The ‘theology’ of Condi Rice

1703The 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Unfortunately you have to be an Atlantic subscriber to read that article. So my comments are from what you’ve quoted so far.

    The idea that the US has a special destiny goes way back to the earliest European immigrants who wanted to build, as John Winthrop said, “a City on a Hill”, that would be a model for all the world to follow.

    If you examine the story of the settlers in Georgia (surprisingly), Pennsylvania and elsewhere, you’ll find the idea that God intended for America to hold this special place. This was a place where people could be free of the rigid rules and structures present in Europe. The great seal (, “Novus Ordo Seclorum”, embodies this ideal.

    So the idea that America has a special mission has been present from almost the first colonies. In that sense her “theology” is very much in keeping with the history of America and the American “theology”.

    And I think optimism is an American characteristic. Again from the earliest days, we’ve expected with God’s grace we can build a better, more just nation. And we’ve seen it happen. The US of today is much advanced of the US of 1776 in so many respects. We won World War II. We outlasted the Soviet Empire.

    And in a strange way, I think the world thinks that way as well. I don’t think it’s only a power reason why others want the US to live up to our ideals and chastises us so severely when we don’t. We’re held to a different standard than the rest of the world and there’s in my opinion a spiritual reason for that.

    But the catch comes as you alluded to when you try to apply that “theology”. My personal opinion is that we can’t stand “in loco parentis” to other nations. When we do things to them “for their own good”, I think we get off the path. When we live up to our ideals to be a “City on a Hill” we can inspire others. This is why I think Bush and Rice have gone astray. And that’s why I think it’s important to separate their ideals from their actions.

  • section9

    There is still at realist core at the heart of Rice’s thinking. Take Iran , for example. She is a Fabian, convinced that the hurricane of forces moving within Iranian culture and without Iran’s borders will eventually undo the Regime and moderate its outlook. Quite unlike the apocalyptic vision offered by Ledeen, Caroline Glick, and others, of course. Rice believes that these large historical forces must inevitably pull the Iranians past their Fascist Period and into the 21st Century. That’s what I get from the money graph quoted above; we’re I a betting man, that’s what I would believe she has told the President, that in the long run, the U.S. and Iran will get past their historical mistrust and become friendly powers.

    And you know, she’s right. There are no serious, clashing national interests at play here. There are temporary ideological interests at play, mostly having to do with the notions held by the present Iranian ruling classes vs. those held by our own.

    However, despite this rather optimistic outlook, which has been scorned by people who would normally be her politically allies (over at the American Spectator and the National Review, and of course, Caroline Glick’s jeremiad’s at the Jerusalem Post), the fact remains that plenty of people can get killed along the way to the Radiant Future. Rice has always made this point, sometimes in the most irritating way possible, even to her fans.

    Finally, in Rice’s defense and to Jerry’s point. War is a chaotic thing. Thousands get killed. Expecting public officials to live up to a certain ideal during a time of war is to expect too much. War is, of necessity, a wicked compromise. Those who wage war must, of needs be, get their hands dirty.

    Ask Mr. Lincoln.

  • Joseph Fox

    I second Jerry’s thoughts on how the world thinks of us. I have seen that reflected in the graduate students the Mid East and Asia have sent to America. But I would also note that Rice and Bush have certainly not acted as if they thought time was on their side in Iraq.

  • Don Neuendorf

    If Condi Rice has a sense of the nation’s manifest destiny, that’s certainly an indicator of where she’ll go as Secretary of State. But it’s not much of a “theology.” It says more about the nation than it does about God.

    Less accessible and less simple to apply would be whatever Ms. Rice thinks of her personal standing with God. Does she see God as Creator – Provider – Redeemer? Does she believe that she needs redemption, or that the world does? And if so, is that going to happen through the “soft” work of the Gospel and the witness of believers, or is it going to happen through the economic and military dominance of the United States and some kind of new Pax Romana?

    I’d sure like to know more about those things. If her faith is only in our manifest destiny, then that kind of creeps me out. To paraphrase a famous person, God could raise up nations to do his will from the stones.

  • Larry Rasczak

    I think Jerry and Don have made very important and excellent points.

    I think though that this “theology” worries me for a couple of reasons.

    “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.””

    Firstly, “historical inevitabliity” really hasn’t worked out well for the other people that tried it, Rome, the British Empire, the Marxists, the Nazis, the Japanese Empire. History proves that NOTHING is “inevitable”. America has a special OPPORTUNITY to be have a special mission in the world and to be a “shining city on a hill” but as Carthage and Constantinople before us show, shining cities can become smoking ruins very quickly if we just kick back and let “historical inevitabliity” do all the heavy lifting for us.

    Secondly, (and this is coming from an Army Vet and former Republican Precint Chair) the line about “Her views have evolved since she witnessed firsthand the end of the Cold War” really scares me.

    The Middle East policy of the Administration seems to be founded on a complete ignorance of religion and its role in shaping a society. The plan (as I understand it, and such that it was) appears to be baised on the idea that we can win our war with Islamic Terror the same way we won the Cold War. This a priori assumes that Iraqis and Iranians will behave the same way the Poles and the Czechs did. As we have seen, things aren’t working out that way.

    The Middle East can, for various historical reasons, be best described by a line from Blackadder. It is literally a place where “the Renaissance is just something that happened to other people”. Islam has a very different view of humans, and how humans relate to each other and to society from Christianity. This leads to some very fundamental differences in how people from the two areas act. The fact that the Arab world lacks the democratic Liberal tradtion doesn’t help any either.

    Bush, and it appears Rice, made the mistake of confusing the basic Judeo-Christian values that are both fundamental and universal in the West with “universal values”. They failed to understand how deep the religious differences between Islam and the West are. The west produced Lech Walesa, Solidarity, Karol Józef WojtyÅ‚a and Mickey Mouse. Islam produced Yassir Arrafat, Hamas, Ayatollah Khomeini and Farfur. The differences are vast and deep, and I fear “the theology” is ignoring them and papering them over.

  • Tony Dunlop

    I am an Atlantic subscriber, and have read most of the article. Terry’s right, there’s not much explicit about Miss Rice’s Christian faith, but when I read this:

    “…her bedrock faith in the likelihood, or inevitability, of progressive historical change”

    …one word popped into my head: “Marx.”

    “The inevitability of progressive historical change?” That’s straight out of the Communist Manifesto. Men will cast off their chains and all that.

    There’s nothing remotely conservative about this administration’s foreign policy. The fact that journalists still use that word when writing about it, while not directly related to religion in journalism, is a very curious phenomenon.

  • Fr. Greg


    I had a similar reaction and, in fact, much of neo-conservativism is rooted in the activities of former socialists following the thought of one Max Schactman, a phenomenon which produced “socialists for Nixon” in the late sixties. However, this relationship is complex and far from straighforward, and I have seen no indication that Condi has been directly influenced by Shactman’s “rightist” Trotskyism.

    Tmatt asks:

    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”?

    In a word, No. I doubt there is a direct connection between Condi’s religious faith and her geopolitical “evangelicalism”. In theological terms, the latter strikes me as being most similar to 19th Century Post-millenial paradigms which are by no means prominent on the current Christian landscape.

  • Jerry

    Islam has a very different view of humans, and how humans relate to each other and to society from Christianity. This leads to some very fundamental differences in how people from the two areas act.

    This is a critial point. Secularists like to believe that religion comes from societal structures. But to me, it’s the reverse. Societies emerge from the blueprints laid down by figures such as Jesus and Muhammad. The Islamic ideal can be illustrated by the “Golden Age” of Moorish Spain where each religious group had their own laws enforced by their own religious figures.

    This is not to say that there is an inevitable conflict, even war. But we do need to recognize the differences. And we need to stop insisting that Islam needs a renaissance of the kind we had in the West. We’d be much better off encouraging the debate amongst Muslims about what it truly means to be a Muslim.

    The fanatics are as ignorant of what Islam really teaches as many “Christians” are of what is in the Bible. For example From the book The Wisdom of Muhammad, there are statement of the golden rule, the beauty and value of reason and, for example:

    Son, if you are able keep your heart from morning to night and night to morning, free from malice to anyone

    While this story is about fashion, I also see it as symbolic of what others have been talking about here. One of those commenting on the story wrote:

    a fashion style that is unique to iran, it is not necessarily western not arabic or islamic, it is a mix of many styles.

    And, in Turkey, we see religious Muslims wanting freedom from secular institutions that forbid religious expression. This might sound familiar to some Christians in the US

    the state should not enforce secularism as an ideology, but rather stand aside, allowing people to freely express their devotion — be it head scarves in universities or public prayers.

  • Martha

    Isn’t this what used to be called “the Whig interpretation of history”, only with the United States displacing the British Empire as the apotheosis of progress?

    The category was coined by the Roman Catholic British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931 in his small but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History. It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the King and the aristocracy.

    The term has been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any goal-directed, hero-based, and transhistorical narrative. The abstract noun ‘Whiggishness’ is sometimes used as a generic term for Whig historiography. It should not be confused with Whiggism as a political ideology, and has no direct relation to either the British or American Whig parties. (The term Whiggery is ambiguous in contemporary usage: it may either mean party politics and ideology, or a general intellectual approach.)

    The nature of Whig History
    The characteristics of Whig history as defined by Butterfield include:

    - Interpreting history as a story of progress toward the present, and specifically toward the British constitutional settlement;
    - Viewing the British parliamentary, constitutional monarchy as the apex of human political development;
    - Assuming that the constitutional monarchy was in fact an ideal held throughout all ages of the past, despite the observed facts of British history and the several power struggles between monarchs and parliaments;
    - Assuming that political figures in the past held current political beliefs;
    - Assuming that British history was a march of progress whose inevitable outcome was the constitutional monarchy; and
    - Presenting political figures of the past as heroes, who advanced the cause of this political progress, or villains, who sought to hinder its inevitable triumph.
    Butterfield argued that this approach to history compromised the work of the historian in several ways:

    - The emphasis on the inevitability of progress leads to the mistaken belief that the progressive sequence of events becomes “a line of causation,” tempting the historian to go no further to investigate the causes of historical change.
    - The focus on the present as the goal of historical change leads the historian to abridge history, selecting only those events that have some bearing on the present.

    Roger Scruton, in his A Dictionary of Political Thought (1982), takes the theory to be centrally concerned with progress and reaction, with the progressives shown as victors and benefactors.

    I don’t know if the piece was trying to present this as a unique interpretation of things which Condi Rice discovered for herself, and I think ‘theology’ is a singularly bad word to use to describe it; rather, I would say that if this is the view she holds, she is merely the heir of the Englightenment view – every new generation is progressing, making new discoveries in the sciences and arts, becoming more rational, with the result that ‘every day, in every way, things are getting better and better’.

    I’m wondering about the usage of theology here: I get the faintest whiff of pejorative from it, perhaps linking it subtly with the criticism of President Bush and his administration as being driven by irrational religious faith, rather than rational Enlightenment values? The irony being, those are the very values behind and at the root of Condi’s ‘theology’ of history and foreign affairs.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Secularists like to believe that religion comes from societal structures. But to me, it’s the reverse.”

    Jerry, I think you are absolutely right. When I look at how the West was formed out of the ruins of Rome, I see how the Christian idea of “Equality before God” gradually became “Equality before the Church (or Pope)” which in turn became “Equality before the Law” which eventually lead us to the ideal of just plain Equality. It took thousands of years and more than a few wars, but when you look at the ancient world and see how “Some are more equal than others” wasn’t an exception to the rule, it was the rule (or the Law in Hammurabi’s case), and how Alexander the Great, (or the Roman Emperors) were in fact considered Gods, you can see how much our society has been changed due to Christianity.

    People in the West tend to see these basic ideas and ideals as “human” or “Universal” because in the West they ARE universal. In the West even the people who come from non-western cultures tend to be “westernized” to at least some extent, so it is easy to believe EVERYONE thinks like we do. Then Westerners go to the Middle East and are driven to apopletic fits of frustration because they can’t understand why the PROTESTANT work ethic hasn’t caught on in the ISLAMIC world.

    I remember hearing a Friday Sermon on the radio when I was in Qatar. The Mullah was attacking the Western idea of “equal rights”. He was explaining how in Islam a man has the rights appropirate to a man, a woman has the rights appropriate to a woman, a slave has the rights appropriate to a slave, and how the (Islamic) community gives one the rights appropriate to one’s place in the social order. His logic was flawless, it was his premises that were messed up. It reminded me of something Larry Niven said about writing about aliens in his science fiction stories. “The hardest thing is understanding how someone can think DIFFERENTLY from you, but still AS WELL as you do.”

    Islamic Culture and Western Culture are both made up of people, (so you could say they both have identical hardware); but the religious software that drives each culture is radically different. We would be well advised to recognize that.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    While I liked Peggy Noonan’s writing, her critique of W’s second inaugural speech let me down. Let me guess, Peg also told Reagan not to tell Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” or to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire”? We expect the president to reach for the stars in an inaugural. Set the bar high! But Peggy wanted to keep the bar low.