In a new book, David Elcott warns of nationalist leaders’ growing use of religion to fan illiberal furor

Capital Getty Images

Image credit: Getty Images

 

When hundreds of insurgents stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, a cluster of them lifted a wooden cross with a banner that proclaimed "Jesus is My Savior, Trump is My President." For one New York University professor watching the news, the message crystallized what he calls the intoxicating intersection of religion and politics in America.

If Americans may have seemed as politically divided as possible on that day, David Elcott, the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at NYU Wagner, believes many more threats to democracy are in the offing. “The Republican representatives in Congress and in the states are using religious identity as an incendiary dog whistle,” he contends. “What they’re fomenting— maximal chaos—is only in its infancy.”

 In a newly published book Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy (Notre Dame Press), Elcott argues that religion is being “weaponized” by self-defined illiberal movements to justify restrictions on liberty and marginalization of minorities around the world. He and his co-researchers cite the Trump-era “Muslim ban” and the assaults on Middle Eastern refugees in Germany and France, among other examples. Festering since the Second World War, religion is increasingly fused to a xenophobic hyper-nationalism, he writes.

Trained in political psychology, Middle East affairs, and Judaic studies, Elcott works to enhance understanding of non-violent civic engagement and activism that crosses religious, ethnic, and racial lines. He has conducted training for grassroots advocates and civil society in the U.S., Indonesia, Palestine, Uganda, and Germany, and is faculty director of the Advocacy and Political Action specialization at Wagner. The book grew from interviews in evangelical communities around the U.S. in the years before Trump’s 2016 election.  

For spiritual leaders in every faith, says Elcott, the appropriate response to today’s “reactionary reflex” is for them to use the authority of the pulpit’s capacity to foster “the best protection for religious freedom and personal liberty”— liberal democracy. He notes that a coalition of more than 100 evangelical clerics joined in an open letter condemning the role of “radicalized Christian nationalism” in fueling the mob’s attack on Congress. The letter called on Christian leaders to take a public stand against racism, Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories, and political extremism.

NYU News spoke to Elcott about what else may help diffuse this zealotry that has captured the imagination of an ever-growing number of Americans.

When did you get the idea to write a book about the fusing of faith and nationalism? 

As someone with a Jewish parent who escaped Nazi Germany, I’ve looked at how refugees overcome discrimination in their adopted lands. This led me all the way to Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon, where I worked as a community organizer and social justice advocate on immigration, workers’ rights, and Middle East peace, routinely crossing religious, ethnic, and national boundaries. A Ford Foundation grant underwrote my cross-U.S. research journey. I conducted surveys and interviews, writing about very socially and politically conservative congregations – evangelicals, Catholic Anglos and Latinos, Black Baptists, as well as mainline Christians. I unpacked the ways religion was stoking a populist, and often exclusionary, national identity for church goers and their non-church-going coreligionists.

Religious identity, I realized, is an even more potent force for authenticating national belonging than religious belief and practice. That’s true all over the world. It is part and parcel of the rise of unabashed illiberal movements such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) right-wing populist party in Germany, Marie Le Pen in France, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Narendra Modi in India. The less-churched are often the most emphatic about the need to protect the purity and authenticity that the majority’s religion provides, expressing the feeling that their nation—, its culture and values—, is being taken from them.

Since the Capitol insurrection, what have you come to understand about the threat posed to democracy in the US?

Most of us assume liberal democracy, with its commitment to human and civil rights, is well established. But that’s a false dream. Although the memories of WWII’s horrors kept ethnic, religious, and nationalist hatreds in check for a half-century, all that was suppressed is being released—alienation, fear of the other, worry about loss of status or déclassement. Liberal democracy is in a life-or-death battle with many things, mainly a triumphalist religiosity coupled to ultra-nationalism and populism.

Some Trump allies are insisting he’ll be returned to office in August, evincing partisan fervor one could easily confuse for religious messianism.

It’s a partisan fervor with a religious twist and most observable in evangelical Christian and conservative Catholic communities, which were of course a major linchpin of Donald Trump’s support. For these faith communities, the Bible decrees a code of purity covering premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, and abortion, and human beings are fallen, with a demonic capacity to drive God out of the nation and the world. Loyalty is paramount. And with so much at stake, there was strong motivation to get involved in politics by the time of the 2016 presidential race.

While the faithful may believe that Trump is a deeply flawed man, it’s also true that God’s ways are mysterious. So the idea that a flawed human being can be a vehicle for God’s plan is testified by the adulterous, murderous King David, from whom the messiah comes.

Do you think the fervor could let up? Trump lost the 2020 election. Netanyahu has been displaced. Modi arouses large protests.

I don’t think so. An unmistakable seething anger is flowing across the globe, symptomatic of broader trends undermining traditional liberal democracies. One is a righteous populist defiance of globalism, which is widely perceived as a threat to national autonomy. The other is a belief in a romanticized, mythic national history, and rejection of those who do not – or are not allowed to – share in this ideology.

Religion paired with populist nationalism can provide deep meaning for its adherents, especially those feeling economically or culturally abandoned. More than a century after Nietzsche declared “God is dead,” the casting of majority religions as a national identity marker is prevalent, evoking comparisons to the Europe of my mother, who fled from Germany in the 1930s. In Hungary now, the dominant political figure Viktor Orbán speaks of liberal democracy as outmoded and a danger to nationhood, espousing “Christian democracy.” Meanwhile, in Israel, Jews defend the Jewish nation; in India, Hindus promote a Hindu nation. In Myanmar it’s Buddhists, and in Indonesia, Muslims.

Are illiberal winds pushing GOP-led states to limit Black voters’ access to the polls?

I believe so, given the widespread belief that only “authentic” Americans, descendants of those patriotic white Christians who founded the republic, should have a place in determining the country’s policies and destiny. From Texas to Florida to Wisconsin, voter suppression, claims of stolen elections, and cultural backlash are growing more toxic. It’s telling that Trump and his allies are unrepentant for the lethal mob attack on the Capitol, which the former president helped instigate.

In the battle to save democracy that you depict, what can religious leaders do?

Faith communities must remember that nothing protects their rights to believe and practice as completely as liberal democracy, which enshrines freedom of religion. So on pragmatic grounds alone, defending the autonomy of the courts, the integrity of the voting process, and an independent press—that is, a free and open society—should be a religious as well as a civic calling. Religious leaders and congregants, along with all those who treasure protecting the human and civil rights that are the promise of liberal democracy, should be in the forefront of nurturing personal meaning, fostering a commitment to shared values, and easing inequities and pain. That, to me, is the path forward.