Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy

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David M. Elcott
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , May
     2021.
     238 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780268200602.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Written on the heels of the 2020 United States presidential election and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy by David M. Elcott, C. Colt Anderson, Tobias Cremer, and Volker Haarmann attempts to answer the resounding question, “how did we get here?” The here in question is the contemporary moment in which illiberal democracy, undergirded with the sentiment of “religious identity as a prerequisite for national membership,” is flourishing (18). Primarily using examples from the United States and European contexts, Elcott and his coauthors carefully outline the historical and political factors that have led to this moment and offer an array of theologically grounded solutions for bolstering liberal democracy.

The hopeful, yet pragmatic project of this book rests on the authors’ distinctions between liberal and illiberal democracies. The introduction and chapter 1 work together to begin describing this dichotomy. Illiberal democracies are engendered through an amalgamation of “populism, nationalism, and religious identities” (5). They are marked by the act of othering those who appear to fall outside of “the majority” in each context. Leaders in illiberal democracies often “invoke the majority’s religion as the foundation of the state” to create further divides (5). Illiberal democracies “seek to purify the nation, which they see as tainted or even poisoned by alien forces, often in a combination of race, ethnicity, and religious identity” (28).

In contrast, liberal democracies share a commitment to democratic norms, by “[accepting] the political legitimacy of opponents, [eschewing] violence as a force for change, and [protecting] the civil liberties of opponents, media, and vulnerable populations” (31). Furthermore, liberal democracies foster discourse across differences to ensure human rights and dignity for all people regardless of class, creed, or nationality.

The rest of the book can be separated into two sections. Chapters 2 and 3 analyze populism in Europe and nationalism in the United States, offering current and historical examples of each. Building from this analysis, chapters 4, 5, and 6 offer theological responses to illiberal democracy.

The latter half of the book moves beyond the question, “how did we get here?” to the follow-up question, “where do we go from here?” Each of the last three chapters focuses on a single religious response: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, respectively. Chapter 4 urges Catholic faith leaders to educate their communities on the history and tradition of the Catholic Church and the “integral relationship between Catholic teachings on human rights and the institutions that protect and promote them” (112). Similarly, chapter 5 calls for Protestant communities to learn from their historical “failures” and heed the advice of Bonhoeffer to oppose injustice and aid its victims (130­–132). Finally, chapter 6 turns to Jewish pluralism as “an effective way to partner with God” and names any absolutist claim as “idolatry” (149, 146).

In the act of penning Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy, Elcott and his coauthors have come together across religious and cultural divides and exemplified a clear commitment to liberal democracy. Their work challenges faith leaders and laypersons alike to do the same and join together across seemingly insurmountable boundaries to work towards a global emphasis on human rights and dignity for all people. While the book offers theological responses to illiberal democracy from Jewish and Christian perspectives—notably reflective of the authors’ own backgrounds—a theological response from an Islamic perspective is noticeably missing. Islam is a major world religion with monotheistic theology, akin to Judaism and Christianity. As this work seeks to address the increasingly diverse religious landscapes of the United States and Europe, the authors have missed an opportunity to be in conversation with scholars of Islam and further deconstruct the socio-religious divides that allow for illiberal democracy to prosper. 

Although the book contains in-depth historical and political analyses of circumstances in the United States and abroad, it is written in an accessible manner which allows it to be read widely—from classrooms to places of worship and beyond. Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy is just a start at answering the questions “how did we get here?” and “where do go from here?” but I am hopeful that the work of Elcott and his coauthors will be a practical and valuable resource for folks from all walks of life who share a concern for democracy.
 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brooke Foster is a master of divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 7, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Elcott is the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and director of the Advocacy and Political Action specialization.

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