural law as the basic principles of conduct that would occur to any group of reasonable people stranded on a desert island, without education, religion or history and left to figure out how to live together justly and well. Again, Mario Cuomo:
GOVERNOR CUOMO: Two of the most basic principles of the natural law, as I understand it are shared by most, if not all of our nation’s religions, whether they include God or not. Look at the earliest of our monotheistic religions, Judaism. Two basic principles, as I understand it, one is tzedakkah, the obligation of righteousness and common sense that binds all human beings to treat one another charitably and with respect and dignity. Of course. What else would you conclude if you’re on that desert island, and if you saw other like kinds and you knew you had to protect yourself against the beasts and you knew that you had to raise children, and you knew that you had to produce crops so that you could eat? You would say that we should treat one another with respect. You wouldn’t need a whole lot of influence from on high or anywhere else to conclude that.
And the second principle tikkun olam, the principle that says, now having accepted the notion that we should treat one another with respect and dignity, we come together as human beings in comity and cooperation to repair and improve the world around us.
Tikkun olam. Well, that’s Christianity. That’s Christianity. That’s the essence of Christianity, founded by a Jew, built on precisely those principles. His words, approximately, were, “Love one another as you love yourself, for the love of me. And I am Truth.” And the truth is, God made the world but did not complete it, and you are to be collaborators in creation.
That’s the message. That, in a lot of places, in the old books and the new books, and in Chardin and everybody else is described as the whole law. And it’s described in Judaism as the whole law, without need of ornamentation, elaboration, et cetera. And on a desert island, it would work. Incidentally, it would work on this island, the globe, before we make it a desert.
All the great religions that I’m aware of share those two principles. The Qur’an, I’m informed, honors that principle. It seems to me, as it did to de Tocqueville and to 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.
If I had my way at 9/11, one of the monuments I would build – and I wouldn’t know how to do it, but some artist surely could find ways to express it – I would want to take a statue of an ethical humanist, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, of all the different religions you could think of, and take those two principles of tzeddakah and tikkun olam, charity and love, whatever words are used, and just reduce them to aphorisms in the particular vernacular of that religious person’s specific orientation, all of them saying exactly the same thing. And just put them up there, especially remembering that some people thought of 9/11 as Muslims killing non-Muslims for reasons that derived totally or partially from their religion, and remembering all the wars that came out of religion and all the hate and all the hurt that came out of religion.
Wouldn’t it be nice to find a way simply to announce at once to the whole place that before you argue about the things that you differ with, why don’t we concentrate on the two things we all believe in? We’re supposed to love one another, and we’re supposed to work actively together to improve this mess we’re in, because that wasn’t done for us. That was the mission that was left to us. I can’t think of any better guidance.
Nor do I think it’s terribly difficult to nail down these two grand natural law, religious principles to the procrustean bed of reality of day-to-day affairs. I don’t really believe that I’ve slid all the way into simplistics yet on this point. I don’t think it’s so tough to do it in a complicated world like ours, politically and otherwise.
And I think, as usual, Abraham Lincoln, not surprisingly certainly, provides the simplest and most useful instruction in how to reconcile the two virtues that seem to compete when you talk about religion. And what are the two virtues that compete? Individuality and community.
Well, how do you reconcile those? Here’s how. Lincoln did it. Government is the coming together of people, tikkun olam. Let’s collaborate in creation, the coming together of people through government, to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all individually and privately. Perfect. That’s the end of the discussion. Don’t ask me if I’m a conservative, if I’m a liberal; or if I’m a quasi this, or… that is the law. And now all I have to do is apply it to each individual set of facts as they occur, and that’s not hard. I mean, you can argue about it, you’ll differ about it, you might even fight about it, but it is not complicated intellectually.
You say education, you want to do it all privately, terrific. We did that for a long time. I don’t think it works. I think you need to do it collectively, because some people won’t be able to pay and we have to educate everybody and that’s why we have free public schools.
Healthcare. Unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation. When my mother and father came from Italy and ran right into a Depression and lost their youngest child, there was none of these things. And so the decision we made for the first hundred years or so was, you don’t need any, you’re fine. Not complicated. Maybe primitively stupid, but not complicated, and it’s still not – it’s still not.
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 discretely in order to gain the benefits of community without sacrificing the importance of individual freedom and responsibility. In these concededly broad terms, that would be good government and it’s frankly also inviting to people who think of themselves, or want to think of themselves, as religious, who want to believe in something bigger than they are, which is the basis of all of it. I know I do; I know I do desperately want to believe in something better than I am. If all there is is me in this society, then I’ve wasted an awful lot of time, because I’m not worth it.
I’m going to quit now before I proceed any further down that slippery slope.
[Laughter and applause]
Thank you very, very much.
MS. TIPPETT: Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York. After his presentation Mario Cuomo was challenged to take his argument one step further. When should a politician with strong religious views try to bring the larger community to his position? In other words, under what circumstances would he, Mario Cuomo, risk political rejection for the sake of religious principle?
GOVERNOR CUOMO: I don’t think that’s a question that you should limit to religious issues. That is a question that occurs all the time. Now, my position on the death penalty, for example, confuses a lot of people. In debating it against Ed Koch, which I did for years and years, he would love to get up and say, “Well, Mario is against the death penalty because he thinks it’s a sin,” which was a kind of deprecating way to characterize my position. I have been against the death penalty all of my adult life. For most of my adult life the Catholic Church did not express an opinion against the death penalty. Notwithstanding, I wrote to the Vatican when I was governor and said, “Please, please, please speak on this subject.”
And as a matter of fact, I spoke against the death penalty, never once suggesting that I was doing it as a moral issue. I very, very seldom talk in terms of moral issues. I will talk about religious issues; I don’t talk about morality. I said, “I am against the death penalty because I think it is bad and unfair for society. I think it is debasing. I think it is degenerate. I think it kills innocent people. I think it eclipses other more significant issues that you should be addressing when you’re talking about murder and how to do away with it, et cetera.”
And so my point was made on the basis of reasons that you could fairly say were not religious, not questions of morality; they were questions that are perfectly appropriate in this pluralistic society, what’s good for you, what’s fair, what’s reasonable, what works, what doesn’t work, and I made a very, very strong case, and I got, pardon me, murdered, especially in 1994 when the exit polls showed that I lost 7.5 percent of the votes. And considering I only lost the election by 2.5 or 3 points, that was a lot.
And all the while, I would bring the subject up with my political handlers, arguing all the while you can’t do this, because it was never good in any campaign. Well, why did I do that? Well, I did that because I believe it was better – I hate to sound noble, even if I were to lose the campaign – I thought it was better to make that point and to make it as loudly and insistently as I could than to walk away from it.
Why? Because it was an issue that went way beyond executing somebody at Sing Sing. I pushed it because I believed it went far beyond the death penalty itself. It was a question of how you viewed life. It was a question of how you viewed human beings. It was a question of how you dealt with your own anger. So when do you do it? When will you push an issue? Stem cells: Should you do it with stem cells now? Should we now, as Catholics, be arguing that there should be a law that declares anybody who withdraws a stem cell from an embryo a murderer? Should you forbid it? Should you make it part of the penal law? That is the logic of it, isn’t it? That’s the logic of it with abortion too, isn’t it? If you’re going to say it’s a human and it’s a person, well then you should say that there should be a law punishing it as murder. No, I don’t think so. Why? I think that would be divisive. I think it doesn’t work. I think people wouldn’t understand it, and I think you wouldn’t make your point.
On abortion, I made the point at Notre Dame in 1984 as a Catholic. I said, “Look, if we want to convince people that abortion, our position on abortion, demonstrates a respect for life, that would be good for all of us, let us start by doing it by example.” And at that point, the statistics available to us were that Catholics were having abortions to the same extent that everybody else was. And how can we expect to convert this community to our point of view unless we lead the way by example and with love?
So it’s not an easy question but it goes way beyond religion. It goes to all your positions.
MS. TIPPETT: Former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, speaking at a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington D.C. After a short break, we’ll return with the remarks of Republican Congressman Mark Souder. I’m Krista Tippett, stay with us.
Welcome back to this special program on politics and faith in America. We’re listening this hour to highlights of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. on reconciling personal religious conviction with serving a pluralistic constituency. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo was followed at the speaker’s podium by Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana. Politically. Mark Souder is far removed from Mario Cuomo’s, classic liberalism.
MARK SOUDER: When I first got involved in the conservative movement, there weren’t evangelicals and fundamentalists in politics. The leadership was Catholic and Jewish, and the intellectual leadership in the conservative movement are of those traditions. In ’76, when Jimmy Carter said he was born again, that was really the rise of evangelical action. He won as he picked up the southern evangelicals. As they started to apply that in ’80, it led more to the rise in the Moral Majority and much more Republican activity, as we know, with the new Right today. But that’s a relatively new phenomenon in American political history.
MS. TIPPETT: Mark Souder’s great great grandfather was one of the first Amish settlers of rural Indiana. He grew up in an Anabaptist tradition, which is characterized by social conservatism as well as pacifism. As an Anabaptist and an evangelical, he considers himself to be part of a religious minority, one which has been persecuted in many cultures throughout history. To say that America is a Christian country is for Mark Souder to take too broad a definition of Christianity. But he does believe that American democracy is sustained by the religious impulse, which shaped it. he has been strengthened in this conviction through travels and charitable work in Russia. And he opened his extended remarks to the Pew Forum by reflecting on that beginning with a quote from John Adams.
MARK SOUDER: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Now, that didn’t used to be a controversial statement. It’s a little more controversial today.
In Russia and in other countries where we’ve exported capitalism without the moral foundation, what we wound up with was greed. When we export liberty without a moral foundation, you wind up with license. I had dinner with the head of their stock market, the struggle was that 75 percent of the assets initially in any bank statement weren’t real. If you don’t have some sort of a premise, it is very hard to make our type of system work.
Faith institutions are the key to developing such a moral foundation. The government may foster it, encourage it, nurture it, or it may discriminate against it, harass it or undermine it, but it is not the job of the government, nor should it be, to replace the church and its people as the primary moral agent of society.
Conservative faiths differ on how involved the City of God should be with the City of Man. But this much is true: Conservative Christians as individuals do not separate ourselves into a private and a public life.
Let me give you another quote: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” That’s what Lord Melbourne said in opposing the abolition of the slave trade when Wilberforce and others tried to argue against slavery. They said religion should not come into the public arena.
When you serve in government, as I do, every day, every hour you make moral decisions, new laws to restrict cheaters like Enron execs. Why? It’s a moral decision. Why restrict cheating? That’s a moral premise we have. When we deal with laws against rape, for child support enforcement, war, how to assist juveniles in trouble with the law, why not let them just fight it out and the strongest survive? It’s a moral premise that we have in our country. Even national parks – I serve on the National Parks Committee – why preserve it? Why do we say preserve our heritage? Because we believe we’re trying to create and pass on, and so there’s a logical order and a moral order to what we should preserve.
Now, as a Conservative Christian, it seems okay when I speak out on national parks, and it’s okay when I speak out on spouse abuse, but when I speak out on homosexual marriage, pornography, abortion, gambling, then we are supposed to check our personal religious views at the public door. No matter how deeply I hold these and other views, no matter how vital these views are to our fundamental faith, somehow they’re different.
To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that, I will not do. Either I am a Christian or I am not. Either I reflect His glory or I do not.
Some time ago, a trendy evangelical expression was WWJD – I saw a lot of the bracelets and all that – What Would Jesus Do? A better question, given that we are not God, would be: To the best of my limited capability to understand, what do I believe Jesus would have me, as a humble sinner, do? That is a legitimate question.
All this said – and you can hear my passion – how do you implement this in a pluralistic society? It is not easy. Some of this is how to handle defeat in the public arena – violence, civil disobedience, working to elect different people. Do you respect those with whom you disagree deeply? Can there be a civil debate on abortion or not?
Few decisions were ever as hard for me as voting against three counts of impeachment of Bill Clinton, the only conservative in Congress to do so. I found his moral behavior abominable. I cannot tell you how disgusted I was at a personal level. But I also swore to uphold the Constitution. And as Chuck Colson told me the night before I voted – and he did not agree with my position, but based on how I interpreted the Constitution, having studied all the arguments with it, far beyond looking for a way to vote yes, I concluded I couldn’t on three of the counts – and he said, I took an oath to uphold that Constitution. If I didn’t vote my conscience, if I felt the political pressure coming from my base in my district, then I would be committing perjury just like the allegation against Clinton. So I had a choice either to resign or vote my conscience.
Now, the only more difficult question than that is war. I come from an Anabaptist background. The book of Romans, however, clearly states that individual Christians have a responsibility for peace; it is the job of government to punish the evildoers. But, that said, a vote even for a necessary and just war will never, ever be easy for me, because of my fundamental beliefs. I believe it should be exercised with grave caution.
Sometimes we behave as though being a minority whose views did not triumph is terrible, especially for children. The church in which I grew up did not believe in attending movies. The school decided to attend – I’m old, so this is a long time ago – but they decided to attend The Sound of Music. They knew what my moral views were, my church’s views were, and they did not adjust the majority view because of my personal minority view. I got to go sit in a classroom all by myself. The ACLU did not come in to defend me.
For that matter, they still don’t around many conservative minority views. What bothers me in the public arena today is that if you’re on the other side when issues come out the other direction, if a liberal objects or somebody of a different view than a conservative Christian objects, then we’re supposed to stop the action. Now, a liberal may argue that these are not, for example, on evolution, a debate about facts; they’re debates that are religious. They are not. They are fundamentally different viewpoints of the world anchored in your view of how the world came to be and your worldview. It’s one thing to say that we’re going to have a debate, but it’s thing unfair in debate for some to assume that their moral views are above reproof and above debate and that other people’s moral views are merely their personal views.
A significant percentage of this country is evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist or conservative Catholic or conservative Lutheran or Orthodox Jewish, or fundamentalist Muslims, and we hold passionate views that are essential to our very being. We will not, and it is unfair to ask us to, check those beliefs at the public door. It’s not going to happen.
So how are we going to work this through? Diversity has increased. Our challenge is how to continue to allow personal religious freedom in America, as guaranteed by our Constitution, but how to work through the differences in the public arena in a fair manner. In a republic, disagreements are decided in the public arena. At different times in American history, different moral views may prevail. Abortion may be legal in some periods and illegal in other periods. Will dissenters resort to violence or protest or the ballot box? Sex with minors?: moral view. Marijuana use?: moral view. Spanking of children?: moral view. All moral judgments and the worldview that’s in charge of the legislature, the worldview that’s in charge of the presidency, the worldview that’s in charge of the courts, will decide that.
So I would put forth there are two unique things in America that we have to work through is: One, we resolve these moral disputes peacefully; and, secondly, while we may restrict the actions of citizens for example, withholding medical support for children in some faiths where they don’t believe in that. Sometimes the laws override how we resolve those margins, and how we protect personal belief and the rights of churches. Our civil discussion has been strained and will be strained when either of those things – resorting to violence or restricting the religious sector – is most pushed. The rest, basically, in a republic, is resolved through public debate.
Thank you very much.
MS. TIPPETT: Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana. I’m Krista Tippett and this is a special Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. After their prepared remarks Congressman Souder and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo engaged in dialogue in response to audience questions. One exchange concerned natural law. In his remarks, Mario Cuomo stated that the concept of natural law underpins his understanding of the proper role of religion within the American political process. For him, there are basic principles of moral conduct that would occur to any group of reasonable people stranded on a desert island, but aren’t such principles too general to be useful? Mark Souder argues that the distinctive beliefs of his own religious tradition and others are precisely what ennoble be American public arena. He says that his own Christian faith cannot be described by way of universal principles.
CONGRESSMAN SOUDER: I believe that this natural law of things common to all religions is, in fact, a different moral view and worldview than a Christian worldview and is unacceptable to me. I believe the Holy Trinity is nature’s God. Nature’s god and natural law it’s a hotly debated subject and I don’t believe there is a common denominator that’s workable in the American political system.
One of the early fights that I had was with a school board in my home district. They decided that because there was an assembly at school where there was an altar call – it’s one thing to talk about religion; it’s another thing to do an altar call. I think we would all agree that that is one step beyond where you could go in talking about even your religious faith.
But that led to a series of rules by the school board that said no religiously affiliated concert could come on school grounds, you couldn’t have a prayer baccalaureate, you couldn’t have Youth for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting as one of the activities at school, and a whole range of different things that we had a public objection to.
Now our position was, if there are different faiths in school, then you ought to rotate the prayer. If there are different faiths in school, then different people ought to be allowed to participate in the faith. We’re not trying to impose any one; it’s not a sectarian solution.
And one of the news reporters, who was Jewish, came over to me and said, you have more in common with me than some of the mainline people because they had a secular humanist view of the debate, they kind of had this generic American brand of loosely defined Christianity, with remnants of Judeo-Christian beliefs, but not really precisely defined. And those of us who have distinct faiths often wind up more in agreement and figure out how to accommodate in the public arena those intense disagreements.
MS. TIPPETT: Congressman Mark Souder. And here is Mario Cuomo’s response:
GOVERNOR CUOMO: If I heard you correctly, you said that the natural law principle that says we’re all in this together is too general to be useful. Well, that’s, of course, true of the American Constitution as well, right? We have the Articles of Confederation, 13 states, and they decided this doesn’t work because we’re interconnected and interdependent and we ought to create, we ought to come together to tikkun olam, to repair this situation. And they created a Constitution that has soaring general language about “for the common welfare,” “to create a more perfect union.” Talk about generalizations.
But it’s the first principle: Do you believe that our solution to the problem of 9/11 and dealing with hate from all over the planet, a billion or so people out there who some people think are committed to our destruction, do you think that suggesting a principle that says, “Look, let’s start with the proposition that we’re interconnected and interdependent and they’re part of our world,” as the congressman just said, wouldn’t be useful? Those, of course, were Gorbachev’s greatest words. They were Vaclav Havel’s greatest words. They were the contribution they made, that we’re all in this thing together. It’s the difference between isolationism and getting involved.
Two principles, we’re supposed to treat one another with dignity. That means that people in Africa who are dying from AIDS are just like the people here who are dying from AIDS. We don’t treat them that way, not nearly. We’re not doing anything like what we would do for them if they were in our family. That’s a violation of the principle that I’m annunciating. You have to apply it from moment to moment, as the congressman says, and, in the end, it’s always a matter of fashioning it to meet the practical situation.
But too general? It’s the whole game.
MS. TIPPETT: Former New York, Mario Cuomo speaking at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. In closing remarks, conservative Congressman Mark Souder described his life of faith and politics as a paradox that works. He holds a fundamentalist faith while serving a diverse electoral base. In his district of Indiana he has 97 percent name recognition because he says he stands for something. He insists that it is possible to be both devout and tolerant, to differentiate between personal conviction and constitutional duty.
CONGRESSMAN SOUDER: I believe the Bible is the word of God and Christ and God made flesh. The Word is Him continuing with us. Therefore, as a fundamentalist, I believe it’s a literal guidebook. Now, it doesn’t give precise guidance, which is why there can be debate, and much of what we deal with, possibly 80 percent in public arena, is not clear, and arbitrary. People who read the same Bible can disagree, and that’s where the humility comes in, and the respect for one another. And where the public debate does it. Some things are more and more clear. I mean, the Ten Commandments are relatively clear, but even then, is it “kill” or “murder” in the Ten Commandments? So you should have, as I said, in regard to What Would Jesus Do – it’s as a humble sinner trying to reflect, and that should be reflecting the public attitude.
And I think, to take democracy – or the republic, as I would prefer to say it, it’s a democratic republic – I believe my obligation is to make my views clear to my district. If they know those views, it’s to represent those views, and they can throw me out if not.
And the last pollster said more than any other congressman in America that he’s ever polled, people not only knew my name, they had an opinion about me. And The Chicago Tribune, when they came in to the last election, said that every single person they interviewed said pro and con about my moral views. That said, I have even as a conservative Republican – I just had a tough primary race with a friend of mine who’s a more liberal Republican, who disagreed with some of my moral stance – I have a far more diverse base than establishment liberals or the Democrats do. My campaign chairman is Armenian. I have a large Indian, Asian Indian, community in my district that actively supports me. I have never in any sub poll – I’m not saying this is actually how they vote but in any sub poll – pulled less than 67 percent of any minority sub group, including African-American or Asian or Hispanic, and it’s partly because by my nature, I’m non-discriminatory, and that’s because I believe I have strong views, but respect other people’s strong views, they sense that.
Part of trying to deal with the Middle East, however, becomes much more problematic. I’m a very strong supporter of Israel. That, however, does not mean that I believe that somehow Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims are subhuman, or that I have a disrespect, or do not want to try to work out the complexities both international and domestic with the Muslim faith.
We have now 200 Iraqi in my district, and in meeting with them and discussing this through, any Christian or others, who particularly at this time, do not try to understand the complexities and the differences in the Muslim community are wrong.
It’s clear there’s a wide diversity in the Muslim community, even in a country, that most Americans don’t even necessarily, including many in our government, understand the distinctions inside the community.
Now, understanding the differences and common traditions is going to be slower, but how we work through those is important. And do I think that the diversity will strengthen or weaken America? It depends on how we react. We at least had a rubric of a Judeo-Christian framework, loosely defined, as we absorb the Asian religions and the Muslim religions in larger numbers than we have before, How in the public arena do we accommodate a legal system and an ethical system that’s anchored in those traditions? And the fundamental challenge, we have to do far more understanding of the differences to work out how that’s going to work through in the public arena.
MS. TIPPETT: Congressman Mark Souder at the Pew Forum on the Religion and Public Life. And here are the closing remarks of Governor Mario Cuomo. Does believe, he was asked, that America is growing more secular or more religious and what are the implications of this question for American public life.
GOVERNOR CUOMO: This is a truly intriguing question and a very good one. My own personal sense of it, and what I’ve seen over my span is an increasing desire to be able to engage this world in spiritual terms, as distinguished from material terms. And I think, without making it too complicated, that’s not always religion qua religion. It is a growing desire to find an explanation that goes beyond yourself.
And this has always been true of humanity. You’ve always wanted to find an explanation that goes beyond your own me-ness and that is larger and more beautiful and will sustain you in all the confusion of this place, especially after things like 9/11, where the biggest question that you’re left with is not why did your religion fail, why did your intelligence fail, but why did any good God allow this to happen? And that’s the question of the Holocaust and that’s the question when a child dies in the crib without explanation, and it’s the question that troubles religious people most. And you read Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, et cetera, and it’s never enough, no matter what you read.
And most people conclude at one point that the only thing I’m sure of is the value of the next breath I’m going to draw, the value of my life and making more of my life. And then they fall back to either two possibilities: One, you see yourself as a basket of appetites and you’re going to run around filling up your basket as fast as you can because you know you’re liable to be extinguished at any moment; that’s what 9/11 reminds you of, and so you do sex or food or power, whatever it is.
But I think a larger number of people know that that’s foolish, because you get older and the basket falls apart
And you look for something really meaningful. And what is it? It’s the people you love and the people who love you. It’s your children, your home.
Incidentally, that’s part of the real estate thing I am convinced over the last year. You ask people who sell curtains, you ask people who sell videocassettes that you can watch at home at night: All those businesses are up. People are more and more turning into the home.
So this desire for something to believe in is growing. Now, it’s always been there, and if you take your own life, I take my own life, if you’re fighting the fight for survival, if you’re desperate and you’re hungry, you’ll think about it once in a while, but you’re more engaged with putting food on the table for your kids or finding a job or staying out of jail and you don’t get philosophical about it. But when you get as rich and comfortable as we are, you know, and you can see it in the generations of children, their options grow, their ease grows, and they have this problem more and more. I see it in the summer associates at our law firm who come from Yale and Harvard, some of the brightest people in America, and from some of the best families, too. And they’ll come in after a year or so and say, “You know, Governor, you were lucky you were in public service. There’s got to be something more than Willkie, Farr, and Gallagher and making all this money and living this way.”
So the short answer: Spirituality, yes, a great desire for spirituality, but the sophistication, and I’m using it as a negative now, that comes with a lot of education, et cetera, makes it a little bit harder to keep the religious tradition and making it a religious commitment, because more and more of the people think they’re wise enough to challenge it: I can’t prove it, I don’t understand it, and so I’m going to reject that, and you give them any provocation to give up on their so-called faith and they’ll lapse, they’ll say, well, I’m spiritual.
And if you go to Barnes & Noble, in the bookstores, and you ask them what are the big sellers, financing is still a big seller, but self-awareness books, books on spirituality generally are very, very popular. Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
The new dean of St. John the Divine – this is Episcopalian, the largest cathedral in the world asked me to take the pulpit and to give a sermon, and I did.
I went to the week before Rosh Hashanah to Temple Israel in the Five Towns. I went to Baptist churches all the time for the last eight weeks, until three weeks ago, and gave sermons every Sunday morning, and it was always the two very general principles.
And you can do it a thousand different ways. In the Baptist Church, you know – look there are two ideas, individuality and community. Paul to the Thessalonians, “Take care of yourself, learn to take care of yourself.” Paul to Timothy, “But when that fails, make sure you help one another.” That’s individuality and community. And those principles work like magic everywhere.
So if you get a population that’s trying more and more to be spiritual, more and more to find some truth, that’s what the natural law is. It’s a truth that appeals to your reason, that doesn’t have the benefit of bureaucracy and carefully etched, specific rules for specific situations, but that has the fundamental principles that make you believe in something bigger than yourself, and what’s bigger than myself is the world that I’m part of and the contribution I can make is making it a little bit better. Now, I’m not smart enough to figure out anything else. I’m not smart enough to figure out heaven and here and why any good God would burn you eternally for making you vulnerable, and all of that – this is not me; this is the people that we’re talking about who are spiritual but not religious. That I detect and that’s a very good thing, people looking for something more to believe in. That’s what religion is supposed to do for you.
Now, is it good? Bad? I think it’s good because I think what we desperately need is something to express a willingness to be a community, and that means we’ve got to learn better than we know now how to come together, so I think it’s good. Thank you very very much.
MS. TIPPETT: Former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo speaking at a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. You also heard Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana. You can find complete transcripts of this event on the Pew Forum website www.pewforum.org. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Special thanks for this broadcast up to Melissa Rogers, executive director of The Forum and E.J. Dionne and Jean Bethke Elshtain, the forum’s co-moderators.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this special broadcast and on the ideas presented here, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s “m” as in Minnesota, mpr.org. You can post public comments and find the audio of this program and links to the transcript on the Speaking of Faith website, speakingoffaith.org. This program was produced by Marge Ostroushko and Brian Newhouse. Technical direction came from Mitch Hanley and Craig Thorson. Our webmaster Eric Walter, our intern is Sarah dink. Bill Buzenberg is Minnesota Public Radio’s senior vice president of news. I’m Krista Tippett and this program is a production of Minnesota Public Radio.