Exporting Freedom: Paths Towards Future Research

This is the final post in our review forum of Anna Su's new book, Exporting FreedomYou can read earlier entries by Michael GrazianoJeffrey Wheatley, and Mona Oraby

Chase L. Way

In Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (2016), Anna Su argues that the concept of religious freedom became enshrined in a “transnational legal regime” that aided and abetted the rise of American imperialism (3). Beginning her account with the US’ possession of the Philippines, and ending with its recent misadventures in the Middle East, Su marshals a series of case studies to illustrate the US’ often well-intentioned – but nearly always problematic– attempts to impose its ideas regarding religious freedom on the “other.” Further, Su makes a highly original contribution to the scholarly literature on this topic by demonstrating how Americans’ understanding of the international nature and purpose of religious freedom evolved in lockstep with its domestic experience of faith.

My colleagues on this blog have done a fine job of engaging with the details of this study over the last several weeks. I thus think it best for me to conclude this review forum by sharing some suggestions about how future scholars may wish to expand on the research vein Su has helpfully opened up in Exporting Freedom.

First, Su’s work would be enriched by a more extensive treatment of the relationship between American theological trends and its campaign to inculcate transnational legal protections for religious freedom. For instance, Su underscores how the popular notion of the “White Man’s Burden” worked in tandem with the idea that American believers had a duty to spread “Christian civilization” worldwide; in turn, she explains that both concepts were employed to justify the US’ imperial experiment in the Philippines (11-35). Presumably due to limits of time and space, however, Su does not have the opportunity to fully contextualize the “White Man’s Burden” and “Christian civilization” tropes within the broader discourse of late 19th and early 20th century progressive Protestant theology. Thinkers like Shailer Mathews, William Newton Clarke, and Walter Rauschenbusch did much to popularize an interpretation of Protestantism that held the ideals of international progress and social redemption at its center. The lack of a nuanced history that explains how such a theological culture might be harnessed in the name of white, Christian “duty” – and, in turn, used to morally justify the US’ intertwined pursuit of religious freedom and imperial power –necessitates further research.

Second, Su’s narrative would be imbued with further depth by a complementary historical account that explored cases where American ideas concerning religious freedom did not advance the nation’s imperial intentions. For example, my current research traces how domestic American religion shaped US attitudes towards Iran. The dysfunctional foreign policy relationship between these two states certainly possesses many examples of how the US attempted to extend its Cold War version of empire, both practically and ideologically. Yet I have thus far found little evidence that the US’ general promotion of religious freedom played any critical role in its relations with Iran until, perhaps, the Carter administration (but stay tuned for updates). So what factor, or constellation of factors, led American leaders to promote religious freedom for imperial ends in one situation and not another? Su’s text shows the potent utility of religious liberty to influence and even reconstruct other states, increasing the likelihood that they would be both morally righteous (at least to American eyes) and supportive of American power. Given its tremendous usefulness, then, it is unclear why the US’ strategy of promoting freedom of faith was employed – as best we can tell from current research – haphazardly.

Third, Su’s study could be put into even sharper perspective were it interwoven with a narrative explaining how the idea of “empire” itself evolved in tandem with American domestic culture. Su is compelled, for example, to compress the bulk of her discussion of the Eisenhower administration’s strategic use of religion during the Cold War into a single paragraph (114-115). Although I assume this elision is again the consequence of inevitable limits on time and space, she mentions in passing that “President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles consciously recast communism as a kind of faith – a dangerous religious creed – and thus set the stage for the framing of the Cold War as a modern-day holy war” (114-115). It makes sense that the start of this “holy war” might coincide with a deepening of America’s self-conception as, say, a messianic crusader nation. Yet the impact of Eisenhower-era America’s developing imperial identity on its use of religious freedom to gain global power is left to the reader’s imagination. Fleshing out such episodes would do much to expand scholars’ understanding of this historical epoch.

Coming full circle, Su should be praised for the thought-provoking and insightful contributions in her work. The fact that Exporting Freedom has such an impressive ability to inspire further research projects is a testimony to the richness of her topic. I look forward to reading Su’s future contributions, and also to seeing how this area of study develops as a result of the scholars she has inspired.

Chase L. Way is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion at Claremont Graduate University, where she recently won the school’s Transdisciplinary Dissertation Award. She specializes in the history of American religion and foreign policy, particularly towards Iraq and Iran. You are welcome to follow her on Twitter (handle: @ChaseLWay).


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