The people of the world can longer afford to allow religion and religious leaders to divide them, former Secretary of State and U.N. Representative Madeleine Korbel Albright told the annual gathering of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes February 25.
“Religion is not the problem,” she told a packed conference room at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, but religion has always tended to fuel partisan strife. What is different now is the extent of the damage that can result. It is one thing to go after each other with clubs, she said, but another thing to be able to go after your perceived enemies with today’s high-tech weapons.
The underlying problem is how to harness religion’s unifying potential and block its tendency to divide people and nations against themselves and others. She compared the challenge to that of doing brain surgery: “It is a necessary task but it can be fatal if not done well.”
The attacks of September 11 forced the world to look at the role that religion plays in politics, foreign policy and everyday life, Albright said. It is a “trend that was lying in plain sight” that we can no longer ignore.
Albright called for all religions and nations to live and set their domestic and foreign policies from the basic principles of valuing individual life and seeking justice for all which she argued are at the heart of all religious belief. She politely termed as “balderdash” the ay some religious leaders, fundamentalist Islamic ones in particular, each that “the individual is a disposable pawn” who is in the hands of “an insecure and vengeful God” who wants killing to be done in his name.
Instead, Albright argued for a foreign policy that values the individual. A nation with such a priority will not allow torture even out of fear for its safety or the knowledge that it is easy to get away. Such a policy would do much more to help other human beings. Albright noted that the United States is last among developed nations in foreign aid giving. She argued that more avoidable deaths happen in the world from causes other than terrorism but that strengthening the divide between “people of plenty and people with plenty of loss of hope” is a way to breed terrorism.
Nations ought to fight terrorism from a stance both does not ignore the influence of religion and does not set it up as a battle between good and evil, Albright said. We must realize that all of our efforts to be good are partial and incomplete, and that it is tempting to misuse the power given to us. If we must make it an either-or choice, Albright suggested “evil and pretty good, evil and not bad, evil and doing the best we can.” Perhaps, she suggested, we might consider the divide as evil and, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “right as God gives us to see the right.”
Leaders must stand for something but not believe that they have the sole claim on all truth, she said. Later, during a question and answer session, Albright drew loud applause when she argued that it is hard for the U.S. to claim to be a unifying force across the religious divide these days “when the president believes that God talks to him and not to the rest of us . . . we believe that God is on our side when in fact we ought to be on God’s side.”
She also agreed with a questioner who asked her if “fervent moderation” ought to be the religious person’s stance in the world. People of faith cannot base their belief on what they don’t like in someone else, she said, lest “your pride in yourself curdles into hate of someone else.”
Albright, noting her party affiliation, said she was sad that words like “democracy” and “freedom” that the Clinton administration had used with hope are now interpreted as imperialistic. “I really do believe that the United States is an exceptional country but we can’t expect the world to make exceptions for us,” she said. Americans have the right to live as we believe but we cannot expect everyone else to live like us. “You cannot impose democracy and you cannot impose religious faith,” she said.
Albright was asked about the suggestion from the Anglican Communion primates that the Episcopal Church voluntarily absent itself for a time from the Anglican Consultative Council. She said she didn’t want to wade into international Anglican politics but Albright noted that her diplomatic stance has always been one of engagement. “You cannot get your point across if you are not there,” she said.
The Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes is a group of more than 100 parishes, each with an endowment of more than $1 million. The Consortium’s goal is to foster the development and use of endowments for mission and ministry.
Albright became the first female U.S. Secretary of State in 1997, serving in President Bill Clinton’s administration. She was also the U.S. representative to the United Nations and a member of Clinton’s National Security Council. She has served on the National Cathedral Chapter in Washington, DC, and the Board of Directors of the College of Preachers. She now teaches at Georgetown University, where she taught before her appointment as Secretary of State, and heads The Albright Group in Washington, DC. Her autobiography, “Madame Secretary,” has become a bestseller. She is currently writing a book about the intersection of religion and politics. Its working title is “The Mighty and the Almighty: God in American Politics.”
Mary Frances Schjonberg is the assistant rector of Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J.