God’s role

In domestic policy, Social Security has long been labeled the deadly third rail.

In international policy, the nexus of religion and policy is the verity none dares touch.

Until now. A former U.S. secretary of state has dared to write a bold book suggesting that God does have a role in international policy, that religion’s influence on policy is real, profound, cannot be ignored and thus must be harnessed to become a force for good.

So, you are asking, has Al Haig written another book? Not this time. What makes this book especially gutsy and valuable is that its author is a self-identified sectarian liberal who researched, pondered and then went against the grain of many fellow travelers.

Madeleine Albright’s “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs” (HarperCollins) will be must reading for all who are pawing the dirt, readying to run for president in 2008. It should be must reading as well for the incumbent, who still has 32 long months left to find an international policy that works.

“To my knowledge, no former secretary of state has written anything similar,” writes Albright’s old boss, former President Bill Clinton, in the introduction. “It is an unexpected book, drafted against the advice of friends who worried that these topics could not be discussed without stepping on toes.” Indeed, toes are trod, right foot and left (in that sense alone this is a book rich in footnotes).

“Through the tumultuous decades of expansion, war, and economic booms and busts, there flowed the conviction that God was watchfully guiding America’s course and fate,” Albright wrote. ” … History would be far different if we did not tend to hear God most clearly when we think He is telling us exactly what it is we want to hear.”

Albright says: “I am often asked, ‘Why can’t we keep religion out of foreign policy?’ My answer is that we can’t and shouldn’t. Religion is a large part of what motivates people and shapes their views of justice and right behavior.” We should live with our beliefs and differences, she says _ but not use our beliefs to inflate our differences.

In an age when Islamic terrorists kill innocents _ including other Muslims _ proclaiming it the will of Allah, we need to remember that, throughout history, killing in the name of the Almighty has been used to justify bloody acts of war and ungodly acts of human slaughter.

It was that way in the Crusades, when European Christians fought to reclaim the Holy Lands from “infidel” Muslims. It was that way in 1862, when Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” exhorted America’s Union troops: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. … He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on …”

And it was that way just three years later, across the pond in England, when Sabine Baring-Gould wrote lyrics for a marching song for Yorkshire children: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war/With the cross of Jesus going on before …”

We are all products of our background of religious beliefs, upbringing, ethnicity and experience; but Albright’s are more complex than most. She was born in Czechoslovakia, raised Roman Catholic, fled the Nazis with her family, and wound up in Denver. Only recently did she learn that her family had Jewish roots and her relatives died in the Holocaust.

Albright ends her book with seven bracing ideas for leaders and ordinary citizens to consider and hopefully embrace. The seventh may be the most important in this time when public diplomacy must speak to all: “Al Qaeda’s leaders do not speak factually, but neither do they speak trivially. They concern themselves with transcendent issues of history, identity, and faith. They do not concern themselves with trivialities. To be heard, the rest of us must address matters equally profound.”

Looking ahead, Albright notes: “Islam is no barrier to liberty, but neither is it irrelevant to the prospects for actually achieving democratic change. In countries where Islam is interpreted conservatively, there is a risk that democracy _ especially when promoted in a triumphal way by the United States _ will not be welcomed as a companion to Islam but feared as a proposed replacement.”

It’s a commonsense notion that apparently never occurred to President Bush or his high command before he invaded Iraq. As a result, Albright, with her faith-based candor, could not spin out of thin air the one thing her important book does not deliver: a rosy, optimistic ending.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)