Richard Cohen, Mario Cuomo, and Slavery

by Ramesh Ponnuru

As Jonah and I noted earlier today, Richard Cohen’s suspicion of religion in politics goes so far that he is willing to condemn the Republicans of the 1850s for their zeal against slavery. His column is not the first time in the history of modern liberalism that someone has taken this odd mental turn. Consider Mario Cuomo’s famous, much-celebrated 1984 speech justifying the “personally opposed” position on abortion.

In that speech, Cuomo claimed — how accurately I do not know — that Catholic bishops in the U.S. did not speak out against slavery before the Civil War. He defends this decision as a “measured attempt to balance moral truths against political realities.” In my book, which includes a discussion of Cuomo’s larger argument, I conclude: “It is a mark of the strength of contemporary liberalism’s commitment to abortion that one of its leading lights should have been willing to support temporizing on slavery in order to defend it. It is a further mark that liberals did not reject, or even take notice of, Cuomo’s argument about slavery.”