Mario Cuomo: Why He Got Civil Religion Right, and Why It Matters

Mario Cuomo delivering DNC Keynote Address, San Francisco, CA 16 July 1984.  Credit: ABC News
Mario Cuomo delivering DNC Keynote Address,  16 July 1984. Credit: ABC News

When Mario Cuomo passed away a few weeks back, almost every remembrance highlighted his “Tale of Two Cities” DNC keynote speech.  Several of these — NPRHuffington Post, and Politico — fixate upon his political rhetoric.

Attention to Cuomo’s stylized rhetoric is warranted.  The Governor himself famously quipped that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose.  But Cuomo was more than a poet — and his death marks more than the loss of America’s poet laureate.  NPR’s Ron Elving hit the nail on the head:

In a darkened hall, Cuomo loomed on the stage above, bathed in a shaft of light. He appeared as a tough-talking prophet bringing his testament from on high — a jeremiad against the regime and worldview of President Ronald Reagan.

That night, Cuomo was indicting Reagan’s vision of America as a “Shining City on a Hill.”  It is a metaphor that is, usually, uncomplicated.  From John F. Kennedy, to Ronald Reagan, and even today with Barack Obama, it indicates America’s virtue.  If we shine it is because we have — as a nation — fulfilled our destiny as a beacon to other nations.  When our proverbial streets are filled with grime and dirt, it is because we have further to go.  These are mutually exclusive states.

Mario Cuomo saw something different.  In his hands, the “shining city” was more than something aspired to.  It became a symbol not of national unity — that we shine together or not at all — but evidence of the most profound injustices.

[T]he hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages. . . . In this part of the city there are more poor than ever. . . . There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.

More than anyone before or since, he echoed that other Old Testament prophet of the American civil religion: Abraham Lincoln.  It was Lincoln who warned us that the nation could not exist half slave and half free.

Cuomo’s speech was poetry, yes, but only incidentally.  We remember it not because of how it was written or delivered, but because of what it told us about ourselves.  We remember it because it reminded us that even as the nation prospers — even as we shine as that city upon a hill — that gleam is not universal.  In fact that gleam can blind us from the realization that the work of perfecting the Union must go on.


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