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Book explores melding of the sacred and the secular

Faith and nationalism book argues how religion has been (and still is) weaponized politically by Frank E. Lockwood | May 7, 2022 at 2:58 a.m.
President Donald Trump posed for photos on June 1, 2020, after viewing the outside of a Washington, D.C. church that had been damaged by rioters. (AP file photo)

One day after rioters torched a historic church in downtown Washington, then-President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley -- dressed in military camouflage -- strolled across Lafayette Square and headed toward the fire-scorched structure.

Upon arrival, the 45th president posed for pictures in front of St. John's Church, holding a borrowed Bible and then headed back to the White House.

Trump, an infrequent churchgoer who has demonstrated an unfamiliarity with Scriptures, faced no protesters that evening. They'd been forcibly and violently removed shortly beforehand.

The melding of religious symbolism and military might delighted many of his supporters.

Trump's actions that day were a "not so subtle dog whistle to mobilize [support] -- not for Christianity as a religion but for populist nationalist purposes," says David M. Elcott, author of "Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy."

The mixing of the sacred and the secular was evident during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. In addition to red MAGA hats, Trump supporters sometimes sported "Jesus Is My Savior; Trump Is My President" T-shirts.

Some of the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were carrying religious signs or symbols, including the Christian flag and "Jesus Saves" signs.

The co-opting of religion by politicians is not simply an American phenomenon, Elcott says. Nationalist leaders around the globe are adopting similar tactics, he says.

Increasingly, religion is being used "as a talisman of traditional culture," Elcott's book states.

The phenomenon is evident in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban is proposing what he calls "Christian democracy" as an alternative to "liberal democracy."

The aim, Orban says, is to preserve "the ways of life springing from Christian culture," rather than "defending religious articles of faith."

In the former Soviet Union, President Vladimir Putin has attempted to meld Russian nationalism with Russian Orthodoxy, even building a Cathedral of the Armed Forces, roughly 35 miles southeast of the Kremlin.

Nazi tanks and other equipment were reportedly melted down and used as building materials for the project.

With Russia invading Ukraine, Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church have spoken with one voice in recent months, portraying the assault as a righteous endeavor.


Although religion is often touted in nationalist circles, the primary goal isn't to save souls, Elcott's book suggests. Rather, it is to separate insiders from outsiders, "us" from "them."

"Religious identity is about belonging, not necessarily believing," the book states.

Leaders of Alternative for Germany, a right-wing populist party, have made that point explicitly.

"We are not a Christian party," the book quotes one of the group's leaders as saying. "We do not seek to defend Christianity in any religious sense. ... Christianity is only a metaphor for the customs inherited from our Fathers."

Elcott, a professor at New York University, wrote the book along with C. Colt Anderson, the outgoing dean for the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University; Tobias Cremer, a junior research fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford; and Volker Haarmann, chair of the Department of Theology of the Protestant Church in the Rhineland.

The authors say it is important "to understand the ways religious identity is being weaponized to fuel revolts against a political, social, and economic order that values democracy in a global, human-rights-oriented, financially intertwined and strikingly diverse world."

"In terms of its political meaning, it is not about one's belief or one's faithfulness to church, synagogue, temple or mosque. It is more about a secularized, faith-as-culture, civilizational and identitarian religion of belonging rather than believing, a way of defining the 'we' of authentic citizens against the 'they' who are alien and dangerous," they write, adding, "In the end, such use of religion has little or even nothing to do with religious belief or practice."


Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, has praised the book calling it "an impassioned defense of the sane and sound forms of religion that engender and protect democracy, human rights, and love of neighbor."

Elcott, who is alarmed by the rise of nationalism, has more than an academic interest in the topic; much of his family perished in the Holocaust.

"It motivates me to stand up, affirmatively, for liberal democracy," he said.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Communism collapsing and the United States as the lone superpower, many believed that democracy had triumphed and would triumph moving forward.

Freedom's high tide, however, was ephemeral.

Today, in much of the world, democracy is in retreat. It has enemies across the political spectrum, the authors maintain.

"Antidemocratic political parties and governments are not the monopoly of right-wing movements," they write. "In fact, attacks on democracy often sound quite similar, whether coming from the left of the right."

Faith in democracy has been undermined in recent years, the book suggests.

"Democratic governments often seem incapable of effective decision-making," the authors wrote.

Globalization, it turns out, was not a panacea for humanity's problems, Elcott said in an interview with the Democrat-Gazette.

Leaders of liberal democracies have sometimes failed to acknowledge that fact, he said.

"[They] kept on making the claim: 'Aren't we all benefiting from globalization? Isn't this wonderful?,'" Elcott said.

For many Americans, the benefits of globalization are hard to spot, he said.

"Under half of Americans have passports. They're not global citizens. They don't jet off to different places," he said. "They feel that their culture, their values, their norms, are being blown apart. And I think that the liberal community simply ... doesn't understand that."

While religion can be used to undermine democracy, it can also strengthen it. The authors say "brave religious leaders and powerful theologies" will be needed "to counter the threats ... [and] heal the hemorrhaging of democracy."

  photo  Then-President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he stands in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020. A new book, “Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy,” argues that “religious-fueled nationalism” is on the rise around the world. (The New York Times/Doug Mills)

  photo  Shown from left are David M. Elcott and a cover photo of his new book, Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy.


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