Do you know what happens when you put an eyes-wide-open pastor and a top religious scholar together to talk about the current state of religious identity, in light of how American politics has become so polarized? Fascinating conversation, for starters, with lots of open-ended questions because the word “religion” doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it once did.
Not so long ago, it was fairly straightforward to make basic assumptions about people who claimed to be Catholic or Evangelical, Baptist or Methodist. You could, for example, presume that they regularly attended church, and adhered to a set of values. But it’s turning out that many people who claim a Christian identity now do so for social and political reasons, not as a testament of faith. Which isn’t surprising when you see church attendance levels at all time lows, and coalitions of Evangelicals supporting political leaders like Donald Trump who make no attempt to behave in a Christ-like manner.
All of which is very confusing—for political pollsters, pastors like Jeremiah Rood and political scientist David Elcott, co-author of Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy, which earned a starred review from Jeremiah in the May/June issue of Foreword Reviews.
With a helping hand from The University of Notre Dame Press, we connected these two thoughtful gentlemen to help us better understand the future we face as Americans.
Let’s begin with a consideration of the religious landscape, which the book notes is increasingly populated by people who claim no religious identity or “none” when asked what faith they hold. For me, as a pastor, I was most intrigued by your look at these religious “none(s),” because it gives a fresh and wonderfully nuanced view. You write we need to consider this “religious identity” in much subtler ways, by “examining how it is being used to endorse and give credibility to illiberal democratic forces.” Can you tell us more about how to understand these nones?
When we hear the word “religion” as Americans or Europeans, we immediately conjure images in our mind of cathedrals and vestments, church choirs and specific holidays. There are churches on the corners of our neighborhoods and, of course, stories about Plymouth Bay Colony and refugees fleeing for religious freedom. Of course, we also imagine the horrors of religion, the destruction of the World Trade Center, Islamist beheadings, sectarian battles from Ireland to the former Yugoslavia to Sri Lanka that fill the news. So religion is about behaviors and rituals. Yet most Americans today, well over 60 percent—even those who identify as Christian—will not be found in church on Sunday. In England, about 5 percent attend regularly and in Israel, only 14 percent attend synagogue.
So what makes America and England Christian or Israel Jewish? Can you imagine walking the streets of Chicago or London in December and not be dazzled by Christmas decorations on homes and department stores and the fire station? And CVS and Walmart will have displays of chocolate Easter rabbits filling their shelves. When we sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, as I performed with my school choir, a triumphant Christ leads the Union to victory. While clergy bemoan the lack of true Christian spirit in our media and mall culture, the average American simply assumes that to be American is to link oneself to its Christian heritage even as most accept the presence of “non-traditional” religious folk—they have the freedom to practice their alternative faith in “our” country, we are a free country, much as Black and Brown people have their place in a White America.
The book speaks to the very thorny issue of identity, particularly as it comes to both politics and religion. You note “that the more secularized the country, the greater the role of Christian customs and traditions as identity markers.” I found this to be a fascinating observation, implying that while people may see more overt religious symbols in their secular world that those might not actually reflect real religious expression. You describe it as a “faith-as-culture” situation, where this behavior has little or nothing to do with religious practice. How can people understand the difference?
So that is pretty much what I said above. Ironically, it seems the more secular we become, the less observant in traditions and practices that once brought us to church, the more reliant we are on forms of identity that ground us. In Germany, it is clear that those who attend church regularly are the least likely to join the right-wing political movements. In the US, there is no better image than President Trump holding aloft a Bible upside down, from which it is unlikely he could cite many verses, certainly not those of Christian love and charity. In a globalized world, one in which so many feel lost and abandoned, holding on to one’s identity becomes even more crucial—I am white, I am Christian, I am a Californian, I am straight, I am a man—and challenges to those identities will be met with anger. Claiming white supremacy or upholding male privilege or homophobia will result in serious critique. But saying I am a Christian will be viewed as a positive—so using Christian identity in America and Europe, or for that matter, Jewish in Israel or Hindu in India—is seen as a positive. That makes it a potent ignitor to fuel populist nationalism
The book describes an interesting dichotomy between those who think and write about politics, on the one hand, and those who consider religion, on the other, as being an unhelpful way to view the world. The book suggests that believing is about belonging, putting it in both the traditional religious and political worlds. In whose interest, do you think, is it for the world to see and maintain these divisions? Am I correct in seeing that keeping these two spheres separate actually helps people with nationalistic or alt-right leanings?
Political scientists talk about religion: evangelicals do this and Catholics do that. It is true that, in creating correlations, one can do that, but it really does not tell us much. Who exactly is a Catholic and what behaviors are required to make that claim? So really, pollsters presume religious affiliation when really all they really are seeing is a social identity. Meanwhile, scholars of religion focus on the faith. While happy to take in all those who claim Christian identity, there is a presumption that the designation has meaning—reflects certain values, behaviors, rituals, and obligations. But when we look, for example, at those who identify as evangelicals, we are confused. To be an evangelical means one accepts chastity, abhors infidelity, gossip, and sexual impropriety, treasures honesty and personal integrity.
So those supporting Donald Trump needed to separate their own faith (would I allow my son to say and do those terrible things) and their political behavior. Did evangelicals support Trump out of religious conviction or were other values at play determining their choices, making faith an irrelevant or misleading explanation of behavior.
We should also talk about the First Amendment. The text explores two narratives that are at play in our society at the moment, noting the distinction between whether the amendment means people have freedom from religion or if people just have the freedom to practice one’s religion. The difference becomes important, the book explains, because it asks: “Is the United States a secular state that protects religious freedom, with perhaps, an honored role for religious voices in civic discourse, or a white Christian civilization that is threatened by immigrants, social or political movements that endanger the moral purity of the nation, and the invasion of violent infidels prepared to destroy it?”
I appreciate this idea because it binds together both issues of race and religious identity in important ways. Looking at the history, can you speculate on where we’re headed?
At this moment, if the Supreme Court debates give us anticipatory direction, the path is unclear. The battle between the First Amendment’s commitment to free speech and religion is at war with the Fourteenth Amendment commitment to due process and equality. Can a baker refuse to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple? Can a company refuse women coverage for birth control? Must a Catholic social service agency offer adoption opportunities to a gay man? Should tax money be used to buy books, provide lunches and transportation to sectarian religious schools? And should America favor immigrants from Europe who look like the founders of this country?
While President Biden won the election by seven million votes, the reality is Trump received more votes than any candidate in US history other than Biden. As one Chassidic master said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the essence of life is to not be overwhelmed with fear.” So I am trying to not panic, but if I were a betting man, I would not know where to place my bets.
Your book was written before the failed coup attempt on January 6 at the nation’s capital. I’m wondering how you see the work in your book relating to those events? Was it something you might have expected, given events the text describes in other nations, like Germany?
Defenders of our human and civil rights must deconstruct the logic that underpins this massive assault on democracy. We begin with a wakeup call from history that, until Jan. 6, seemed a preposterous comparison: In 1923, Adolf Hitler staged an assault on the German Weimar Republic in Munich. It failed. He was arrested and humiliated; German leaders proudly claimed that democracy prevailed. In jail, he authored Mein Kampf, his blueprint to destroy the Republic. Ten years later, he was chancellor of Nazi Germany.
Our battle to save democracy has only begun.
Let’s end with some hope. I found your book to be a challenging and hopeful call for people of faith to demonstrate and embrace “their duty to God and their prophetic calling to defend liberty and human dignity.” I also appreciated the role that theology can play in that call. Where do you place your hope that society is not doomed to repeat some of the injustices of the past? Or are you more pessimistic?
As I noted above, we have every reason to be concerned. Those who fuel populist nationalism, whether in Hungary or Israel, India or Indonesia, are in for the long haul. They do not seek a momentary victory in an election, but ending the human and civil rights that I believe are fundamental to liberal democracy. I turned to faith leaders to defend democracy because, even with increased secularization, faith leaders still have voices that command respect. The failure of faith leaders to speak out in Germany, the land where my family lived for at least one thousand years and were ultimately murdered, is certainly at the core of the story we seek to tell just as religious silence by so many over slavery and lynchings in America remains an indelible stain. My hope is that faith leaders will have learned well from the sins of their past and repent by enriching theologies of democracy.
Finally, last question, since I may have missed something that you really wanted to talk about, I’m wondering if there is anything or area you were hoping we might ask you about? Anything you’d love people to know about your experience writing the book or about living with its ideas?
Easiest to excerpt from the book: “We have written this book with confidence that religious leaders will communicate that the use of their religion to fuel nationalism is, in fact, a dangerous religious malfunction. We have written to faith communities in the hope that they will be more deeply engaged in the civic affairs of their countries as vocal and activist advocates for democratic norms and institutions. We have written so that political analysts and pundits will immerse themselves more deeply in how faith communities translate belief into action and sacred scripture into policy prescriptions. And we write in the hope that political leaders will eschew the demagogic path of weaponizing the religious identity of their citizens to fuel illiberal populist nationalism. We write this—Colt and Tobias and Volker and I—during a global pandemic and upheaval, a surreal time of deep uncertainty. We write because, in spite of the anxiety and fear, we join with you as believers that the arc of history so often invoked does bend toward justice and love and a future where democracy thrives and human dignity is honored. Together, we can fortify the democratic institutions and values of our communities, our countries, and our world.