An Interview with David M. Elcott, co-author of “Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy”

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. He wrote Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy (May 2021) with C. Colt Anderson, Tobias Crèmer, and Volker Haarmann. He recently agreed to sit down with us to talk about his new book. 

When did you first get the idea for this book? 

I have spent much of my life, long before college, pursuing cross-cultural engagement. I am the child of a Jewish refugee who fled for her life during World War II and needed to establish herself as an American. As a researcher, I focused on how refugees connect with their new countries, how they engage in the political life of the new country, especially when there was religious or ethnic marginalization or oppression. That brought me to Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. As an organizer and social justice advocate, I worked on immigration, workers’ rights and Middle East peace, crossing all sorts of religious, ethnic and national boundaries. Even now, I teach a class at the Christian Bethlehem Bible College.

These are unprecedented times in the United States with the recent rise of white nationalism. What will resonate with your readers in this book? 

We assume that liberal democracy, with its commitment to protect human and civil rights, is well established. That is a false dream. Rather, for some fifty years after World War II, the memories of that horror kept ethnic, religious and nationalist hatreds in check—as did the America, European, and Russian empires. We now face a harsh reality—all that was suppressed is being released, the sense of alienation, of loss, of déculassement, the fear of the other, the triumphalism of religious orthodoxies. Democracy is in a battle for its life. The book both provides analysis and remedies.

How did you research this book?

Again, this has been a lifelong enterprise of engagement. With a Ford Foundation grant, I surveyed and interviewed church leaders and members, from the most conservative evangelicals in the south, Catholic Anglos and Latinos, Black Baptist and mainline Christians. That gave me great insight into ways Christians vary in outlook. 

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

There are two areas that make this book unique. The first is a focus on the use of religious identity to fuel populist nationalism. While many discuss economic, social dislocation, immigration and racism—all of which are real—few fuse the rise of Donald Trump or AfD in Germany, Marie Le Pen in France, Netanyahu in Israel, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India—the list is very long, crossing all continents—with the ways they use religion as a mobilizing force of national identity, even for those who are not “church” observant in any way. We actually show that those less churched are often the most emphatic about the need to protect the pure religion of their nation. 

The second contribution is bringing powerful religious voices to the fore, offering an alternative read of faith that endorses and supports democracy. This too is crucial, asking for religious leaders to give voice to a faith that defends human and civil rights and eschews the nationalist populism that fuels hatred, violence, and death. It is unusual for one book to combine thorough political and historical analysis with faith-based writing.

What did you learn while writing this work?

There is so much good in the world, so many people fighting for justice and freedom and humanity.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I had hoped to cover the world—Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. In my academic and professional life, I have consulted, mediated and conferred with faith and political leaders from Indonesia to India, Latin America to Europe, Uganda and South Africa. With so many wonderful contacts, I hoped to have them join in writing, to show how this religion-infused populism us a world phenomenon. That was too ambitious, so I settled on Europe and the United States, with references to the rest of the world.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

I think that Robert Putnam and Michael Walzer, both of whom generously offered praise, are giants in the fields of politics and religion. Certainly Bowling Alone propelled me academically. I was also blessed with remarkable religious teachers, Harold Schulweis and Yitz Greenberg, whose tutorials in the years I worked with them are invaluable. And in interfaith work, giants like Jim Winkler of the National Council of Churches and Katherine Henderson of Auburn prove to be incredible partners. Tony Richie, Bishop of the Church of God Pentecostal, introduced me to deep evangelical faith and cross-boundary friendship.

Who would you like to read Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy?

I hope that there is a wide audience here. The book purposely avoids academic jargon so that anyone who wants to understand what is happened in the world, why the polarization, the hatred and fear, could gain insight through the book. Of course, we also wrote to an academic audience in the hope that students will read, those interested in political movements and policy as well as those studying religious movements. And then we write to Christian, Catholic, and Jewish faithful, hoping to inspire them to greater constructive civic engagement. Last, to media and thought leaders, to see the fusion of zealous faith with nationalist populism as a great danger, to distinguish between democracy loving Christians and Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus and those who use their faith to fuel hatred and xenophobia.

What book are you working on next?

No book, but I am writing in the popular press to help myself and others better understand how faith and nationalism are intertwined and how we can better defend the liberal democratic values and institutions that protect and liberate us. I vowed this would be my last effort at writing—there is so much out there, who needs more. But after the election, I want to return to the churches where I met such wonderful and interesting people and see how the past five years have affected their faith, their politics and policy views. So, I am ramping up for my next research project.

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