Religion and Policy

Book cover
The Mighty and the Almightyby Madeleine Albright

HarperCollins. 352p $25.95


Religious faith exerts a powerful influence on life in the United States and throughout the world.

The Center for Moral Clarity, established and operated by the Rev. Rod Parsley of Columbus, Ohio--one of 10 outreaches of his World Harvest Church--advocates against abortion, pornography and same-sex marriage.

Tom Monahan, a devout Catholic and founder of Domino’s Pizza, owns all the commercial property in the city of Ave Maria, Fla. According to Newsweek magazine, Monahan is asking the drugstores not to carry contraceptives. I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil, he says. I don’t want to be on the sidelines.

According to a story in The Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper, legislators in Georgia want the Bible taught in public schools. This would make Georgia the first state in the nation to require that the Bible itself be used as the core text in classes on the Hebrew and Christian scripture, reports The Forward.

These three examples of the political power and influence of the religious right worry a Jewish rabbi in San Francisco and a former U.S. secretary of state who now teaches at Georgetown University. In two new books, Rabbi Michael Lerner and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright describe their concerns regarding the impact of those who are seeking a larger place for religion in the nation’s civic life, and suggest various strategies and benchmarks for balancing the country’s religious heritage with the political vision of its elected leaders.

Michael Lerner, a political activist who is the rabbi at Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco and editor of Tikkun magazine, believes that religious faith is being abused in the service of an ideological agenda that threatens the country. The unholy alliance of the political Right and the Religious Right threatens to destroy the America we love, writes Lerner, in The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right. It also threatens to generate a popular revulsion against God and religion by identifying them with militarism, ecological irresponsibility, fundamentalist antagonism to science and rational thought, and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the powerless.

Madeleine Albright, the daughter of Czech immigrants and a former U.N. ambassador and secretary of state under President Clinton, admits that the agenda of the religious right is a source of concern among her foreign policy colleagues as well. Political activists, not just Democrats, are agitated about the influence of the Religious Right on the White House and Congress, she writes in The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. This is a subject also weighing on the minds of foreign diplomats.

In these two books, both Lerner and Albright sound the alarm against those in the United States and throughout the world who are seeking justification in their religious faith for any political agenda that promotes hate, war and violence. What the authors argue for in its place is a religious faith that summons what President Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.

Lerner wants progressives to harness this spiritual faith to help him reinvigorate the Democratic Party in a continuing quest for social justice. Albright simply wants to offer her diplomatic colleagues in the foreign service a practical policy manual for doing what is right and doing what works.

Albright begins by expressing an immigrant’s affection toward the country that welcomed her family after World War II. She holds up the ideal of American exceptionalism, a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 to denote America’s special place in the world derived from the unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom. My own inclination is to say Bunk’ to those who argue that America is not an exceptional country. I can point to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the role of the United States in two world wars, and the example of America’s multiracial, multiethnic democracy and ask: what country can compare?

But she cautions against the United States’ making itself the sole actor in any campaign to promote its vision of democracy throughout the world. Though America may be exceptional, we cannot demand that exceptions be made for us. We are not above the law; nor do we have a divine calling to spread democracy any more than we have a national mission to spread Christianity. We have, in short, the right to askbut never to insist or blithely assumethat God bless America.

She lists our foreign policy forays into Vietnam and Iran and our present military occupation of Iraq as examples of good intentions gone astray. Albright attributes these failures to the arrogance of our leaders and our refusal to accept the fact the religion counts as a force in people’s lives. She quotes the work of the Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who wrote, Westerners, with few exceptions, have ceased to give religion a central place among their concerns and therefore have been unwilling to concede that anyone else could.

Lerner agrees that religious faith exerts a powerful influence on the lives of individuals and nations. This failure to recognize that religion counts as a force in people’s lives, according to Lerner, is a major obstacle to the progressive community’s hopes of countering the influence of the religious right.

The first half of The Left Hand of God is devoted to what Lerner calls a spiritual diagnosis of the conditions that are keeping his progressive colleagues from exerting more influence within the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

After 28 years of interviewing middle-income working people, Lerner discovered that people are searching for what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called the politics of meaning. In a society where family life is unstable, sexuality is cheapened and money rules, people are yearning, Lerner writes, for a purpose-driven life that will allow them to serve something beyond personal goals and economic self-interest.

Lerner believes that it is this search for meaning, authenticity and connection in a de-spiritualized world that is driving people into the religious right. The Religious Right articulates the pain causing the crisis and offers a caring force to provide a solution.

The left will not be able to counter the influence and reach of the religious right until it acknowledges that they are onto something. They are successful partly because they have responded to people’s yearnings for connection, meaning and authenticity.

One factor blocking the growth of a spiritual counterpart to the religious right is what Lerner calls the left’s belief in scientism. The left is captivated by a belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured.

Another is the elite contempt for ordinary Americans that, Lerner points out, gives the impression that one of the most important elements [religious faith] in the lives of ordinary Americans is actually deserving of ridicule. Lerner further argues:

[I]f the left could recognize that the capitalist marketplace already imposes a set of values in the public sphere, it would understand that the most effective way to combat the challenge of the religious right is not to fight for values neutrality in a public sphere already fully permeated by the values of materialism and selfishness, but instead to introduce a set of spiritual values with progressive content.

Simply put, if the left is going to succeed, Lerner says, it must stop being perceived as anti-god and anti-politics of meaning.

But self-righteousness and arrogance are not the shortcomings only of those on the left. President Bush’s famous declaration that God wanted him to be president revealed the arrogance that is often associated with many of our failures to achieve foreign policy objectives around the world.

As Madeleine Albright puts it, A confident leader will make firm judgments about what is best, but also accept the need to revisit issues should new information surface; a self-righteous leader will resist any information that is at odds with what he already thinks. The Bush administration has resisted any appeals from Congressional leaders or the American people to change or modify its policy in Iraq based on new information, such as the failure to find Saddham Hussein’s secret stockpile of nuclear weapons. And the argument that smart and well-meaning people like President Bush can make moral assumptions that are wrong and lead us into a foreign policy quagmire is not a new one. We learned this years ago through the work of the journalists Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam and the historian Barbara Tuchman.

Future diplomats and students of history and foreign policy will still find much useful information and practical policymaking ideas in Secretary Albright’s reflections on her travels through Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe as a U.N. ambassador and secretary of state. Though The Mighty and the Almighty fails to scrutinize the huge gap between the religious rhetoric of American presidents and their actual conduct of foreign affairs, Albright’s ideas for improving how religion and foreign policy interact in the service of the nation’s democratic ideals deserve serious consideration.

Michael Lerner’s manifesto for the reinvigoration of a progressive movement to counter the influence of the religious right offers a serious critique of how both the religious right and his fellow liberals have used and abused the influence of religion to advance a partisan political agenda.

For me, the first part of The Left Hand of God was the most engaging, because it honestly and accurately assesses how progressives can counter the influence of well-funded advocates like Tom Monahan and Rod Parsley. In the second half of his book, Lerner describes in detail his strategic plan for increasing the influence of the progressive community in elections and political campaigns throughout the country. (He has already established an organization called The Network of Spiritual Progressives with Joan Chittister, O.S.B., and Cornel West to spread his vision across the country.)

Though their respective views on the intersection of faith and public policy differ in content and scope, both Albright and Lerner agree that religious values cannot be ignored as a force in peoples’ lives. Religion at its best can reinforce the core values necessary for people from different cultures to live in some degree of harmony, Albright writes. We should make the most of that possibility.

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