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In recent years we have seen the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops become not only increasingly political, but increasingly politically aggressive. Led by Conference president, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, many bishops have even joined in common cause with the leaders of the Protestant evangelical Christian Right in ways that would have been unthinkable not long ago.  What's more, the generation of bishops appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict, have been aggressive in their enforcement of orthodoxy and shutting down of dissent and of reasoned discussion and debate, especially at church-controlled universities.

The spectacle of Roman Catholic leaders denouncing the 2009 decision of the University of Notre Dame to give president Barack Obama an honorary degree and allowing him to speak, illustrated just how extreme the bishops had become. The president ultimately received his honorary doctorate and was allowed to speak -- but the point had been made.

It was not always like this.   There was a time, for example, when Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo of New York spoke to an audience at Notre Dame -- and ultimately to the nation -- and said:  

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.

In in September of 1984, in the middle of the Reagan administration, Notre Dame's Department of Theology invited then-Governor Cuomo to speak on Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective. It turned out to be one of the most discussed and influential speeches of the time.  But I suspect would not be allowed today -- unless, of course, it toadied to conservative notions of church orthodoxy.  

Governor Cuomo addressed a number of thorny subjects including, among other things, how a Catholic elected official should approach matters of abortion and contraception; how the Catholic Bishops should relate to Catholic politicians in all of their diversity; and how all of us might find ways to navigate our way in a culture and constitutional system founded on religious pluralism. Cuomo's speech is at least a relevant today as it was then. Here is an excerpt.

Our 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. The values derived from religious belief will not -- and should not -- be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.

That values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.

The agnostics who joined the civil rights struggle were not deterred because that crusade's values had been nurtured and sustained in black Christian churches. Those on the political left are not perturbed today by the religious basis of the clergy and lay people who join them in the protest against the arms race and hunger and exploitation.

The arguments start when religious values are used to support positions which would impose on other people restrictions they find unacceptable. Some people do object to Catholic demands for an end to abortion, seeing it as a violation of the separation of church and state. And some others, while they have no compunction about invoking the authority of the Catholic bishops in regard to birth control and abortion, might reject out of hand their teaching on war and peace and social policy.

Ultimately, therefore, the question "whether or not we admit religious values into our public affairs" is too broad to yield a single answer. "Yes," we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But "no," all religiously based values don't have an a priori place in our public morality.. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedoms, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it.

The right answers to these questions can be elusive. Some of the wrong answers, on the other hand, are quite clear. For example, there are those who say there is a simple answer to all these questions; they say that by history and practice of our people we were intended to be -- and should be -- a Christian country in law.

But where would that leave the non-believers? And whose Christianity would be law, yours or mine?

This "Christian nation" argument should concern -- even frighten -- two groups: non-Christians and thinking Christians.

I believe it does.

I think it's already apparent that a good part of this Nation understands -- if only instinctively -- that anything which seems to suggest that God favors a political party or the establishment of a state church, is wrong and dangerous.

Way down deep the American people are afraid of an entangling relationship between formal religions -- or whole bodies of religious belief -- and government. 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.

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.

Crossposted from Talk to Action

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Sun Oct 13, 2013 at 07:12 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Pro Choice.

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