The Atlantic Monthly cover story on Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice — “Grand Illusions” — offers all of the inside details and broad, sweeping conclusions that one would expect.
At first glance, religion doesn’t seem to play much of a role in this massive mini-book by David Samuels.
However, the goal of the piece is to say that Rice has survived the White House foreign policy wars and, thus, she is going to have her chance to shape what happens in the Middle East when it comes to holding Iraq together and containing Iran. So when you finish the piece, stop and think to yourself: Where did Samuels state his thesis? Where did he try to define the heart of Rice’s worldview (and what does that have to do with the actions of the White House)?
I think the whole article pivots on this passage, which I will quote at length:
Like the president, Rice is a regular churchgoer who embraced religious practice later in life — in Rice’s case, after returning from Washington, D.C., to her teaching job at Stanford University, where she served as provost from 1993 to ’99.
Rice’s detractors, and even some of her close friends, see her worldview, which is both intellectually coherent and heartfelt, as deterministic and lacking any real appreciation for the influence of local factors on big historical events. A common term for the core of her thought among her colleagues, past and present, is “the theology,” a reference to her bedrock faith in the likelihood, or inevitability, of progressive historical change. Her views have evolved since she witnessed firsthand the end of the Cold War.
“Back then, Condi Rice was much more of a realist,” one former senior Bush administration official told me. “Some of those traits are still there, but she’s gotten some religion. I don’t mean religion in the evangelical sense. I mean that view of life and optimism and larger forces, and the contest of good and evil, and the idea that time is on our side. It fits with a notion of historical inevitability, and a notion of American progress or a special mission in the world.”
You know what? Reading that passage made me flash back to the 2005 controversy about speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s highly critical column about Bush’s second inaugural address. That was the one in which she quoted the president’s God-soaked optimism and then wrote:
Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.
So, is this Rice-Bush “theology” too “progressive,” dare I say too “liberal (in an early 20th century sense),” to be realistic in a sinful, fallen world? Does traditional Christian faith — Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, you name it — lead naturally to a “bedrock faith in the likelihood, or inevitability, of progressive historical change”? Is that a realistic point of view in the shifting sands of the Middle East?
Read the piece and see if you think the passage I quoted is the thesis statement. Help me out here.