When the Pope visited his native Poland for the first time as Pontiff, in 1979, millions flocked to hear his sermons. The government hadn't sanctioned these huge gatherings. Such outpourings were unprecedented under Communist rule.
He helped the Polish people restore their religious faith, their confidence in themselves, and ultimately their freedom. They saw that the government could do little to stop them. That emboldened the leaders of Solidarity to start a movement that brought down General Wojciech Jaruzelski's regime 10 years later.
EXEMPT NATION? The keystone of the Pope's efforts to liberate his country consisted of carefully crafted and thinly veiled sermons. "Do not be afraid," he told his countrymen on that 1979 visit. His understated approach, which emboldened followers without provoking the ruling regime, stands in marked contrast to the blunderbuss blend of religion and politics we see in the U.S. today.
Indeed, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright made that point about U.S. foreign policy and God in her speech at Yale University Divinity School a year ago. She noted, for example, President George W. Bush's assertion that the U.S. has a responsibility to "rid the world of evil." Bush has also declared that "freedom and fear have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them."
Efforts to mix religion and politics are nothing new in this country, Albright noted. Ben Franklin proposed prayers before the sessions of the Constitutional Convention but was voted down. Albright wondered what role religion should play in politics. She asked -- but didn't answer -- the question of whether a nation-state is exempt from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. She noted that states are neither baptized nor promised salvation.
BELIEFS VS. RESPONSIBILITIES. She wondered what would have happened if Bush had cited different scripture in addressing the American people. What if he had said: "Resist not evil. Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
Albright noted that "this teaching was not a trivial part of the Gospels' message" while also pointing out, "Most of us would think it a preposterous prescription in a time of national crisis." For Albright, this raises the question of how much of a road map scripture can provide for reconciling religious beliefs and day-to-day professional responsibilities.
The evening of the September 11 attacks, the President cited the 23rd Psalm to console the grieving families. Three days later at the National Cathedral, he made clear he would not turn the other cheek. "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others," he said on the National Day of Prayer & Remembrance. "It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing." He peppered his speech with references to God and implied that God was on America's side. "May he comfort our own," Bush concluded. "And may he always guide our country."
STINGY ON AID. Now, I think most Presidents would have said something similar to what President Bush said, even though such talk is dicey because listeners can view it as confirmation that the battle against Islamic terrorists is the religious war they say it is. An additional problem, however, is that while we want God on our side, we don't always act as if we're on His.
In her speech at Yale, Albright asked: Is a rich nation, like a rich man, "no more likely to reach heaven than a camel to walk through the eye of a needle?" The question has special poignancy when the rich nation is stingy.
The U.S. ranks last among industrialized nations in the proportion of wealth shared with the developing world, as measured by government developmental aid. In 2003, for instance, the U.S. handed out $15.7 billion -- 0.14% of gross national product. Every other country listed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development except Italy gave more than 0.2% that year -- and many gave much more.
TALK IS CHEAP. Changing our standing in this ranking may be a way for us to act as subtly as the Pope did in pushing regime change. As Albright put it, the axis of evil most people face is poverty, ignorance, and disease, which "cause far more avoidable deaths than terror and are at the root of more anguish and loss of hope." The jury is still out on whether Bush's Millennium Challenge Account, which provides aid only if a country adopts economic reforms, will do the trick.
Pope John Paul II offered his Polish brethren -- and millions of others -- hope. Having the impact of John Paul requires having his moral standing. As a nation, we once had such stature, and we can regain it if we want to. But, unlike the Pope, Washington must rely on deeds, not just words and sermons. And most of all by remembering that pride is the mother of all sins. Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek