Caesar and God

New York Governor Mario Cuomo (D) is an unusual politician for our time: he not only admits that he is religious, he proclaims religion’s importance to both his private and public lives. Rarely does a politician introduce a book, as does Cuomo his recent More Than Words, by proclaiming that “Politics had nothing to do with the formation of my basic values.” Even more rarely does he proudly assert that he learned his values, or moral principles, from “the unadorned Christian ethic” practiced by his parents.

Cuomo’s parents, and the code they taught him, never are far from his lips in public speeches. He notes with pride that his immigrant father “taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.” Of course, such lessons are not easily or quickly learned. Including his audience in reflections on his own misspent youth, Cuomo in one speech laments that: “We thought the Sermon on the Mount was a nice allegory and nothing more. What we didn’t understand . . . was that it was the whole answer, the whole truth. That . . . the only way to succeed and to be happy is to learn those rules so basic that a shepherd’s son could teach them to an ignorant flock without notes or formulae.”

The way of faith and hard work is not easy, and one should expect travelers on it to make many mistakes, as do we all. But Cuomo’s unabashed references to his Catholic values promise a distinctive and much-needed moral voice in American politics. As the three-term governor of one of our largest states and a national figure of some importance, he could make this voice heard far and wide. Bucking his own Democratic Party’s dominant hostility toward all things religious, it would seem Cuomo could show Americans that our religious principles must inform our political positions. To deny this, Cuomo seems to say, is to deny that politics, and politicians, can be moral.

Cuomo clearly has moral standards. He just as clearly demands that our government meet his moral standards. As he put it in his 1984 Democratic Convention keynote address, “We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech what a proper government should be. The idea of family. Mutuality. The sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all. Feeling one another’s pain. Sharing one another’s blessings.”

We must “feel one another’s pain.” But how is government to act on this feeling? What standards of public and political conduct does this notion of the nation-as-family give to us? For Cuomo the answer seems clear: “A society as blessed as ours should be able to find room at the table — shelter for the homeless, work for the idle, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute. To demand less of our government or ourselves would be to evade our proper responsibility.”

Acting through our government, we have a moral responsibility, according to Cuomo, to ensure the economic well-being of all Americans. The question is whether this moral vision and the conduct it demands are in keeping with the Catholic values Cuomo says he holds dear, or rather with a narrow, ideological liberalism that is in fact hostile to religion itself. Does Cuomo live up to his promise as a Catholic politician? Or is his Catholicism, however sincere in his private life, in his politics little more than a pleasing illusion, obscuring an all-too-materialistic program?

Moral Government

Cuomo criticized Ronald Reagan for talking about morals but not supporting moral institutions through governmental action. Reagan’s “State of the Union talks about restoring traditional family values. But the budget subverts the economic stability of millions of poor and middle-class families, denying them the aid for housing, education, food, and mass transit they depend on.”

Families depend on government funding, according to Cuomo. To fail to continually increase this funding is to deny Americans what is rightfully theirs; it is to write into American history “A Tale of Two Cities” — of self-indulgent affluence and poverty, of discrimination and despair. We must erase this tale and put in its place a palpable City on a Hill — “one city, indivisible, shining for all its people.”

Yet American politics remains for Cuomo a tale of two classes — a struggle between champions of the rich and champions of the poor. On the side of the poor, and thus the angels, are “progressive pragmatists” such as himself, who understand that “by our own volition, freely, out of our Christian commitment, we can will not only to profess the faith, but to live it, to make our faith matter in this world, not just in the churches, but in the mean streets where people go hungry and homeless, without hope or love.”

Cuomo often cites Abraham Lincoln to the effect that the American people should have only the government they need, but “are entitled to all the government” they need. We need government to support us as a father supports his children. We must use “governmental compassion” to redistribute wealth and opportunity from our more fortunate to our less fortunate siblings.

In his most recent state-of-the-state address, Cuomo calls for tax cuts and a number of other pro-business reforms that many observers have dubbed “echoes of the GOP.” Yet these proposals give no hint that Cuomo has forsaken his commitment to big government as the provider of material well-being.

According to Cuomo, all of us “are presented with a choice. Either we swim with the tide and accept the notion that the best way to improve the world is for government to help the fortunate, and then hope that personal charity will induce them to take care of the rest of us. Or we resist, by affirming that as we hear God, He tells us it is our moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, all of us, as a people, as a government.”

Cuomo’s God tells us to use government to help our fellow Americans, to serve as champions of the poor by redistributing wealth and opportunity. Opposing him are “social Darwinists” who believe that government, because it can’t do everything, “should settle for taking care of the strong and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer and what falls from their table will be enough for the middle class and those trying to make it into the middle class.”

The inevitable excesses of party politics may account for Cuomo’s rhetoric. He is, perhaps, serious when he also admonishes us to “have the humility and decency to remember that all the angels seldom stand on one side of a particular issue. And that in the subtle conflict situations, not every resistance to what seems a good idea is bigotry and not every new liberal idea is infallible.”

If Cuomo means what he says, it may be helpful to argue with him over whether his policies can accomplish his goals. One can only admire Cuomo for wanting to put his religious beliefs into practice. But the compassionate society Cuomo wants to create is being made impossible by the very policies he and his allies have instituted.

Communities exist because they have a purpose. If government takes over their function, communities will expire. If government takes over the role of charity — if we come to think with Cuomo that we “as a government” must be our brother’s keeper — then the Golden Rule, the admonition to love one’s neighbor as oneself, easily can be reduced to the paying of taxes. “I pay half my salary to the government,” one might note, “so why should I deny myself leisure and luxuries in order to take care of others? That’s the government’s job.”

The family itself exists because it has a purpose: to conceive and form the characters of children so that they will become good and virtuous adults. Seen in this light, the government funding on which Cuomo says families depend actually may harm them, because it insures that family members no longer need one another. Of course, even good families may need a helping hand at times. But when the government replaces, as in large part it has, the personal charity of church, extended family, and neighborhood, our natural sense of responsibility and obligation is dulled.

Many Americans no longer think that they need families, now that they can look to the state for support. They consider religious charity demeaning because it entails moral obligations of gratitude. Recognition of mutual need and mutual obligation is disappearing as Americans come to see the state as the source of all that is good and necessary. When the state takes care of us, we do not need to care for each other. Impersonal ties replace personal ones.

By fostering this kind of reasoning, bureaucratic charity suffocates personal virtue. It also snuffs out communities in which good lives are led. It reduces mutual obligation and affection to a contest of political power between interests. It turns neighborhoods into ghettos beset by selfishness, greed, and violence.

Morality as Politics

To argue for big government is not to argue against God. There have been many sincere Christian socialists and social democrats. Men such as the late French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain have done much to enrich our moral understanding even while making what one might argue are fundamental mistakes of political and economic thinking. Men of good will may disagree about such things. Even though, or perhaps because, the stakes are high, a civil public debate must be maintained.

Cuomo, however, politicizes his religion to an extent greater than Maritain, who was careful to point out that “the state is for man, not man for the state.” For Maritain, religious principles may inspire, even should inspire, concrete forms of politics. Cuomo goes further, closely identifying his religious principles with his politics. For him, politics is a grand battle between social Darwinist victimizers of the poor and “pragmatic progressive” champions of the good and true.

Cuomo certainly takes his principles seriously. He argues that the simple rules of his parents’ Christian ethic are the proper bases of politics. Rejecting political opportunism, he asks: “Should we admit the foundations of our political beliefs are so many reeds to be shaken by the winds of political popularity, or even an electoral hurricane?” For Cuomo, of course, the proper answer is no. You must stick by your principles, “even when you’re down in the polls.”

But Cuomo’s principles dictate that we find solutions to all our private, moral, and social problems — from illiteracy to violent crime to poverty and teenage pregnancy — in political programs emphasizing the redistribution of wealth. Religion and familial affection become mere sentiments urging us to use the state to achieve material equality. This is not to say that Cuomo finds religion unimportant. Quite the contrary. He wishes to mobilize our natural affections toward our families and our natural recognition that we owe duties to our God and our fellowman to further his political program. This is why he constantly refers to “the family” of New York, of America, or of other large political bodies. He wishes to invoke the imagery and sentiments of family life for the purposes of the state.

Cuomo would have us reason that, because we are morally bound to be our brother’s keeper, we should feel morally bound to support governmental programs which supposedly will benefit all members of the “family” of America. Indeed, Cuomo goes beyond even the nation, praising environmental regulation as “the ultimate selfless act” because through it we sacrifice our own welfare in the hope that we will benefit future generations — people we don’t even know because they do not yet exist.

This universal benevolence would allow us to use political means to achieve justice — defined as an equal distribution of material wealth. The family is too local and weak to achieve such a lofty goal. But the state, buttressed by familial imagery and affection, can reorganize the world to make it more moral and just. Merely to comfort those afflicted by the inevitable tragedies of life no longer will suffice. Government must not merely protect the intimate associations in which we find comfort, but “solve” the “problems” of poverty, discrimination, and inequality.

Cuomo says he learned much from Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, who “glorified the world and everything in it.” On this view, “God created the world, but he did not finish it. . . . He left it to us to finish the work of creation.” According to Cuomo, this means that God Himself is “a voice urging us to be involved in actively working to improve the world he created — every way possible, including through government.”

Poverty itself, for Cuomo, is evidence that God left His creation incomplete. Indeed, God apparently made a mistake when he created economic inequality because its causes are “inscrutable.” We must use “governmental compassion” — massive social programs funded by taxpayer dollars — to eliminate poverty. State officials must use all of our resources to make the nation-as-family materially secure and equal, and thus complete the work God left unfinished.

Governmental Compassion v. Liberty

Cuomo’s religious zeal for governmental compassion leads him to find the traditional Catholic vision of his childhood morally unsatisfying, even sad. “The simple folk of South Jamaica [New York] . . . perceived the world then as a sort of cosmic basic-training course, filled by God with obstacles and traps to weed out the recruits unfit for eventual service in the heavenly host.” For such people, suffering in this world was to be accepted as God’s will and lived with in the attempt to be worthy of future grace. Such a vision allowed for charity, for an intimate solidarity in the families, churches, and neighborhood groups still active even in New York City during Cuomo’s youth. But to accept life’s tragic quality is, for Cuomo, to commit the “sin” of accepting material insecurity and inequality — a sin he will not abide.

Through government, Cuomo thinks, we can fulfill our religious obligation to be our brother’s keeper. Yet the most obvious lesson that Cuomo has not learned from the fall of socialism is that the attempt to use government in this way results in tyranny and eventual economic collapse. The same obligations cannot apply both to family and to nation because the same affections do not apply to each. It is as natural as it is necessary, in the words of Edmund Burke, “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” Such love is, as Burke argued, the “first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” Mere mortals do not at first love strangers, even if they are fellow citizens, as deeply as they love their brothers, sisters, parents, and children.

We learn to treat one another well by interacting with them. The personal attachments from which thinking acts of virtue grow, from which we learn habits of mutual dependence, accommodation, and affection, are not political. Is it, in fact, “selfish” if “charity begins at home”? It may seem so, if one deems the work of mankind to be the “perfection” of God’s creation through political means.

But politics is not the ultimate source of goodness, let alone religious principle. Perhaps the greatest blessing of liberty is that it leaves room for the private and social institutions that shape our character and our life together. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted 150 years ago, liberty in America has been of great benefit to spiritual life and to the formation of virtue: “The free institutions of the United States and the political rights enjoyed there provide a thousand continual reminders to every citizen that he lives in society. At every moment they bring his mind back to this idea, that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to be useful to their fellows.”

Free to form their own attachments without state interference, Americans in earlier times sought to serve those they knew and loved, to do unto others as they would have done unto them. In part the motivation for such virtue was practical — it is unwise to cheat one’s neighbor. But this fact of practical life always has been recognized as a blessing because it leads us to recognize our duty, leads us to act rightly, and allows us to learn through experience that it is both pleasant and good to act nobly. In this way we learn the habits of virtue.

The Catholic Church long has recognized the principle of “subsidiarity” — that the functions of life, and even of charity, should be carried out at the most local level possible. Thus the central government should not take on any task of which the local government is capable. Most importantly, the greatest possible responsibility should be left with families, churches, and local associations. In this way the intimate ties of local life may be maintained, and each of us can see and act on personal responsibility to our fellowman.

Cuomo finds families, churches, and local associations useful to the extent that they help carry on the state’s work of producing ever-greater material equality. But he seems to value none of these institutions — not even any particular nation or state — for itself. Cuomo judges the condition of our morality by the degree of actual equality in the material conditions of our people. In this way he chains religious to material principles.

Political Morality Ends at the Material

Religious sentiment is important to Cuomo. It should guide us, he says, toward a moral politics. But for Cuomo politics is moral only when and to the extent that it produces equal material wellbeing. Moral principles should not be allowed to produce political actions that would intrude on private moral choices. Rather, we should use religious sentiment to construct a public order that will shape all of us into citizens who insist, first, on material security and, second, on the right of each individual to create his own morality.

This second demand becomes clear when Cuomo dubs as immoral anyone who would “dictate a woman’s choice on abortion, and how and where children should pray.” To oppose abortion or support voluntary prayer in schools (let alone to support “moral” legislation on issues such as pornography) is for Cuomo to “insist on a governmentally imposed mode of private behavior.” Such attempts to put religious principle into practice are, for Cuomo, “frightening.” By comparison, he seeks merely to serve the people, to give them “all the government they need, but only the government they need,” and to do God’s will by providing people with the material security to pursue their own visions of the moral life.

In nominating Bill Clinton for President, Cuomo praised him for adhering to the “politics of inclusion” in which people “of whatever color, of whatever creed, of whatever sex, of whatever sexual orientation, all [are] equal members of the American family.” Clinton, according to Cuomo, would “make the whole nation stronger by bringing people together, showing us our commonality, instructing us in cooperation, making us not a collection of competing special interests, but one great, special family — the family of America.”

Cuomo’s emphasis on the President’s role as educator, as the man who will make Americans better by teaching them to cooperate lies at the core of his moral and political vision. For Cuomo, politics is and should be the focus of public life. But politicians must not judge, let alone nurture, citizens’ souls. Rather, they must insist that differences in moral conduct be ignored so that the nation-as-family can concentrate on providing ever-increasing security and material equality.

Perhaps Cuomo sums up his own political vision best with his commandment: “Thou shalt not sin against equality.” The robber barons with whom he equates Republicans, the pro-life educators and legislators he decries as sexual oppressors, and anyone who opposes de facto racial quotas — all are sinners against equality.

Intimately linked with the pursuit of material equality, Cuomo’s morality is, in fact, more political than religious. When we examine his economic positions, Cuomo seems more concerned with the state of our pocketbooks than with the state of our souls. But perhaps this is a distortion. Perhaps a better picture of Cuomo’s moral vision of politics can be gained by looking at his views on a truly moral issue.


Abortion has been an issue of profound contention between Cuomo and the Catholic hierarchy, and has done much to increase his stature with the media. In 199o, New York Bishop Austin Vaughan was jailed for blocking access to a state- funded abortion clinic in Albany. Asked about Cuomo’s support for publicly funded abortions, Bishop Vaughan observed that Cuomo’s actions placed him “in serious risk of going to hell.” There followed a firestorm of protest in the press.

When Cardinal John J. O’Connor refused to condemn Bishop Vaughan for his observation, the protests intensified. The New York Times accused the cardinal of intolerance like that of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who called for the killing of author Salmon Rushdie for heresy against Islam. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., argued that the Church was justifying religious bigotry (and implied that the Church was being unAmerican) by attempting to dictate public policy on the basis of religious teaching.

Cuomo played the press beautifully. He supported, in his words, the bishop’s right “to curse a politician, curse them [sic] even to hell” as a constitutional right akin to a woman’s right to abortion. Informed by the cardinal that the bishop’s statement did not constitute a curse but rather an observation with the admirable capacity to warn Cuomo of the peril in which he was placing his own soul by his own actions, Cuomo curtly replied that he would accept — apparently as a matter of hierarchical authority — the cardinal’s interpretation.

Yet Cuomo’s involvement with the abortion issue extends far beyond this incident. As a Catholic politician who openly supports abortion rights, including the public funding of abortions, he has come under fire from his bishops even as he has garnered praise in the media. He also produced his most self-consciously intellectual work in response to this issue: a speech delivered at the Notre Dame Law School that later appeared in a law journal, as well as in the latest collection of his speeches.

In the Notre Dame speech Cuomo defends his pro-abortion public policies on explicitly political grounds. He believes in the Church’s teachings, he says. He believes that abortion is “to be avoided.” But this is merely a private, personal opinion; in keeping with the private practice of religion, it cannot properly be acted on in public life. Why not? “Our public morality . . . 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.” To Cuomo, the very fact that abortions occur shows that we cannot “impose” pro-life policies. To do so would be positively sinful because it would constitute a “frightening” use of religion to forward a given “political” program.

But Cuomo is willing to take a stand even against a democratic majority when he believes his morality requires it. Despite overwhelming support in his own state for capital punishment, Cuomo steadfastly refuses to implement it. He repeatedly vetoes legislation providing for capital punishment. He even has entered constitutional conflict with another state by refusing to allow a convicted murderer now serving time in a New York jail to be extradited to Oklahoma, where the man is under sentence of death.

Recently Cuomo proposed a referendum on the death penalty. He would have the family of New York decide capital punishment’s morality through campaign ads and the ballot box — two means he would deny to pro-life forces as they struggle to protect the unborn. Surely Cuomo does not believe that capital punishment is a political issue, on which he may fight for his own opinion, while abortion is not. The very premise of his Notre Dame speech is that abortion is too political an issue to be considered merely religious. According to Cuomo, his economic “Christian ethic” should become law. But the actual morality of Christianity — the public recognition of religion’s importance, and protection of the sanctity of marriage and unborn human life that are the very reasons religious folk support government — are improper subjects for any legislation, or even public support from an avowedly Catholic governor. (Here the contrast between Cuomo and Governor Casey of Pennsylvania, another Catholic, is acute.) When we leave the sphere of economic “morality” and enter that of social and private virtues, Cuomo vigorously argues for the separation of church from state, and even of religion from politics.

A number of religious thinkers, including Tocqueville and John Courtney Murray, have recognized the constitutional principle of church/state separation as an important practical basis for civility and thus for the promulgation of faith in a pluralistic society. Tocqueville praised the American system, not least because he thought it presented great opportunities for Catholicism. Unlike the various Protestant churches, Catholicism presents Americans with a religious authority “which is unique, simple, and the same for all.” Speaking with one voice, Catholicism commands a respect in our democratic society which the varied voices of Protestantism cannot. This makes Catholic morality particularly powerful in shaping the moral habits of Americans. Freed, until recent years, from both the crushing hand of state interference and the corrupting practice of state power, priests can concentrate on instructing their flocks in the fundamentals of religious and moral life.

Cuomo raises the prudent tool of church/state separation to the level of theological truth. Where Murray argued for civility and a recognition that certain sins cannot be punished if we are to enjoy the benefits accruing to religious life from a free society, Cuomo rejects religion’s moral authority altogether: God demands equality, but not life.

If Cuomo is not simply hypocritical, it would appear that he believes material equality is more important than “private” morality or unborn life. An essential element of his pro-abortion argument is frankly materialistic. For example, according to Cuomo, to cut off Medicaid funding for abortion “would burden only the already disadvantaged.” Because removing Medicaid funding of abortions wouldn’t keep rich women from having them, fairness requires that taxpayers provide for poor women’s abortions. After all, Thou shalt not sin against equality.

Typically, Cuomo tells pro-life forces that government funding is the answer to their concerns. We should, in Cuomo’s view, use governmental programs to make it financially easier for women to “choose” not to abort. Without making truly moral (or “judgmental”) arguments, we can make the private and independent choice of the individual more authentic by taking away the financial burdens of pregnancy and so, perhaps, reduce the number of abortions. Once again, in other words, governmental redistribution of wealth will make life more “just” and allow all of us to make our own utterly private moral choices.

Rejecting the Tragic View of Life

Whenever addressing the young, Cuomo waxes humble. He laments the failings of his own generation and proclaims that it has little to teach, while at the same time praising the young for their idealism. This is not surprising because Cuomo effectively rejects his Catholic heritage. He also rejects the tragic view of life at the heart of Catholicism and traditional life everywhere.

A man who, unlike Cuomo, accepts the tragic view recognizes that this life is imperfect, and that we cannot perfect or even come close to perfecting God’s creation. He recognizes that prideful attempts to act the part of God destroy the local communities and bonds of habitual affection that make virtue possible. He seeks, not to save the world from all want and injustice, but to help his neighbors — spiritually as well as physically, indeed, spiritually more than physically. He entertains no dream of a world without poverty. Instead, he strives with his fellows to form a community in which the poor are treated as full human begins, with dignity and virtue; in which we strive, in our families, churches, and local associations, to help others on a personal basis, and develop our own virtue as we seek to treat others as we would be treated.

There is a place for politics in the life of virtue, but governmental activity properly is subservient to social activity. The proper focus of public life is on civil society, not the state; that is, on the sharing of pain and happiness in the local groups in which intimate contact allows us to treat one another well and to learn one another’s real needs.

It is, in fact, rather curious that Cuomo, who makes much of his capacity for introspection and intellectual and spiritual insight, should constantly deny the central role of politics in his own life and thought. A lawyer before he entered politics, he often speaks of his early years providing “public service” by applying moral principles to his private life in family and community. Yet his “application” of principle consisted of suing the state to make it spend more or better utilize its money for social programs. Further, despite his protestations, Cuomo was no reluctant political competitor. He ran unsuccessfully for both New York City mayor and lieutenant governor. Electoral success came only when then-Governor Hugh Carey picked him as a running mate in Carey’s successful re-election bid in 1978.

Politics constitutes the center of Cuomo’s life and vision. It pervades his writings, even on as “private” and moral an issue as abortion. His public career has been a crusade to use government to accomplish what society cannot: to eliminate all want and all substantive inequality.

Small wonder, then, that New York has become a battleground of ethnic, racial, and political hatred, marred by rampant violence, social breakdown, and moral sickness. No man is an island, as Cuomo is fond of saying. But neither is man strictly a creature of political morality. The statesman who would improve on God’s creation ends by perverting it. If the state takes over the functions of religion, of family, and of local association, those institutions will atrophy — and so will our souls. The sin, then, will not be against equality, but against God, and thence comes the ruination of man.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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