Why 'Faith-Based Diplomacy' Matters
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright believes that the future of the planet rests on taking religion seriously.
BY: Interview by Alice Chasan
Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan spoke with Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and former U.N ambassador in the Clinton administration, about her latest book, "The Mighty & the Almighty," in which she explores the uses and abuses of faith in international affairs and calls for world leaders to develop a greater understanding of how religious perspectives can contribute to resolving global conflicts.
You've devoted much of this book to chronicling the ways in which diplomats and world leaders are tone deaf to the power of religion. Why is that the case?
It's not a matter of not understanding or having their own personal faith. But, what had happened is that I think there was a sense that certain conflicts were so complicated, that to bring God and religion into them was an additional complicating factor, because there were so many diverse ideas. And if there's one thing that always gets people excited, it's their different interpretations of religion. So, the best thing people thought was, you know, this is hard enough. Let's not bring God and religion into it.
And I feel especially now that the opposite needs to be true--is that in order to try to resolve conflicts we need to find the common aspects of the three great Abrahamic religions.
What is the downside of world leaders failing to understand religion's power?
Let me say this flat out: I am not a theologian. And I am not a minister of the faith. I am a problem-solver. So, from the problem-solving aspect, it means that you are actually leaving out a potential way for trying to get religious leaders more specifically involved in trying to break down the problem and bring people together.
The downside is you're leaving out a very important potential solution.
Was 9/11 the cause for your writing this book?
Certainly the most proximate cause, but I have to say that as Secretary of State, it was very evident to me that we had to learn more about Islam specifically. And also, that it was clear that certain issues began to be viewed very much through a religious prism, for instance, the North/South issue in Sudan. Or that we needed to be much more aware of the fact that as far as [the Israeli and Palestinian claims on] Jerusalem was concerned, that it certainly wasn't just a real estate problem. It was an issue of both sides believing that that land was given to them by God.
So, President Clinton did a lot of reading of the holy books during Camp David. And there was a sense more and more that we needed to understand better the force of religion. But 9/11 was the proximate cause.
You point out that President Bush is only the latest in the long line of presidents, virtually all of them, in fact, who have brought religious perspectives into their governance of this country. What is it about President Bush's religious views that worries you so much?
Frankly, when I started out writing, I thought that President Bush was an anomaly in American history, but he's not. Every American president has invoked God. I think the thing about President Bush that really distinguishes him is his certainty about what he believes that God wants, to the point where, in the book, I have a quote where he says, "God wants me to be President." And then, the sense that God is on our side versus the way that President Lincoln said it is we have to be on God's side. What makes President Bush different is I think he has made his own religion policy, rather than just in forming his faith.
In the book, you say, "The challenge for policymakers is to harness the unifying potential of faith while containing the capacity to divide." Can you give an example of a leader who has succeeded in harnessing the unifying power of faith?
Somebody like Bishop Tutu in South Africa, who found common threads and then was the person behind the Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that helped to move the country forward. And in many ways, the activities of Pope John Paul II, who was looking for common aspects of faith. Frankly, there have not been enough secular leaders who have, in fact, looked for the unifying factors.