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New books navigate crossroads of religious liberty, democracy

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"These Liberties We Hold Sacred: Essays on Faith and Citizenship in the 21st Century" by Carl Anderson. Square One Publishers (Garden City Park, New York, 2021). 288 pp., $24.95.
"Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy" by David M. Elcott with C. Colt Anderson, Tobias Cremer and Volker Haarmann. University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2021). 188 pp., $31.99.

As a nation and a culture, America struggles with the proper place for religious faith in everyday discourse. We pledge allegiance to "one nation under God," but the discussion often becomes confrontational when religious beliefs mix with political and national identity.

Two new books offer insight into this ongoing dilemma. Carl Anderson brings together a collection of speeches and columns that broadly address the contours of religious faith and citizenship. David M. Elcott and his colleagues focus on how religion shapes nationalist identities in the United States and around the world.

Anderson, who retired in February as CEO of the Knights of Columbus, a major influence in the fight against religious bigotry in public life. Although the views expressed are his alone, it's reasonable to assume that Anderson speaks for many of his fellow Knights.

He includes speeches, articles and essays that first appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, among other outlets. The 26 chapters are brief and cover a variety of topics with a common theme that all Americans must stand against the incremental infringement by government agencies in the practice of religious liberty. Anderson writes well and persuasively in his defense of the First Amendment.

There's power in Anderson's words, in part because he's been in the unusual position of translating ideas into action. For the past 150 years, the Knights have been engaged in the interplay of religious faith and civic life. The organization has worked tirelessly to define what it means to be a good Catholic and a good citizen. When he retired, Anderson had been a leader in that effort for the past 20 years.

Elcott and his colleagues are professors and theologians who offer a broad perspective on how religious faith has been misused in the development of national identities. In rich, complex prose, the authors provide examples of how religion has been used for both good and evil in the development of nation states. Indeed, the authors are stark in highlighting the ways in which religious belief has been weaponized to promote intolerance and disenfranchisement.

The authors also are quick to stress the importance and vitality of religion as a force for good. Writing with passion, Elcott and his colleagues call on faith communities around the world to embrace political engagement in their native countries and ardently advocate for democratic norms and institutions.

"Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy" is a call to action. "We write because, in spite of 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."

These are different books and are likely to appeal to different readers. That said, it's important to point out that Anderson, Elcott and company share a common belief in the central role those religious beliefs play in our daily lives. They agree that we ignore religion and faith at our peril.

The framers of the Constitution never intended to exclude religion from American public life. To be sure, the First Amendment calls for a separation of church and state, but it says nothing about excluding religious discussion from public discourse.

Although different in focus and conclusions, both books are recommended to anyone interested in the crossroads of religious liberty, democracy and nationalism.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021