For many of us, the 20th century ended in 1989 as communism and that bigger-than-life metaphor, the Berlin, Wall came crashing down. Twelve years later, a new century effectively began, dated by the sobering event of what is now simply called "9/11." The intervening years marked a world in transition as the global community dealt with the ambiguity and chaos brought on by new rules, different players, and changing alliances.

The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs

by Madeleine Albright
352 pp.; $25.95

A major component of this transition was the very nature of conflict. International wars between states, fought on the basis of nationalism and ideologies, were replaced by intra-national slug-fests. The non-state actor emerged, challenging militaries still preparing to fight the last war. National boundaries meant little. Organizational charts, wire diagrams, and multi-billion dollar defense budgets were largely upstaged by a focused rage and purpose, driven only by identity.

Indeed, they were called "identity wars." Ethnicity provided a rationale, religion supplied the passion, and the brutality of conflict was driven skyward. Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks alternately ethnically cleansed the "other" in the Balkans. Aberrations of religious identity appeared in the terribly ironic title of Northern Uganda's "Lord's Resistance Army," as well as in the shadowy band of holy warriors known as Al Qaeda. Humanity was being brutalized by protracted and unpredictable conflict conducted in the name of a higher power.

In retrospect, it should not be surprising that the first two wars of the 21st century—Afghanistan and Iraq—are religious in nature. Certainly, our enemies feel comfortable with this analysis. Suicidal in the extreme and complemented by the intentional targeting of innocents, these conflicts highlight the worst of religion. In this secular age, there are still many who would die for their faith. Unfortunately, there are just as many who would kill for their religion. Environments grow hostile; minority groups, many formed by their beliefs, become fearful. We live in a world no longer safe for diversity, especially when that diversity is created by the passions of religious beliefs. This is the context that compels former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to write about the role of religion in foreign affairs.

It will surprise some and hearten many that someone of Madeleine Albright's stature would call attention to this new component in the geopolitical calculus. Albright not only lived through this seismic transition, she held major positions of power, both within the United Nations, and most recently, as Secretary of State. In The Mighty and the Almighty, we get the clarity of reflection and the candor of hindsight as she assesses the role of religion at the political level and, more importantly, the indispensability of religious analysis in understanding and reacting to global events. Given her responsibilities and concomitant accountability throughout this period, her perspective, to say the least, is important, and it needs to be taken seriously. Personally, as one who "worked" the issue of religion and international affairs under Secretary Albright (and was privileged to be able to read and react to this manuscript in its earliest iterations), I applaud the final product.

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From the outset, there were three interrelated objectives that needed to be met in order for this book to be a success. First, she had to write it! Albright was Secretary of State, the senior diplomat for the last remaining superpower. Who better to highlight the role of religion during one of the most difficult periods of history? Who better to break the traditions, reinforced in our culture during the last several decades, of not talking in polite company about religion? Who better to give this issue the oxygen it deserves (while politicians attempt to suffocate all available space with gas-price debates, mid-term elections, and why "two-step" versus "comprehensive" approach is better at solving immigration issues). This book, by this writer, assures us that religion will no longer be the missing element in our foreign policy. Quite simply, religion becomes important when someone important says it is.

Second, it was essential that this book transcend political ideology. The world is chock full of politicians. Statesmen are considerably rarer. Note Albright's reasoned tone:

We are not, I am convinced, as divided as we sometimes seem. Most of us do not want our leaders confusing their own will with God's, but neither do we want them to ignore religious and moral principles. We support the separation of church and state, but not the enforced separation of religion from the public life of our nation. Many of us pray regularly that God will guide our leaders. We hope that those who make decisions in our name will think hard about questions of right and wrong. We want them to protect us but also to make us proud.
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Of course, nothing will appease hysterical ideologues, but Albright elevates our discourse and helps to dampen the vitriol of our present culture wars. To date, few books have been able to do this.

Finally, since it is impossible to write a book free from political observations, balance would be required to maintain credibility with a diverse audience. Albright's critique of some of President Bush's Iraqi policies, for example, is appropriate, but it is also appropriately muted, given what I would call the "fog of governance" that afflicts all presidents in times of great international complexities. Blessed be the tie that binds! For the most part, all points on the ideological spectrum receive the same reasoned critique. Albright writes:

Fighting poverty is not, of course, just a matter of shoveling money in the direction of the poor. Historically, the left has put too much faith in aid administered through foreign governments while the right has preached discredited ideas of trickle down economics. Both sides have grown more sophisticated.

Whenever hindsight is codified, a greater humility seems to emerge. Humility is the great connector, the balancing fulcrum across generational, ideological, and party lines. The world is a difficult place, and all of us will share common struggles as we experience and engage a fallen world.

Albright concludes with a cautious observation, reiterating the leitmotif of Bill Clinton's introduction, "To have faith is to believe in the existence of absolute truth. It is quite another thing to assert that imperfect human beings can be in full possession of this truth, or that we have a political ideology that is fully true and allows us to penalize, coerce, or abuse those who believe differently."

What do we do with our absolutes? All people of faith believe in absolutes, we just don't know them absolutely. Someday perhaps we will, and certainly we can draw closer to the mind of God. But for now we worship a God whose "thoughts and ways" are many flight levels above our own (Isaiah 55:9), a God who warns us that a smudged mirror cannot reveal all (1 Corinthians 13:12). If such verses don't drive us to circumspection and humility, neither the power of the mighty nor the spiritual transcendence of the Almighty will produce the positive results we all want to see in this world.

When humility replaces triumphalism, however, our discourse becomes more acceptable, our tone more respectful, our outcomes more enduring and, ultimately, our faith more attractive. Certainly Madeleine Albright, looking at the issue of religion through the prism of an oft-times dysfunctional world, is realistic about what can be accomplished. A careful read of The Mighty and the Almighty, however, gets us started in the right direction.

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Robert Seiple is president of the Council for America's First Freedom. He is the founder of the Institute for Global Engagement and a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Related Elsewhere:

The Mighty and the Almighty is available from and other book retailers.

Also posted today is an interview with Albright.

Albright was interviewed about her book on Fresh Air.

More information about the book, including an excerpt, is available from HarperCollins.