Religion and US Empire



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Today's guest post comes from Sylvester A. Johnson, author of The Myth of Ham and professor at Northwestern University. With Tracy Neal Leavelle (author of The Catholic Calumet), Professor Johnson is heading a new initiative in US religious history "Religion and US Empire." With a group of fellows, an AAR panel, and plans for more, "Religion and US Empire" endeavors to transform how we write and teach on religion, empire, and the two together and in tension.

“Religion and US Empire”
by Sylvester A. Johnson
Ask virtually any student of classical antiquity about Roman society, and you will hear a common refrain: Rome was an empire. Virtually every scholarly study of ancient Roman society, whether examining gender or material culture or religion or philosophy, begins by attending to the significance of Rome’s status as an empire, and with good reason. Empires involve a scale and architecture of power across multiple domains that affect every aspect of life. This is especially true of religion. Since the Roman Empire’s decline, a number of other “greats” have risen and fallen—the Byzantines, the Mongolians, the Ottomans, and the British, to name a few. Historians have repeatedly recognized that the US emerged from the Cold War the decisive victor as the world’s leading superpower. Since 9/11, especially, it has become commonplace for scholars to recognize that the US is an empire—the world’s most powerful—and to examine what this means for economics, politics, culture, human rights, etc.
Unlike the case of ancient Rome, however, the study of religion and US empire is an intersection to which scholars overwhelmingly prefer a detour. Such studies do exist—among the more notable are Martin Marty’s Righteous Empire (1970), Cornel West’s Democracy Matters (2005), Mark Taylor’s Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire (2005); Rosemary Reuther’s America, Amerikkka: Elect Nation and Imperial Violence (2007); Vincent Rougeau’s Christians in the American Empire: Faith and Citizenship in the New World Order (2008); and Jon Pahl’s Empire of Sacrifice (2010). But the sheer paucity of these studies is striking. Of the hundreds of studies of US empire that have emerged over the past decade, a only mere handful examine the intersection with religion. Or, to phrase the same problem differently, for the vast majority of scholars of US religion, it seems to matter little if at all that the US is an empire.[1]
Despite this dearth of studies, there are overwhelming reasons for scholars of US religion to engage richly with the significance of US America’s status as an empire. Since its inception as a nation-state, the US has existed as an empire, dominating external polities such as Native American nations as a means of nationalist expansion while simultaneously administering control over “internal” populations—American Indians and Africans—as outsiders alien to the body politic. The expansive growth of the nation in the decades following its founding both inspired and benefited from America’s religious movements. Perhaps the most significant in the early 1800s was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). This missionary society was the first to focus on exporting US religion to foreign populations, including Native Americans and peoples around the world. The ABCFM was in every sense the American rival of the older, more established foreign missionary societies of Europe.
Throughout the 1800s, the expanding US Empire shaped in fundamental ways the religious history of Mormons and American Indians in the western territories. The US imperial war with the Republic of Mexico in the 1840s severed away nearly half that nation’s territory and placed it under US rule. So-called frontier religion and the interracial formations of power, dissension, and alliance in places like California, Kansas, and New Mexico emerged through histories of military occupation, imperial imaginaries, and settler paradigms. The US missionary presence in Hawaii and the creation of Liberia as a Black Christian settler state are further examples of this intersection. By 1885, Josiah Strong could author Our Country under the guiding assumption that empire was the essential architecture through which what he called Anglo-Saxon Christianity was to be fully realized. The intersection of religion and empire is further attested by the tragic history of Wounded Knee in 1890 and the US acquisition of the Philippines in the 1890s.
In the wake of the Second World War, the US began to solidify a global constellation of military bases that today number more than 1,000. The US defined its global mission as containing and defeating Communism and socialist-inspired political and land reform movements throughout the Third World. Establishing proxy governments quickly emerged as the premier means of controlling global geopolitics. This shift created a political order rooted in making formally sovereign polities into US satellite states. This enabled a fundamental shift in the theological imagination of US power. In the 1950s and 1960s, figures like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell embodied the rising tide of political Christianity that linked the US effort to become the most powerful empire to the religious grammatology of Manichaean struggle against ultimate evil. An explicitly religious tenor began to accrue in the substance and fervor of US foreign policy, preeminently rendering US national security as a multifold response to the “godless Communism” that threatened to destroy what was frequently described as the American way or the heritage of “a Christian nation.”
The internal changes in American public religion were transformative and indelible. By the 1980s, historians who had long lamented the decline of American public religion beneath the advent of secularization (the now-discredited secularization thesis) were suddenly struggling to explain how they had so fundamentally misdiagnosed the reality. Religion was patently a ubiquitous force in American politics. The consequences for religion were equally significant abroad. In Latin America, for instance, American Christian missionaries busied themselves with converting populations who promoted liberation theology within Third World Catholicism. Their evangelical critique of Catholicism was explicitly aligned with the interests of US capital and US militarism. In unexpected ways, the ascent of US hegemony had shaped the very terms through which US religious actors would align themselves as conservatives or progressives. And as is now evident, the triumph of fundamentalism in the US was enabled by the Cold War and specific formations of US hegemony.
In the post-9/11 era, it has become somewhat easier to identify the linkages between religion and US empire, or at least to appreciate that their intersection merits serious study. As I stated earlier, 9/11 has been the most important catalyst for propelling scholarly attention toward the intersection of religion and US empire. But our work to produce scholarship that elucidates the forms and consequences of this intersection has barely begun. Yet, if there has ever been a “moment” for scholars of religion to tackle this problem, it is now. Just last week, fifteen scholars of American religion convened at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska to inaugurate a collaborative effort (see www.religionandusempire.org) to examine what it means for American religion that the US is an empire. Over the next few years, this group will focus on the multiple ways that religion and empire have intersected to shape the history, culture, and textures of US society. This is just one sign of a larger trend in which American religion scholars are seeking to understand with renewed vigor why empire matters for the history of religion and how integral religion has been to the long arc of US empire.



[1] Prominent examples are Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993), edited by Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease; Alfred McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire (2009); Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (2009), edited by Alfred McCoy and Francisco Scarano; and Richard Immerman’s Empire for Liberty (2010). Bernard Porter’s Empire and Superempire (2006) and Charles Maier’s Among Empires (2006). For a comprehensive historiographical discussion, see Paul Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World,” American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (December 2011): 1348–91.



8 comments:

Mark T. Edwards at: October 17, 2013 at 4:44 PM said...

What a great project and amazing lineup of scholars! I'm looking forward to your collective work on this important subject.

Heather R. White at: October 18, 2013 at 8:30 AM said...

Another great book I'd encourage on this theme is Ann Laura Stoler, ed. _Haunted By Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History_ (Duke, 2006)

Tom Van Dyke at: October 18, 2013 at 4:44 PM said...

But America is not inarguably an "empire," no matter how many scholars write books, essays, or even create schools of thought and study based on that assertion.

For example:

by Paul Schroeder
Mr. Schroeder is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

At the January meeting of the American Historical Association Professor Schroeder gave an electrifying address on the differences between imperialism and hegemony. AHA President Lynn Hunt ran up to him afterwards to implore him to write an op-ed. At our request, he did so.
_____________
"American Empire is the current rage--whether hailed or denounced, accepted as inevitable or greeted as an historic opportunity. Common to the discourse is an assumption, shared also by friends and foes abroad, that America already enjoys a world-imperial position and is launched on an imperial course.

But that assumption involves another: that America is already an empire simply by being the world's only superpower, by virtue of its military supremacy, economic power, global influence, technological and scientific prowess, and world-wide alliances. The term "empire," in short, describes America's current condition and world status, and is equivalent to phrases like "unipolar moment" or "unchallenged hegemony."

This is a misleading, unhistorical understanding of empire, ignoring crucial distinctions between empire and other relationships in international affairs and obscuring vital truths about the fate of empires and bids for empire within the modern international system. A better understanding of empire can point us to historical generalizations we ignore at our peril."

&c.

http://hnn.us/article/1237#sthash.UTsxGZiQ.dpuf


Edward J. Blum at: October 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM said...

While religion is only a subtle issue in Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman's recent AMERICAN UMPIRE, the "peace of Westphalia" is an important backdrop. She, like you Tom, wonders if empire is the best model. [this is not an endorsement or rejection of any ideas in Lisa's book]

Tom Van Dyke at: October 19, 2013 at 4:21 PM said...

Aye.

In the least, if one wants to argue "religion and empire" outside one's circle, effort must be made toward establishing the latter premise.

In American Umpire, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman offers a sweeping, wide-ranging, and remarkably in-depth overview of the history of American foreign relations. In a work bound to inspire fierce debate, Hoffman, the Dwight E. Stanford Professor of American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University and a National Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that those that criticize America’s role in the world have it all wrong: “One of the most commonly held scholarly assumptions of our day -- that the United States is a kind of empire -- is not simply improbable but false” (5). Above all, critics do not understand America’s history.

...

In her conclusion, “Good Calls, Bad, Calls, and Rules in Flux; Or, Who Wants to Be Ump? 1991–Present,” Hoffman argues, post 9/11, that “calling the United States an empire has yielded no practical solutions because the nation and the world system in which it fits are simply not structured in that way.” Instead, Hoffman sees America as “the enforcer of what is, most of the time, the collective will: the maintenance of a world system with relatively open trade borders, in which arbitration and economic sanctions are the preferred method of keeping the peace and greater and greater numbers of people have at least some political rights.” Critiquing Williams, Hoffman argues that “American diplomacy in the twentieth century has been far more triumphant than tragic.” America is not an Empire, but rather a “player-umpire.” This is “not completely fair to anyone, the umpire or the other players. But it is often better than having no ump at all” (336-352)


http://hnn.us/article/152676

Laura Leibman at: October 20, 2013 at 9:16 AM said...

Looks great! I too, was struck by the central proposition that U.S. was like Rome and that, "Virtually every scholarly study of ancient Roman society, whether examining gender or material culture or religion or philosophy, begins by attending to the significance of Rome’s status as an empire, and with good reason." I agree on the centrality of empire to Roman culture & religion: when I teach our course on ancient Rome, I find it crucial to deal with Emperor cults and their impact on Roman life and empire building. That said, since America doesn't have an emperor, surely part of the project of "Religion and US Empire" will be to explain what it means to have an empire post emperor? (What religiously would take the "place" of the emperor cult and is there necessarily a religious "void" without an emperor?) Looks like a great lineup of scholars: I am sure that they will deal with these issues.

Sylvester Johnson at: October 24, 2013 at 8:10 AM said...

Studies of US empire constitute a large body of intellectually rigorous analysis of the actual histories, political formations, and power relations that have constituted the US as a racial, imperial state. The scholarship on US empire is not a fad or, as Paul Schroeder has claimed, “the current rage.” Nor is it based on “assumptions.” Both of these are erroneous and condescending mischaracterizations. Those interested in understanding the intellectual basis for examining the US as an empire will find helpful studies like Alfred McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire (2009), Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire (2002), Richard Immerman's Empire for Liberty (2010), Paul Kramer’s Blood of Government (2006), and David Goldberg’s Racial State (2001). It is also important to note that studies of US empire are not new. Over 160 years ago, the political theorist Martin Delany examined the US in precisely such terms in his Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852), wherein he argued that Native Americans and Blacks lived under the colonial governance of the racial, Anglo-American state.

The scholarship on US empire is by no means rooted in a fixation on "emperors." (The term empire derives from the Latin imperium, which refers to a form of political power, not to an emperor). Empire rather denotes a polity (i.e., a state, not a person) that dominates people(s) while rendering them external and alien to the political community through which the dominating polity is conceived. Empires are constituted when a state dominates a people (i.e., a polity) through the colonial relation of power. This is why there could be an anticolonial movement in the Gold Coast that opposed British imperialism in the 1950s. There was no British emperor in the 1950s (Britain was a parliamentary democracy), nor was there any emperor of France in the 1950s and 1960s, when Algerians waged a war against French imperialism to create an independent republic of Algeria. For an elaborate account of this colonial relation, readers of this blog are encouraged to consult Michael Hechter's Internal Colonialism; David Goldberg's Racial State, and Achille Mbembe's Postcolony. Also important is Michel Foucault's Il faut defendre la societé (available in English translation as Society Must Be Defended), based on his lectures at the Collège de France.

Sylvester Johnson at: October 24, 2013 at 8:10 AM said...

Studies of US empire constitute a large body of intellectually rigorous analysis of the actual histories, political formations, and power relations that have constituted the US as a racial, imperial state. The scholarship on US empire is not a fad or, as Paul Schroeder has claimed, “the current rage.” Nor is it based on “assumptions.” Both of these are erroneous and condescending mischaracterizations. Those interested in understanding the intellectual basis for examining the US as an empire will find helpful studies like Alfred McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire (2009), Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire (2002), Richard Immerman's Empire for Liberty (2010), Paul Kramer’s Blood of Government (2006), and David Goldberg’s Racial State (2001). It is also important to note that studies of US empire are not new. Over 160 years ago, the political theorist Martin Delany examined the US in precisely such terms in his Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852), wherein he argued that Native Americans and Blacks lived under the colonial governance of the racial, Anglo-American state.

The scholarship on US empire is by no means rooted in a fixation on "emperors." (The term empire derives from the Latin imperium, which refers to a form of political power, not to an emperor). Empire rather denotes a polity (i.e., a state, not a person) that dominates people(s) while rendering them external and alien to the political community through which the dominating polity is conceived. Empires are constituted when a state dominates a people (i.e., a polity) through the colonial relation of power. This is why there could be an anticolonial movement in the Gold Coast that opposed British imperialism in the 1950s. There was no British emperor in the 1950s (Britain was a parliamentary democracy), nor was there any emperor of France in the 1950s and 1960s, when Algerians waged a war against French imperialism to create an independent republic of Algeria. For an elaborate account of this colonial relation, readers of this blog are encouraged to consult Michael Hechter's Internal Colonialism; David Goldberg's Racial State, and Achille Mbembe's Postcolony. Also important is Michel Foucault's Il faut defendre la societé (available in English translation as Society Must Be Defended), based on his lectures at the Collège de France.

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