Religion and US Empire
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.
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.
 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.