An Excerpt from “Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy,” by David M. Elcott

In Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy, David Elcott, C. Colt Anderson, Tobias Cremer, and Volker Haarmann present a pragmatic and modernist exploration of how religion engages in the public square. Elcott and his co-authors examine the ways religious identity is weaponized to fuel populist revolts against a political, social, and economic order that values democracy in a global and strikingly diverse world. Included is a history and political analysis of religion, politics, and policies in Europe and the United States that foster this illiberal rebellion.

From the Introduction: Why We Write

We write from a place of deep anxiety, with the awareness that one’s personal biography in ways subtle and overt informs the choices and perspectives of even the most ivory-towered academic. We are easily brought to dark places watching young White Americans, with torches blazing, shouting white power” and “Jews will not replace us,” reminiscent of Nazi Brown Shirts in 1930. Similar demonstrations in Poland and Hungary call for a return to the traditions of Christian Europe. The populist and nationalist rhetoric of many political leaders grinds daily against our fundamental, if unduly hopeful, belief in the goodness and compassion of humanity. Across the planet, anger towards globe-trotting elites, austerity-minded politicians, and distant bureaucrats is igniting rebellious electoral upsets in nation after nation. And, they would say, a deadly pandemic is fitting punishment for globalization as foreigners bring death.

There is a story behind this rebellion. The Enlightenment led to the American and French Revolutions, the dawn of civil rights for citizens and democratic institutions that nurtured and sustained those rights. Increasingly, religious and civic affairs were disentangled, with a concomitant focus on enhancing individual rights. While religious discrimination, as with other forms of prejudice, remained, secularism seemed ascendant and citizenship was decreasingly tethered to the majority religion. In many regions, personal autonomy and an expansion of freedom diminished the role of the “Church.” As the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson lightly explained: “If you look back at the origins of liberalism, it starts first with a certain settlement about religious difference. Catholics, Protestants, they are killing each other.” Finally, Germany, England, all these places began to say how tired they are of people killing each other, so it was time to make a peace settlement that would lead to religious toleration.

Following World War II, the idea that religion belongs at home and should be removed from the public square seemed to become the norm, a public value even if transgressed. Emerging nations, from India to Indonesia to Germany, refused to include the majority religion in their constitutions, while the United Nations declared freedom of religion a human right. 

With the collapse of dominating empires, including the Soviet Union, and the diminished role of the United States in fostering democracy, religious fueled nationalism has made a comeback, but now in the territory of liberal democracies. And so a spotlight on the role of religion is back in vogue, not merely a return to earlier epochs, but directing us to a very different and angry future.

In 1986, James Carse wrote about finite and infinite games. As applied to western liberal democratic systems, there is a tension – liberal democracy itself is an infinite game where one never “wins” permanently and the system has a range of checks and balances to keep the game going. It is hoped that regular and free elections, permanent bureaucracies, representative legislatures, local jurisdictions, independent courts and unspoken norms and behaviors all help to keep the game alive and vital. Yet autocrats and autocratic political movements seek to permanently win, end the game with total victory and, in essence, shut down the game. These players, found around the world, have been given or taken on names: the alt-right, populist nationalists, neo-Fascists, White Supremacists or other ethnic, racial or religious supremacists. While real differences may distinguish them, country by country, as a group we unite them in their commitment to illiberal democracy, the term we will use as we explore the ways religious identity is used to give them support. 

Religion, too, has historically held the tension described by Carse — on one hand, religion can be an infinite game of change and growth. Religions also have had periods in which players sought to vanquish the other and end the game with a triumphant church. 

This book is about the challenges to liberal democracies as some players, using religious identity as fuel, seek to make the game finite. While no one election, legislative vote or court decision alone signals apocalyptic catastrophe, in spite of what pundits may claim, liberal democracy can be weakened and its efficacy eroded by savvy players. These opponents hope to win by permanently destroying the competition, gutting democratic institutions by purging those seeking to uphold their historic standards and norms. They promote political violence as well as legislative and executive decisions that undermine the core institutions and processes of liberal democracies. They use all forms of media to damage faith in what is factual and true. They threaten dissent. This assault is occurring in the United States and Europe and in many vulnerable liberal democracies across Africa, Asia and Latin America. This is what illiberal democracy is all about, ending the game with a final, outright victory.

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