The Last Word: What Does Madeleine Albright’s Address Say About the Character of Contemporary Christianity?

By Stanley Hauerwas '65

At Duke’s Commencement of 2004, Dr. Madeleine Albright was the commencement speaker and received an honorary doctorate. I always go to commencement even though Duke cleverly begins the service at 10:00 on Sunday morning, thereby ensuring that students from the Divinity School will not be able to be there. I go to the 8:00 mass at Holy Family Episcopal so I can split the difference.

However I did wonder about going to this Commencement honoring Dr. Albright because I think some of her actions—maintaining the sanctions against Iraq* as well as the bombing of Kosovo and Bosnia—were anything but honorable. However, because I try to be a good university citizen, I showed up.

I do not want to be impolite. It is not fair to expect Dr. Albright to know much about Christianity. I suppose it is a good thing that early in her life Dr. Albright was “fascinated” with “religion,” but somewhere along the way you cannot help but wish someone might have pointed out to her that Jesus does not ask us to be “fascinated.” Rather he asks for our lives. I note that Dr. Albright “admired deeply” the teachings of the prophets “up to the the time of Jesus.” I suppose Dr. Albright thinks that Jesus cannot be included with the prophets. Yet it is not Jesus but a “Divine Being” in which she professes belief. I suspect, moreover, it will come as quite a surprise to the Jews that Abraham is the beginning of a faith in progress.

I think it is very promising that Dr. Albright describes what happened on September 11, 2001, as murder, but unfortunately she continues to use the description “war” to describe the struggle against al-Qaeda. You do not go to war against murderers. She rightly worries about President Bush’s use of religious terms to justify American foreign policy, but she seems to accept the assumption that we are in a “clash of civilizations.” To assume we know what we are talking about when we use the language of “civilization” may have even more unwelcome results than Bush’s assumption that God is on the American side. Appeals to “God” at least open up the possibility that God may not like what you are doing.

By asking the rhetorical questions early on in her speech, Dr. Albright asks us to enter her world. It never occurs to her that being a Christian might have raised quite a different set of questions that might have made it difficult, difficult but not impossible, to be the American Secretary of State. Her questions were designed to underwrite the assumption that we cannot follow Jesus and pursue the limited justice possible in foreign affairs or business. Those questions, moreover, are the kind that Reinhold Niebuhr forced Christians to ask as well as answer. One suspects Niebuhr would not have been all that happy with Dr. Albright’s answers, but the difference would not require her to think harder about Jesus.

Moreover, Albright’s deepest moral conviction—that democracy and religion have in common the principle that the value and dignity of every human being is to be respected—is one that she could have learned from some of the most sophisticated theological minds. Her reductionist account of the Gospel is one that is readily available, though it is usually expressed by the more sophisticated in the language of love and justice. One might well press her to explain why she seems to assume that some people in the world, e.g., people in Iraq, seem to have less dignity than others, but even to ask that question is to invite her to engage in the kind of cost-benefit analysis we expect from those charged with the responsibility of running the world. I suppose it is a “good thing” she thinks American foreign policy should be concerned with combating poverty, ignorance, and disease. But given Albright’s view of the world, that means I also have to think that “we” must defend civilization against the barbarians. I do wonder how Augustine might have responded to Dr. Albright.

Moreover, Albright’s deepest moral conviction—that democracy and religion have in common the principle that the value and dignity of every human being is to be respected—is one that she could have learned from some of the most sophisticated theological minds.

I have been quite critical of her speech, but I do not blame her for her limited understanding of the relation between “the mighty” and the “almighty.”

Please note: Madeleine Albright assumes that Christianity and democracy are sets of beliefs. Roman Catholic though she may be, she does not exhibit any notion that the church might be an alternative political community to that of the world. It never occurs to her that her life should have been tested by a church to see if she could be called as a Christian to positions of power that might put her soul in jeopardy. Nor, if she thinks herself called to service to the nation, does a church exist that might help her to discern alternatives to the assumed “necessities” of American self-interest.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from this speech I think it cannot be about Dr. Albright. Rather, we must ask ourselves as Christians: how did we ever get in the position to think we ought to take seriously a view of the world exemplified in a speech like Madeleine Albright’s address to the Divinity School at Yale? If we explored that question, we might discover that Divinity Schools might have something to say at universities like Yale and Duke.

Stanley M. Hauerwas ‘65 B.D. is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Professor Hauerwas has sought to recover the significance of the virtues for understanding the nature of the Christian life. This search has led him to emphasize the importance of the church, as well as narrative for understanding Christian existence. His work cuts across disciplinary lines as he is in conversation with systematic theology, philosophical theology and ethics, political theory, as well as the philosophy of social science and medical ethics. Dr. Hauerwas delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectureship at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland in 2001. He was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time in 2001. His book, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion in the 20th century. He holds a joint appointment in Duke Law School.

*Editor’s note: During the question-and-answer section that followed Secretary Albright’s address, an audience member questioned her about the half-million Iraqi children that were killed as a result of the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s and whether she still believed, as she had said in a 1996 interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, that the sanctions were “worth the price.” Secretary Albright responded with the following statement: “I think we have to remember what the first Iraq war was about. Saddam Hussein had in fact invaded another country, completely trashed it, brought back prisoners, and stole a whole host of things. He had used chemical weapons against his own people; he had tortured the Shiites. As a result of that war, a set of ceasefire documents, which were then translated into Security Council resolutions, was passed, and they were sanctions resolutions…. The previous administration had laid down these sanction rules. Now the thing that somehow always escapes people’s knowledge is that there never were any sanctions against food and medicines. All humanitarian goods could go into Iraq. The plan was that there would be a UN operation that would make sure that enough food and medicine went into Iraq, and not just to Saddam’s cronies, but to everybody. Saddam would not accept that. He felt that it was intruding on his sovereignty, and so there was a period of time when enough food did not go in. Then he also said he did not have enough money for this, because he was also supposed to use some of his funds to purchase the food and medicine. So we created this Oil for Food program that allowed him to pump enough oil in order to be able to buy whatever amounts of food and medicines he wanted and also then to allow for the United Nations program to go in. I was behind that program because I felt that it was impossible for the Iraqi people to suffer because they had a terrible dictator. He had spent a lot of money building incredible palaces for himself and for his cronies, having destroyed the gardens of Babylon, and done all kinds of unbelievable things. So we created a system for him. I continue to maintain that the suffering of the Iraqi people was caused by Saddam Hussein and not by the international community or the United States. That is my position on that.

“Now, the statement I made [on 60 Minutes] was stupid…. Now if there’s anybody in this room that has never made a statement that they regret, I would like them to stand up. I have answered this question thousands of times. I have written about it in my book. I shouldn’t have said it. I was not responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people, Saddam Hussein was, and we should not forget that.”