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.

If you were Secretary of State today, would your perspective on the relationship between religion and international affairs affect how you would deal with the post-9/11 world, as opposed to Condoleezza Rice's handling of that office?

Well, for--for starters, a lot of this is process. But, I would make sure that I had religious advisers, because the Secretary of State can't do everything or be an expert on everything. And so I had arms-control advisers and economic advisers, and environmental advisers. And I had one religious adviser, in Bob Seiple.

But, I would have more of those kinds of people. I would make sure that our diplomats were trained to understand the religious backgrounds of the countries where they were going, in addition, obviously, to understanding the culture and language. And I would try to figure out how to use religious leaders in some aspect of conflict resolution--before the diplomats actually sat down at the table.

I'm not saying that there should be a substitute for traditional diplomacy. There needs to be some complementarity. And then, I'd use religious leaders as resources, and then, ultimately, as validators.

So, I would be doing that, and I think it would be something even more important as we're dealing with Iraq, we are dealing with some issues that are cultural and ethnic, but some of them are religious. And I think we did not have a full understanding of the various divisions within--among the Shiites or among the Sunnis or the relationship or lack of between them. I can't testify to how much the administration studied this. But, you get the sense that not a great deal of attention was paid to this as various battles are launched on the eve of days that are sacred to Muslim religion, or that there was not initially enough of an understanding in the role of Ayatollah Sistani.

You say that growing up in the United States as an immigrant transformed you into what you call a “confirmed optimist.” Can you explain that remark?

I think that this country is so filled with hope and looking forward, or has been. When we brought the Czech Republic into NATO and I was there to give the speech, and I talked about all the hope that would come from it and the new relationships, and generally about what a great moment it was, one of the Czech leaders came up to me and said, “That's such an American speech. You are so optimistic. There's nothing cynical about what you're saying.”

And I think America is not cynical. This has been the American attitude. I'm a little troubled it's less so now. But, I grew up in an era where I thought everything was getting better and it was because I got to live in America.

So your attitude about the future of human relations is optimistic. But in your book you described yourself as “an inadequate Christian with doubts.” How do you reconcile those two statements about yourself?

Well, I have said that I'm a congenital optimist. But, I'm saying that I'm an optimist who worries a lot. I also am really gratified when I read statements by theologians, such as Paul Tillich or Reinhold Niebuhr, that really indicate that doubt can be a part of faith, that you don't have to have the feeling that you know all the truth while you're on Earth.
And so, the Apostle Paul in Corinthians when he talks about seeing through a glass darkly, is [saying] something that I think allows you to understand that as a human being, as a mortal, you don't need to, nor can you, know the whole truth. That only comes when God reveals it.

You also say that when you arrived in America you were desperate to fit in, while your parents retained their European ways. But now, immigrants' children tend to be more militant about rejecting Western ways. How do you explain the 21st-century twist on this immigrant story?

I was talking more about what happens to this generation in Europe than in America. I came to the United States in 1948, and the ‘50s were really a melting-pot time. There was this sense that people were proud of their roots, but there was not the whole aspect of thinking about your ethnicity.

And I think people need to be proud of that. Americans, actually, have been pretty good about integrating different groups. The Europeans have not. And therefore, that next generation of people are the ones that feel that they have not had their chance. Like the French rioters, and people who then began to identify with various other parts of their religious or cultural background. So it's not attributable to religion per se?

I don't think it's attributable to religion. They feel alienated. I think it's a very interesting question, generally, about what makes people turn to religion. And I think one of the reasons is that people need to find some sense of belonging and having some answers, and looking to a higher being. Some of it I think comes from despair; some of it comes from hope.

Has your discovery of your family's Jewish roots affected your perspective on any of these particular conflicts? Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to mind. But, for that matter, any other facet of international affairs?

No. The truth is that it has not. It clearly is a very personal matter. And my background was always very interesting. Finding out about being Jewish I think just adds to the richness. And I'm very pleased to know that. Finding out that my grandparents died in the Holocaust is something totally different and horrible. I did, obviously, know everything about the Holocaust. I just didn't know it applied to me personally.

But, it has not changed my views because, one, I always thought it was correct for the United States to be supporting Israel as an independent country. I came to the United States when Harry Truman was president and he was the one who recognized Israel. So, it's a very basic part of American foreign policy.

Even before I found all of this out, had a sense that what was happening in the Balkans was wrong and should never happen again. And I certainly understood that genocide was unacceptable. So, it did not affect any of my policy views. It clearly affected a great deal about my personal life and my sense of gratitude to my parents for the fact that they gave me life twice because they took me away from all of that. But also, to understand how much they had suffered in terms of the decisions that they had to make themselves. So, it didn't affect my policy. No.

You made a very intriguing comment about the revelation of your family's background--that it taught you that "our differences should not matter so much." Could you explain?

Respecting the Individual
I think that the final point in my book is basically that we should respect each other as individuals. I use my own life as an example that [labels] don't work, that I was raised as a Catholic, married an Episcopalian, and found out I was Jewish. So, because of choices that were made, I might have been going to a synagogue instead of a church.

Because when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, my father decided that he couldn't work for them, came to the United States, asked for political asylum, and I grew up as a free American. Had they not decided that, I might be a professor of history in the Czech Republic.

So, one's group identity is determined by accidents or choices. But, ultimately, it's the individual that counts, and every one of the religions and major philosophies have a concept about the importance of the individual.

You cite Abraham Lincoln as the leader you admire greatly. What was it about his understanding about the relationship between God and country that you admire so?

Well, I think that what is so interesting is the number of statements that he made--obviously, primarily during the Civil War. But, kind of the sense that we had to be--that God was not necessarily "on one side." That we had to be on God's side. And kind of a sense more about that element of doubt in faith, not that certainty.

I mean, you know, you can spend your entire life finding germane quotes from Lincoln, but there’s no question that he understood the importance of the individual. He believed not that there is an absolute good, but that we do the best we can. I mean, I think there was just such an innate wisdom and a sense of relation to one's faith that he had that I find very inspiring.

Do you think that the United States has a special relationship with God?

God and America
I think that the United States is very blessed. But, I don't think that we have an innate right to blithely assume that God blesses America. That we have to try to figure out how to be on God's side and do God's work, but not that God has--that God is on our side.

A final question for you, Madam Secretary: Do you have a favorite prayer?

Her Favorite Prayer
It's interesting, because this is where my background gets totally confused. I think this fact about how a child is raised, ultimately, has a great effect. And I certainly like The Lord's Prayer, but I love the Hail Mary.

Would you be willing to recite it?

Sure. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the time of our death.

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