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Once upon a time, politicians wrestled with the role of religion in politics

Some GOP officials point to the Bible as the answer to every question

President Donald Trump holds a Bible upside down while visiting St. John's Church across from the White House during protests in Washington on June 1, 2020.
President Donald Trump holds a Bible upside down while visiting St. John's Church across from the White House during protests in Washington on June 1, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

“The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. … We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

When he was governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, walked a tightrope when it came to the mixing of faith and politics, particularly on the issue of abortion and reproductive rights, as is plain in his 1984 speech “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” delivered at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology.

More from Cuomo: “Must I, having heard the Pope renew the Church’s ban on birth control devices, veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my State? I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding? By a constitutional amendment? If so, which one? Would that be the best way to avoid abortions or to prevent them?”

Yes, he asked a lot of questions. But at least he was thinking, even when he didn’t have all the answers.

Revisiting that address seems especially appropriate as American laws and religious tenets become increasingly difficult to untangle, when politicians such as House Speaker Mike Johnson point to the Bible as the answer to every question he is asked about his philosophy of governing.

Yet Johnson, like many fellow conservative Republicans and self-declared Christians, has cast a disapproving eye toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the country’s largest anti-hunger program, which serves 41 million low-income Americans. In fact, he has called it “our nation’s most broken and bloated welfare program.”

Not exactly the Sermon on the Mount.

Cuomo, a public and practicing Catholic, was quite fond of ruminating, at length, and was often dinged because of that habit. But, it was at least clear that he considered the contradictions of governing in a country as diverse in how it chooses to worship — or not — as ours.

For the sake of the American people — all of them — today’s leaders might follow his lead.

Just look, 40 years after that Notre Dame speech, at the reasoning of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker in his decision in the ruling that said frozen embryos are people, protected under law, thus causing confused clinics to halt mid-process the hopes of many who dreamed of being parents.

Parker’s words strike a far less conciliatory tone. Human life, he wrote, “cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.”

It’s interesting to watch the reaction of Republican politicians who long ago abandoned that Cuomo-style tightrope, eager to fall over themselves to stamp America a Christian country and divide the world into a battle of good versus evil while waving a literal and figurative Bible as guide.

After the overwhelmingly angry and baffled response to the Alabama ruling, from Republican and Democratic Americans alike, there has been much scrambling to find some politically acceptable middle ground in a post-Roe v. Wade world.

Yes, “compromise” is suddenly in fashion.

But how seriously can you take that “conversion” when pronouncements from the almost certain GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump, abound with fire, brimstone and that old-time religion.

“You cannot let people vote for the Democrats,” he told attendees at the National Religious Broadcasters International Christian Media Convention in Nashville last week, as he cast political opponents as the “radical left” itching “to tear down crosses.”

Trump quite proudly bragged about appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned the federal abortion rights protections granted by Roe v. Wade, while sidestepping mention of the Alabama ruling. But his hearty endorsement of the Christian nationalism that would erase any separation of church and state was received with enthusiasm.

Cuomo had advice for the crowd cheering the retribution promised by the impeached and indicted Trump, now facing charges connected to overturning an election and paying an adult film star: “Better than any law or rule or threat of punishment would be the moving strength of our own good example, demonstrating our lack of hypocrisy, proving the beauty and worth of our instruction.”

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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