The Mighty and the Almighty: United States Foreign Policy and God

By Madeleine K. Albright

The following is the text of an address offered by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. The address was given in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School on March 30, 2004.

I have very much been looking forward to this event. As you know, I have chosen to address the most controversial topic I could think of not involving Mel Gibson – the Mighty and the Almighty: United States Foreign Policy and God. To begin, I thought I would honor the tradition of priests I have known who choose to begin their sermons with a little story or anecdote.

Obviously, I have no intention of delivering a sermon but – since this is where it is and I am who I am – I thought it appropriate to tell a brief story about God and a certain very distinguished former Secretary of State.

The story is, as so many are, about a person who dies and goes to Heaven. At the pearly gates, this person tells St. Peter how happy he is to be there because he had always wanted to meet Henry Kissinger. St. Peter replies, “Well, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait. Dr. Kissinger is still alive and not expected for some time yet.” So the man walks through the gates and into Heaven but soon rushes out very excited. 

“St. Peter, St. Peter!” he exclaims, “Henry Kissinger IS in there; I just saw him. He is pacing around with his hands behind his back muttering about the Middle East.”

St. Peter says, “No, I’m afraid you’re wrong. That was not Dr. Kissinger; that was God. He just THINKS he’s Henry Kissinger.”

You will notice that the story describes God as male. After my years in government, I have learned not to concede anything, but in preparing my remarks for today I did find evidence to support that assumption. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, we are told, “Do not worry from morning to evening to morning about what you will wear.”

That was not, of course, the only guidance Jesus offered that at least some of us might have trouble following. There were far more serious instructions. I ask you to imagine, for example, what would have happened if, on the evening of September 11, 2001, Preisdent Bush had gone before the American people and said, “Resist not evil. Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

As you know, this teaching was not a trivial part of the Gospels’ message. And yet I suspect most of us would think it a preposterous prescription in a time of national crisis. Herein lies the dilemma that is by no means confined to our response to the attacks of September 11. Rather it extends broadly to the daily challenges we each face in trying to reconcile religious beliefs with professional duties. And I suspect it is a challenge faced even by those who choose – or are called – to the profession of religion itself. Should we consider the scriptures a road map to how we conduct every aspect of our lives?

For example, if I were the CEO of a major corporation, should I feel obliged to run my company in accordance with the Biblical virtues of sharing and generosity even if the competition did not? If I were still secretary of state, should I insist on forgiving those who trespass against our nation, not once or seven times, but seventy times seven? And what about countries? Does a government, in fighting back against evil, commit a sin? Or are governments exempt from the requirements of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount? And if so, how convenient is that?

Now if you want answers to these questions, please don’t look at me. You’re the ones in divinity school. I am not a theologian. But I will say that I have never thoguht that living up to the demands of faith in any tradition was intended to be convenient or simple. So rather than get stuck at this point, perhaps we should move on a bit and come back to the hard questions later.

One reason I am so excited to be here this afternoon is that growing up, I was always fascinated by religion. I even daydreamed about being a priest – Catholic no less – and often prayed to God and the Virgin Mary. Despite or perhaps because of the catechism, I never did quite figure out the Holy Ghost, but I did love Bible stories and admired deeply the teachings of prophets from the era of Moses to the time of Jesus. This experience helped shape my sense of right and wrong.

Church-state separation is basic to the American system, but that has always been more juridical than psychological.

But I was also influenced by what I learned from my parents, in school, and from reading the newspaper every day. So my concept of morality developed in both a secular and a spiritual context. That makes me, I expect, rather typical. Most of us have some experience with religious teachings. Virtually all of us are swayed by secular events.

It is not easy to keep them separate, and yet one of our country’s founding principles was the separation of church and state. This was because the Pilgrims fled to these shores to escape persecution by a state where the King and the head of the church were one and the same. It was going to be different in America and when Ben Franklin proposed a prayer before sessions of the constitutional convention, he was voted down. So church-state separation is basic to the American system, but that has always been more juridical than psychological. Today, God is on our currency, in our patriotic songs, appealed to every day in Congress, and incorporated – controversially but I expect permanently – in the pledge of allegiance.

Even in the early days, references to the divine were frequent in the vocabulary of our political leaders. Our first president said American patriots dared to challenge the British crown only because of “a confident trust [they] would not be forsaken by Heaven.” In the 1840s, America’s claim to the West was justified by the doctrine of manifest destiny, which held that our nation was a model republic favored by God. In 1898, after America took possession of the Philippines, President William McKinley said, “I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they … dropped into our laps, I didn’t know what to do with them….One night late it came to me…We could not give them back to Spain….we could not turn them over to France or Germany…we could not leave them by themselves – there was nothing left to do but to take them and Christianize” them. After World War I, a member of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet enthused that his boss’s plan to create a League of Nations was “as simple as one of the parables of Jesus and almost as…uplifting. It is time for church bells to peal, preachers to fall upon their knees, statesmen to rejoice, and angels to sing, ‘Glory to God in the Hightest.’”

Our more recent presidents have all spoken with some frequency about their religious beliefs. And this past Christmas, Vice President Cheney’s greeting card bore the inscription: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” We’ve grown accustomed to all this, and I think – in moderate doses – it is a good thing.

I must tell you, however, that when a politician starts preaching, I tend to react the same way as when a preacher starts talking politics. I become very, very wary. Half a millennium ago, Machiavelli advised his prince that to succeed in public life, the most important quality he must learn to fake was religious belief. And even when faith is sincere, as in the examples I have cited, I wonder what prompts a politician to wave it in front of prospective voters. I think of the passage in Matthew where Jesus says it is better to pray in a closet secretly than to parade in the street for the purpose of appearing devout. 

I am especially wary when God is invoked as a teammate in the clash of one nation against another, particularly when the nations involved have different religious traditions. When I was secretary of state, I confronted Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic about his heinous policy of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. He said he was merely preserving his country’s historic role as the protector of “Christian Europe” from the Muslims. I told Milosevic I would be proud to help “Christian Europe” and the rest of NATO protect the world from him.

Events in the Balkans during the last decade are a reminder of how decisive a role religion has played in shaping the modern world – often for the worse in places where rivalry has produced persecution and strife – but also for the better. We should not forget that until Abraham’s bold journey into the unknown, humankind was resigned to a life without progress, tied to the unceasing cycles of nature. His family’s departure for the west was an unprecedented declaration of faith that with God’s help and guidance, the future could be made better than the past. 

In later centuries, religion has been a globalizing force. Through the apostles, Christianity spread to Greece, Syria, and Rome, then into North Africa and throughout Europe, and ultimately to every corner of the map. Beginning in the seventh century, Islam also spread in every direction, bridging differences of language and culture, nationality and race. The borderless nature of religious faith often makes it easier for leaders to talk to one another; easier for nations to agree on common values; and easier for people from vastly different backgrounds to reach a consensus about moral standards. 

We know from our own experience that faith can serve as a source of inspiration and healing. Consider the eloquence of South Africa’s Archbishop Tutu in ending apartheid, the legacy of El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Romero, the history-shaping ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the contributions of Pope John Paul II to the cause of freedom. 

A little more than two decades ago, I was in Poland during the early days of the Solidarity Movement’s uprising against totalitarian rule. The pope had just returned to his native land for the first time. Although choosing his words carefully, His Holiness dared to challenge the dogmas of the communist system. The enthusiasm of his audiences astonished the Polish government, which had assumed that decades of dictatorship would have sapped spiritual devotion. Instead, the pope’s listeners drew strength from one another, suddenly realizing that the hunger for dignity and freedom each had nurtured was part of a mighty collective appetite. The result was a trickle that became a stream that became a river that became a tidal wave of courageous dissent washing away the Berlin wall, reuniting Europe and transforming the face of the world.

The truth is that atheism was Communism’s Achilles’ heel. Because democracy and religion have something very basic in common – and that is respect for the value and dignity of every human being. During the cold war, this was the principle that spelled the difference between Soviet collectivism – which considered people just another means of production – and the freedom of expression honored in the West.

Since September 11, 2001, this same principle has been at the heart of a new divide. Terrorists such as Osama bin Laden see history as a twilight struggle between cultures in which the individual is a disposable pawn. They value not ideas but obedience, leaving no room for any vision but their own. Their declared purpose is to murder as many people as possible. Their strategy is to convince their followers that killing is somehow noble and that primitivism is essential to defend one of the world’s great civilizations.

When a politician starts preaching, I tend to react the same way as when a preacher starts talking politics. I become very, very wary.

What balderdash. If decency is to prevail in the world, we must destroy the illusion that persists among too many peole that terrorism can be justified. We must forge a global alliance that will rebut, marginalize, and defeat those who pour poison into the ears of young people, turning humans into robots, and individuals into bombs. We must be relentless in making the case that terrorism is fully, fundamentally, and always wrong, just as genocide, apartheid, and slavery are wrong. There can be no excuses or exceptions. 

But we must also ask ourselves how best to do this. And here I must respectfully urge caution concerning one part of President Bush’s approach. From the beginning, the president has made it clear that we are at war with terrorists and not with Islam. That is to his credit. But he has also said that our nation has a responsibility to history to “rid the world of evil.” He has echoed the words of Jesus in saying to other countries, “You are either with us or against us.” When Saddam Hussein was captured, he said that America was delivering justice to a dictator who had denied God’s gifts to the Iraqi people. More recently, he said, “Freedom and fear have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them.”

The problem with this approach is not that it opposes terrorism on moral grounds, because that is essential. The problem is that it comes very close to justifying U.S. policy in explicitly religious terms. That could play right into the hands of al-Qaeda. And surely it does not help when the American military official with responsibility for intelligence on al-Qaeda claims that “we are in the Army of God” and that George Bush “was appointed by God.”

It is al-Qaeda that wants to provoke a clash of civilizations. Our goal must be to unite all civilizations against terror. Al-Qaeda wants to use its standing as America’s enemy to rally support from those who oppose America on any issue; we need help in defeating al-Qaeda from those who may not agree with us on any other goal. We need to remember that we were not attacked on September 11 by the Muslim world or the Arab world. We were attacked by individuals belonging to a single terrorist group. Their crimes were not about religion because al-Qaeda is no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is of Christianity. They had nothing to do with politics, because al-Qaeda has no coherent political agenda. They were acts of murder, plain and simple. 

I believe we can unite the world in opposition to the murder of innocent people. But we will never unite the world in support of the idea that Americans have a unique relationship with God or a better understanding of God’s will than worshippers from other cultures or lands. We all yearn to believe what we want to believe and what makes us feel good to believe. But faith does not always lead to wisdom. And in today’s tinderbox of a world, we had better find a way to start putting out fires instead of lighting new ones. 

Not long after September 11, I was on a panel with Elie Wiesel. He asked us to name the unhappiest character in the Bible. Some said Job, because of the trials he endured. Some said Moses, because he was denied entry into the Promised Land. Some said the Virgin Mary, because she witnessed the crucifixion of her son. Wiesel said he believed the right answer was God, because of the pain he must surely feel in seeing us fight, kill, and abuse each other in the Lord’s name.

That is why I believe we have no greater taks than to build bridges of understanding and tolerance before mutual ignorance and insecurity harden into an unbridgeable chasm of hate. That task has many elements, some of which I discussed last week testifying in Washington before the 9-11 commission.

But today I want to add another ingredient to the mix. And that is introspection. American foreign policy consists of strategies that we may hope are reasoned and practical, politically astute, and smart based on the limits of what we know. But the demands of religion are often unreasonable and impractical, impolitic, and based on limitless faith in things we cannot fully know. We can hope that God is on our side. But we can only admit, if we are honest, that we fall far short of what God has asked and of what our own consciences instruct. Believing as many of us do in a Divine Being both merciful and just, we must hope the balance between the two is tilted heavily in the direction of mercy.

In Jesus’ parable about the sowing of the seeds, some fall among thorns. As individuals and as a nation, we are akin to those seeds. The thorns are plenteous and we must never stop struggling to escape them. We may be ensnared by the temptations to use power to dominate, not simply to help; to value American lives more highly than the lives of others, to squander wealth and consume the world’s resources rather than share and be good stewards of the gifts given to us; to stare avidly at frivolous entertainments while averting our eyes from suffering; and to boast over and over again how good we are, after being taught that there is none good but one, that is, God.

If we truly care about human life – not simply in our own land or of our own nationality – we must see that the majority of the world’s people are threatened each day by an “axis of evil” in the form of poverty, ignorance, and disease. 

Nations are neither baptized nor promised salvation. But if they were, is it fair to ask whether a rich nation would be comparable to a rich man, no more likely to reach Heaven than a camel to walk through the eye of a needle? We are a generous people. And I have said many, many times that I am proud to be an American. But our country does rank dead last among industrialized nations in the proportion of our wealth that we share with the developing world. Yes, we oppose terror because that is in our interests and in the interests of law abiding people everywhere; but don’t we have to recognize that this is only the starting point of what we must do? It is not the end; it is the beginning. Because terrorism is not the world’s only evil. And extremists are not the only ones prone to confuse what is profoundly wrong with something else.

If we truly care about human life – not simply in our own land or of our own nationality – we must see that the majority of the world’s people are threatened each day by an “axis of evil” in the form of poverty, ignorance, and disease. And that these evils cause far more avoidable deaths than terror and are at the root of more anguish and loss of hope. So whether our inspiration is spiritual or secular, isn’t it our duty to destroy the illusion that persists among too many people that misery and want are inevitable parts of the human condition? Isn’t it our responsibility to forge a global coalition that will rebut, marginalize, and defeat the forces of deprivation that destroy the llives of young people by filling their minds with the poison of despair? Aren’t we obligated to make the case that the disparity in the world today between the people of plenty and the plenty of people without hope is fully and fundamentally wrong, and that there is no excuse for not doing more to enlarge the circle of prosperity and thereby enrich and save human lives?

Earlier, I asked whether nations like people shoudl be measured against the standards found in scriptures. I have no answer to that except to invoke a principle that is valid in the secular world as well as in the spiritual. And that is simply that every human being counts. If we truly believe that, reflect upon it, and act upon it as a nation and in our own lives, we will have the basis for unity within our borders and with freedom-loving people around the world. We will take and hold the high ground against the apostles of hate who  say murder is pleasing to God. We will steadily erode the legitimacy of dictators and tyrants who claim virtual divinity for themselves. We will live up to our own founding ideals. We will take a small step forward in meeting the demands of religious faith. And we will more fully earn the right to ask – though never demand or simply assume – that God Bless America.

Dr. Madeleine Korbel Albright served as the 64th Secretary of State of the United States. She was the first woman Secretary of State and is the highest-ranking woman in the history of the United States government. As Secretary, Dr. Albright reinforced America’s alliances, advocated democracy and human rights, and promoted American trade and business, labor, and environmental standards abroad. Her distinguished career in government includes positions in the National Security Council, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and on Capitol Hill. Dr. Albright is the founder of the Albright Group LLC, a global strategy firm. Her autobiography, Madam Secretary: A Memoir, was published in September 2003.