It’s a gross understatement to observe that the Trump presidency provoked a surge in the already robust scholarship on nationalism (and American nationalism in particular), a trend that shows no signs of abating. Indeed it would be a full-time job just to keep up with new publications on the subject. Alas, it would be a very dreary job, for, although excellent work is being done, much of this “discourse” is academic in the pejorative sense of the word: smug and almost hermetically sealed off from counter-evidence that undercuts its ruling assumptions.
A case in point is Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy, by David M. Elcott with C. Colt Anderson, Tobias Cremer, and Volker Haarman and published, alas, by the excellent University of Notre Dame Press. Many of the values held dear by this ecumenical team of scholars (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant) are dear to me as well, and much that they deplore is also deplorable to me. And yet the world as seen in this book (which reminds me of the old World Council of Churches at its worst) is quite different from the world I inhabit:
For many decades, treaties and alliances steadied and limited the hegemonic tendencies that in the past century led to worldwide conflagration. As more and more societies experimented with democratic forms of governance, feeble and tentative as they have been, many faith communities also reached out to embrace democratic norms and a more pluralist engagement in the public square. As some societies, disappointed and angry, abandon democratic norms and institutions, faith communities can respond by strengthening those norms and institutions from the pulpit, in collective declarations of support, and through active political advocacy. And they help nurture personal meaning and a commitment to shared values that could well assuage the pains so many experience in their daily lives.
Ugh. I am not exaggerating a bit when I say that reading a paragraph such as that, loaded with bland abstractions, makes me queasy. And what a summary of global history from the end of World War II to the present! Ah, those “treaties and alliances” that “steadied and limited the hegemonic tendencies.” Aggh! The sheer unreality of it is stifling.
Of a piece with this are other aspects of the book—for instance, the predictable bit (see pp. 22–23) in which we are instructed that “Religion is Not, in the First Instance, a Matter of Belief.” The false dichotomy is duly trotted out (“Religious identity is about belonging, not necessarily believing”). In fact, “religion” is about believing, behaving, and belonging, all three intertwined.
Then there’s the potted history of Protestant missions, construed largely as an expression of “American Protestant nationalism.” That was an aspect of the enterprise, of course, but whole shelves of first-rate scholarly studies are available to show other sides of the story, not to mention a wealth of personal journals, letters, and other sources that show how the overview offered by Elcott et al. is inadequate and misleading.
Or how about this tidbit: “For mainline Christians [ha!] and Catholics today, one can surmise that sin and evil are less significant than a commitment to build a world of goodness and compassion. The same could be said of many evangelicals.” This is intended as a compliment, you understand—in a book that is motivated in the first place by a sharp awareness of sin and evil as manifest in perversions of religious and national identity!
I suggest that the Ford Foundation and other agencies that funded this project support a sequel, which would take the authors to China for an extensive study of faith and nationalism there. The results, I’m sure, would prove instructive.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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