Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is breaking rank with the conventional wisdom of her profession. Diplomats, she says, traditionally were taught to keep far away from potentially controversial subjects like religion. But Albright is making a high-profile plea that religion play a more prominent role both in making foreign policy and in training diplomats.
“Rather than keeping religion and religious leaders out of things, we need their help,” she told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “In looking at what was going on in the world, it was evident that religion and the force of religion and people’s interpretation of how they saw God really is very much a part of international relations.”
Albright spells out her views in a new book, The Mighty and the Almighty (Harper Collins, 314 pp., $25.95). Specifically, she sees a need for increased study of religion in training the U.S. diplomatic corps.
“Our diplomats are very well trained, and they are very capable,” she said. “But they have not really focused on religion per se as a subject of study.” More controversially, she also is calling for a more “hands-on” role for religious leaders in diplomacy.
“A secretary of state has economic advisers and arms-control advisers and environmental advisers,” she noted. “And so I would advocate having religious advisers that are complementing all the other advisers.”
Religious leaders could be used “prior to negotiations at high levels among different parties” and then afterward to “validate some of the decisions that have been made after negotiators have finished,” she said. But, she acknowledged, it can be a delicate balancing act. “It’s a question as to how much you really want religious doctrine to intrude into issues of how the state is run,” she said. “I believe in the separation of church and state. But you cannot separate people from their faith.”
She conceded the Clinton administration didn’t always get religion right. “One issue where we considered a lot of the religious dimensions, but I think made some mistakes, was at Camp David,” she said, describing the efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“There were lots of aspects of the Palestinian issue that, as a Palestinian leader, Chairman [Yasser] Arafat could make decisions on,” she said. “But when we were asking him to make the decisions about the holy places, the truth is that he did not have a sole understanding or sole responsibility for the holy places.”
In her book, she is critical of how the Bush administration uses religion. “We are not above the law,” she writes, “nor do we have a divine calling to spread democracy any more than we have a national mission to spread Christianity.”
She further criticizes how President George Bush uses religious rhetoric, quoting him as telling people, “God wanted me to be president.” Bush implies the United States “has God’s blessing for everything, and that God is on our side,” she said, “rather than the way President Lincoln would have framed it, which is, ‘We need to be on God’s side.’”
Asked why this troubles her more than the way leaders of the civil rights movement invoked religion in the 1960s, Albright said there was “a very fine line in terms of when you think God is blessing what you are doing, and you need that validation from God, versus saying that you are really doing God’s work in the particular way that has been stated by some people in the administration.”
Bush has alienated potential allies who disagree with his way of using religion, she said. “What was happening was, he was making it seem as if picking a fight with us was picking a fight with God.”
But figuring out the appropriate boundaries between the proper use and the misuse of religion is complex, she said. “We are dealing with the very basic issues of human existence, and everybody comes with a certain amount of their own history -- thousands of years of culture and history,” she said. “When you try to answer very complicated questions with black-and-white answers, you can’t do it. And that’s why I think we need to be aware of the grays.”
While she headed the State Department, Albright sought to expand relations with American Muslim leaders, including establishing the now-traditional State Department-sponsored Iftar meal to break Ramadan fasting.
“We have to understand Islam better,” she said. “I think we all have a tendency to generalize, to focus on the worst part of what is happening under the auspices, so to speak, of Islam. And that’s extremism and some of the violence.”
But democracy is compatible with Islamic law, she said. “There are actually those who argue that Islam is more democratic than other religions because there is not a hierarchical structure and you don’t necessarily need a cleric of some kind to interpret God for you.”
“I’m not a theologian,” she added. “And I haven’t turned into a religious mystic. I am a problem solver. And so I’m looking at it from that perspective.”