Cuomo's defense of politicians' rights

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in a courageous and compelling speech at Notre Dame University last Thursday, argued for the right of public officials to carry out their duties under the Constitution and to resolve issues through the legislative and judicial process free of attempts at undue suasion from the church.

Mr. Cuomo's plea for a politician's freedom was a defense of other beleaguered Catholics running for office and of the integrity of his own career, as well as a protection to any future presidential ambitions. As a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy also declared his independence of any church domination to run successfully for the White House. As the column by historian Thomas V. DiBacco discusses below, it is an issue the nation's first President, George Washington, also had to confront.

''I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant, or nonbeliever,'' Cuomo said. ''We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us.''

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

The abortion issue just now is the tempting vehicle for such entanglement. Cuomo suggested a truce for pro-life and pro-choice antagonists: moral reform to reduce resort to abortion, and humane care for mothers and for young who are born under troubled circumstances.

But his larger brief was for the politician's right to distinguish between private faith and public responsibility. This is a position American politicians have taken since the nation's early days, and one we fully support today.

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