Book Excerpt: Madeleine Albright's 'The Mighty and the Almighty'

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright looks at the role of God and religion in light of the current world situation in her new book, "The Mighty and the Almighty."

She examines Islamic fundamentalism and also the role evangelism plays in the Bush White House. Albright has an interesting perspective on religion, as she has been a practicing Catholic all her life and recently discovered her Jewish roots.

Most important, Albright argues that politics and religious values can work together to promote peace.

Read an excerpt below.

Chapter One

The Mighty and the Almighty

I had watched previous inaugural addresses, but the first one I truly took in was John Kennedy's in 1961. My brother John, who was in junior high school, played the trumpet in the Denver police band and had been invited to Washington to march in the inaugural parade. It seems that everyone remembers the snow on the ground and how the glare of sunshine made it impossible for Robert Frost to read the poem he had composed for the occasion. The new president, hatless in the crystal-cold air, his breath visible, asked us to "ask not." It was the speech about "passing the torch" to another generation. I saw it on television -- that is how I experienced all the inaugural addresses until 1993. Then, and again four years later, I watched President Clinton deliver his speeches from the balcony of the U.S. Capitol. The words combined with the crowds and the view of the Washington Monument brought out the sense of history and pride in the United States that has done so much to shape my view of the world.

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The inaugural address provides an American president with a matchless opportunity to speak directly to 6 billion fellow human beings, including some 300 million fellow citizens. By defining his country's purpose, a commander in chief can make history and carve out a special place for himself (or perhaps, one day, herself) within it. On January 20, 2005, facing an audience assembled in the shadow of the Capitol, President George W. Bush addressed America and the world. From the first words, it was evident that both he and his speechwriters had aimed high. "It is the policy of the United States," he declared, "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." He continued, "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." The president concluded that "America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout the world and to all the inhabitants thereof." He might have added that, in the Bible, God had assigned that same job, in the same words, to Moses.

The speech was vintage George W. Bush, one that his admirers would hail as inspirational and his detractors would dismiss as self-exalting. It was of a piece with the president's first term, during which he had responded to history's deadliest strike on U.S. soil, led America into two wars, roused passions among both liberals and conservatives, set America apart from longtime allies, aggravated relations with Arab and Muslim societies, and conveyed a sense of U.S. intentions that millions found exhilarating, many others ill-advised.

Within the United States, there are those who see the president as a radical presiding over a foreign policy that is, in the words of one commentator, "more than preemptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but rather bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous." The president's supporters suggest the contrary, that his leadership is ideally, even heroically, suited to the perils of this era and in keeping with the best traditions of America.

My own initial instinct, particularly when the president is trumpeting the merits of freedom, is to applaud. I firmly believe that democracy is one of humankind's best inventions: a form of government superior to any other and a powerful source of hope. I believe just as firmly in the necessity of American leadership. Why wouldn't I? When I was a little girl, U.S. soldiers crossed the ocean to help save Europe from the menace of Adolf Hitler. When I was barely in my teens, the American people welcomed my family after the communists had seized power in my native Czechoslovakia. Unlike most in my generation who were born in Central Europe, I had the chance to grow up in a democracy, a privilege for which I will forever be grateful. I take seriously the welcoming words at the base of the Statue of Liberty; and I love to think of America as an inspiration to people everywhere -- especially to those who have been denied freedom in their own lands.

As appealing as President Bush's rhetoric may sometimes be, however, I also know that proclaiming liberty is far simpler than building genuine democracy. Political liberty is not a magic pill people can swallow at night and awaken with all problems solved, nor can it be imposed from the outside. According to the president, "Freedom is God's gift to everybody in the world." He told Bob Woodward, "As a matter of fact, I was the person who wrote the line, or said it. I didn't write it, I just said it in a speech. And it became part of the jargon. And I believe that. And I believe we have a duty to free people. I would hope we wouldn't have to do it militarily, but we have a duty."

These are uplifting sentiments, undoubtedly, but what exactly do they mean? The president says that liberty is a gift to everybody, but is he also implying that God appointed America to deliver that gift? Even to raise that question is to invite others. Does the United States believe it has a special relationship with God? Does it have a divinely inspired mission to promote liberty? What role, if any, should religious convictions play in the decisions of those responsible for U.S. foreign policy? But perhaps we should begin by asking why we are even thinking about these questions, given America's constitutional separation between church and state. And haven't we long since concluded that it is a mistake, in any case, to mix religion and foreign policy? I had certainly thought so.

Although -- as I learned late in life -- my heritage is Jewish, I was raised a Roman Catholic. As a child, I studied the catechism, prayed regularly to the Virgin Mary, and fantasized about becoming a priest (even a Catholic girl can dream). As I was growing up, my sense of morality was molded by what I learned in church and by the example and instruction of my parents. The message was drilled into me to work hard, do my best at all times, and respect the rights of others. As a sophomore at Wellesley College, I was required to study the Bible as history, learning the saga of ancient Israel in the same way as that of Greece or Rome.

As an immigrant and the daughter of a former Czechoslovak diplomat, I was primarily interested in world affairs. I did not, however, view the great issues of the day through the prism of religion -- either my own or that of others. Nor did I ever feel secure enough about the depth of my religious knowledge to think I was in a position to lecture acquaintances about what they should believe. I did not consider spiritual faith a subject to talk about in public. For the generation that came of age when and where I did, this was typical. I am sure there were parts of America where attitudes were different, but the scholar Michael Novak got it right when he asserted in the early 1960s, "As matters now stand, the one word [that could not be used] in serious conversation without upsetting someone is 'God.' "

The star most of us navigated by in those years was modernization, which many took as a synonym for secularization. The wonders we celebrated were less biblical than technological: the space race, breakthroughs in medicine, the birth of nuclear power, the introduction of color television, and the dawn of the computer age. In the United States, the play and movie Inherit the Wind dramatized the triumph of science (the theory of evolution) over creationism (a literal interpretation of Genesis). When we thought of Moses, the image that came to mind was Charlton Heston, in technicolor. Religious values endured, but excitement came from anticipating what our laboratories and researchers might come up with next. We Americans were not alone in our pragmatic preoccupations. Abroad, the rising political tides were socialism and nationalism, as Africans and Asians freed themselves from their colonial overseers and began the task of building countries that could stand on their own.

In the early 1980s, I became a professor at Georgetown University. My specialty was foreign policy, about which such icons as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. In their view, individuals and groups could be identified by the nations to which they belonged. Countries had governments. Governments acted to protect their nations' interests. Diplomacy consisted of reconciling different interests, at least to the point where wars did not break out and the world did not blow up. Foreign policy was commonly compared to a game of chess: cerebral, with both sides knowing the rules. This was a contest governed by logic; its players spoke in the manner of lawyers, not preachers. During my adult years, western leaders gained political advantage by deriding "godless communism"; otherwise, I cannot remember any leading American diplomat (even the born-again Christian Jimmy Carter) speaking in depth about the role of religion in shaping the world. Religion was not a respecter of national borders; it was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.

This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state. My colleagues felt the same. When, in 1993, Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard predicted that the era following the end of the cold war might well witness an interreligious "clash of civilizations," we did all we could to distance ourselves from that theory. We had in mind a future in which nations and regions would draw closer as democratic bonds grew stronger, not a world splitting apart along historic fault lines of culture and creed. When fighting broke out in the Balkans, we urged each side to focus on the rights of the individual, not the competing prerogatives of religious groups. In 1998, after U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by terrorists, we published posters seeking information and offering a reward; these posters had the heading, "This is not about religion. This is not about politics. This is about murder, plain and simple." During the administration's marathon effort to find a basis for peace in the Middle East, President Clinton and I were fully aware of the religious significance of Jerusalem's holy places. We hoped, nevertheless, to devise a legal formula clever enough to quiet the emotions generated by the past. We asked and expected both sides to be realistic and settle for the best deal they could get.

We were living, after all, in modern times. The wars between Catholics and Protestants that had claimed the lives of one-third the population of Christian Europe had been brought to a close in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia. Large-scale fighting between Christians and Muslims had ceased when, in 1683, the advance of the Ottoman Turks was halted at the gates of Vienna. I found it incredible, as the twenty-first century approached, that Catholics and Protestants were still quarreling in Northern Ireland and that Hindus and Muslims were still squaring off against each other in south Asia; surely, I thought, these rivalries were the echoes of earlier, less enlightened times, not a sign of battles still to come.

Since the terror attacks of 9/11, I have come to realize that it may have been I who was stuck in an earlier time. Like many other foreign policy professionals, I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world, comprehending something that seemed to be a new reality but that had actually been evident for some time. The 1990s had been a decade of globalization and spectacular technological gains; the information revolution altered our lifestyle, transformed the workplace, and fostered the development of a whole new vocabulary. There was, however, another force at work. Almost everywhere, religious movements are thriving.

In many parts of Central and South America, Protestant evangelicals are contesting the centuries-old dominance of the Catholic Church. In China, authorities saddled with an obsolete ideology of their own are struggling to prevent burgeoning religious and spiritual movements from becoming a political threat. India's identity as a secular society is under challenge by Hindu nationalists. Throughout the former Soviet Union, long-repressed religious institutions have been reinvigorated. In Israel, Orthodox religious parties are seeking more influence over laws and society. Secular Arab nationalism, once thought to embody the future, has been supplanted by a resurgent Islam extending beyond Arab lands to Iran, Pakistan, central and southeast Asia, and parts of Africa. Christianity, too, is making remarkable inroads in Asia and Africa; ten of the world's eleven largest congregations are in South Korea, and the other is in Nigeria. A reawakening of Christian activism is also altering how we think about politics and culture here in the United States. In contrast to Michael Novak's observation four decades ago, people now talk (and argue) about God all the time. Even in Europe, which seems otherwise exempt from the trend toward religious growth, the number of observant Muslims is rising quickly, and a new pope -- named for Benedict of Nursia, the continent's patron saint -- is determined to re-evangelize its Christian population.

What does one make of this phenomenon? For those who design and implement U.S. foreign policy, what does it mean? How can we best manage events in a world in which there are many religions, with belief systems that flatly contradict one another at key points? How do we deal with the threat posed by extremists who, acting in the name of God, try to impose their will on others? We know that the nature of this test extends back to pagan times and is therefore nothing new; what is new is the extent of damage violence can inflict. This is where technology has truly made a difference. A religious war fought with swords, chain mail, catapults, and battering rams is one thing. A war fought with high explosives against civilian targets is quite another. And the prospect of a nuclear bomb detonated by terrorists in purported service to the Almighty is a nightmare that may one day come true.

Leaving government service in 2001, I returned to an earlier love, the university classroom. At Georgetown, I teach one course a semester, alternating between graduates and undergraduates. At the beginning of each course, I explain to my students that the main purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what we want. To that end, a president or secretary of state has tools ranging from the blunt instrument of military force to the hard work of backand- forth negotiations to the simple use of logical argument. The art of statecraft consists of finding the combination that produces the best results. That, in turn, requires a clear grasp of what matters most to those we are trying to influence. For businesspeople, this translates into "knowing your customer." In world affairs, it means learning about foreign countries and cultures; at a time when religious passions are embroiling the globe, that cannot be done without taking religious tenets and motivations fully into account.

Increasingly, in the classes I teach and in discussions with friends and colleagues, I have solicited thoughts about the impact of religion on current events. At first most people are surprised, as if uncertain what to think; then they open up. My request leads not to one set of debates, but to many. It is a Rorschach test, revealing much about the preoccupations and anxieties of those who respond.

My students tend to equate religion with ethics and so frame their responses in moral terms. They want to know why the world is not doing more to alleviate poverty and disease, prevent genocide, and help developing countries compete in the global economy. After 9/11, quite a number were eager to join the military or the CIA, feeling a powerful urge to volunteer; but in most cases the feeling did not last. The war in Iraq created confusion about the wisdom of U.S. policy, and about whether America's goal was to lead the world or try to dominate it. The foreign students I teach are an eclectic group and therefore offer a mixed bag of opinions. They are most divided, not surprisingly, by questions of right and wrong in the Middle East.

My friends who are experts on foreign policy -- a somewhat older group -- are focused on the threat posed by religious extremists, including the possibility that terrorists will gain access to weapons of mass murder. They are alarmed, as well, about the gap in understanding that has opened between predominately Islamic societies and the West. Arab leaders to whom I have spoken share this concern. They are upset, too, by the spread of what they consider to be false and damaging generalizations about Islam.

The religious scholars I have consulted are passionate about the need for political leaders to educate themselves in the varieties of faith and to see religion more as a potential means for reconciliation than as a source of conflict. Political activists, not just Democrats, are agitated about the influence of the religious right on the White House and Congress; this is a subject also weighing on the minds of foreign diplomats.

My own reactions are grounded in my various identities, as a daughter of Czechoslovakia, an American who is intensely proud of her adopted country, and a former secretary of state. My hero when I was growing up was Tomá¡s Garrigue Masaryk, who founded modern Czechoslovakia in 1918. Masaryk was a major influence on the thinking of my father and -- through him -- on me. Unlike many religious people, who see humanism as an alternative to faith in God, Masaryk saw the two as linked. To him, religious faith meant showing respect for every person and being willing to help others. Masaryk did not think it was necessary to believe in God to be moral, but he did argue that religious faith, properly understood, did much to encourage and strengthen right behavior. I have similar views. It is a perversion of faith to turn religion into a source of conflict and hate; it also creates severe problems for America and for the world. Growing up in the United States transformed me, despite having witnessed much turbulence at a tender age, into a confirmed optimist. As a young woman, I took my theme -- but without irony -- from Leonard Bernstein's adaptation of Candide: "Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." All through my years of government service, I maintained a positive outlook. In the Clinton administration, we talked a lot about the twenty-first century and, characteristically, felt sure that America, with others, could find a solution to most problems. I still feel that way, but I worry that we have been making some serious and avoidable mistakes.

There are days now when it is hard to pick up a newspaper. I think the U.S. government has thoroughly botched its response to international terror, damaged America's reputation, and substituted slogans for strategy in promoting freedom. I willingly concede, however, the difficulty and complexity of the problems the Bush administration is facing. I have often said that those who have never held the highest jobs in government do not know how hard these jobs can be, and that those who retire from them tend to forget quickly. Critics have an obligation to be fair and to offer constructive ideas. That is the purpose of this book. Part One deals with America's position in the world and the role played by religion and morality in shaping U.S. foreign policy, both now and in the past. Part Two concentrates on troubled relationships between Islamic communities and the West. Part Three offers my thoughts about how U.S. foreign policy and religion can best intersect. In keeping with my nature, the chapters are aimed primarily at practical policy-making -- doing what works best. In keeping with the nature of religion, they are sometimes dominated by a parallel theme -- doing what is right. Locating the convergence of the two is my ultimate goal, as it should be for the policy-makers of a nation that has, from its earliest days, sought to be judged both by its prowess and by its ideals.