American Jesus, At Home and Abroad

Méadhbh McIvor

Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash.

This article is part of our “At Home and Abroad” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

Every now and then, social media resurfaces a meme I’ve come to think of as the “American Jesus” post. A screenshot from a conversation on Facebook, the post reads: “The Bible was written entirely by the greatest American who ever lived: JESUS,” followed by an apparently nonplussed observer asking, “This a joke or [what]?” 

Although the original intentions of the author are unclear (is it a joke?), their words tend to be taken at face value, circulated by those looking to demonstrate that U.S.-American Christians aren’t particularly bright. Indeed, the sharers seem to suggest that these U.S.-American Christians are uniquely — exceptionally, to use a term I’ll return to — obtuse. 

Read through the lens of Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s co-edited At Home and Abroad: The Politics of American Religion, though, this anonymous poster’s conflation of Jesus and U.S. nationalism becomes less obscure. As Hurd and Sullivan argue, “Religion has always been central to American self-understanding” — and a particular kind of religion at that. 

By contrast to the coercive, mandated, inherited, “bad religion” thought typical elsewhere, U.S. religion is imagined to be “free,” tame, and voluntary.

Indeed, according to this self-understanding, “religion” and “America” are mutually constitutive. Disestablishment, or the separation of church and state, is central to this story, with the First Amendment — which prohibits the “establishment of religion” while protecting “the free exercise thereof” — seen to promote both religion-compatible democracy and democracy-compatible religion. The United States, then, “is not only a place of and for religion.” Rather, it is a place where religion has been perfected. By contrast to the coercive, mandated, inherited, “bad religion” thought typical elsewhere, U.S. religion is imagined to be “free,” tame, and voluntary. Within this model, protestant Christianity comes to stand for paradigmatically “good religion,” the kind of religion that shores up (and becomes invisible within) U.S. modernity.

As with other aspects of U.S.-American exceptionalism, this understanding of religion is enabled by what Hurd and Sullivan term an “inside/outside dynamic” that applies different rules “at home and abroad.” These rules not only determine what counts as religion for domestic and foreign policy, but assume that outsiders — and “internal others” — ought to be converted to “American style” religion, too. As such, they work to justify the kind of interventionist policies “abroad” that would be ruled unconstitutional “at home.” Military and missionary expansion go hand in hand. (As Pamela E. Klassen puts it in the volume’s afterword: “The arrogance of American power is profoundly rooted in a protestant, and wider Christian, ‘repertoire’ of metaphor, justification, ritual, and authoritative knowledge.”)

It’s from this vantage point that the American Jesus post starts to make more sense. If the United States is the site of religion perfected, and perfected religion looks a lot like text-centric, protestant Christianity, why not make Jesus both a U.S. citizen and the author of the Bible? From this perspective, the Facebook poster’s “personal Jesus” is just another example of the American exceptionalism this volume tracks — or, indeed, a parody of it. 

References to U.S.-American exceptionalism tend to conjure images of macro-level geopolitics, both historic and contemporary: (ongoing) imperialism in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific; the post-war Occupation of Japan; today’s technocratic efforts to “counter violent extremism” on the international stage. At Home and Abroad contains astute analyses of these macro-level moments (see, for example, the chapters by Nancy Buenger, David Maldonado Rivera, Jolyon Baraka Thomas, and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd). Alongside the project’s analysis of exceptionalism writ large, though, is a reminder that American religion’s “inside/outside dynamic” goes beyond military strategy or bureaucratic wrangling. Indeed, as the American Jesus post illustrates, this dynamic can be deeply personal, with exceptionalist framings of sovereignty having a profound effect on individual aspirations and understandings of both person and nationhood.

Take, for example, the case of Jessie Sampter, as explored by Sarah Imhoff in the chapter “Homemaking in Palestine.” Sampter, a Jewish American woman who moved from New York to Palestine in 1919, illustrates the complexity of the dyads that organize the At Home and Abroad volume: inside/outside; religion/politics; and (of course) home/abroad. For Sampter, who embraced Zionism after hearing the poet Hyman Segal speak at the Unitarian Church she was then attending (an embrace that would ultimately lead to her moving to Palestine and giving up her U.S. citizenship), the United States both was and was not “home,” just as Palestine both was and was not “abroad.” In Imhoff’s telling, Sampter’s religious and political aspirations cannot be understood without exploring the unique ways in which she was both insider and outsider, regardless of her geographic location. 

No sooner do you think you have a grip on “home” than you must reckon with its various abroad(s). This is so regardless of the “home” or “abroad” from which one starts.

As an anthropologist (and therefore professionally committed to the kinds of stories other fields might reject as anecdotal), I find the book’s inclusion of these personal narratives particularly compelling. The value of studying an individual like Sampter is exactly that: her individuality. She is not “representative” of any of the intersecting identities she claimed. (Indeed, Imhoff’s forthcoming biography of Sampter, which you can read about here, focuses on those aspects of her life, love, and body that an outsider might struggle to reconcile with her religio-politics.) Her experiences were, undoubtedly, her own. And yet she is, in some ways, exemplary of the dynamics Hurd and Sullivan point to: the exceptionalist conceptualization of American religion “at home,” and the way this idea translates “abroad.” 

As Imhoff writes, Sampter “developed a sense of what religion is and should be in the United States and brought that version with her as she crossed boundaries… [W]hile she exchanged one home for another, her conception of religion remained relatively steady.” The way she lived religion did not always reflect the “American,” protestantised, individualist understanding outlined above. The way she thought about religion, though, often did. Her letters “home,” for example, suggest an understanding of — or a preference for — the kind of religion that is rooted in individual experience, even as she embraced the collective as central to (Jewish) religious life. In this way, she “took American religion with her when she went abroad.” 

As the case of Jessie Sampter illustrates, Hurd and Sullivan’s paired binaries are productive not in spite but because of their instability. No sooner do you think you have a grip on “home” than you must reckon with its various abroad(s). This is so regardless of the “home” or “abroad” from which one starts. Indeed, being pushed to consider how the “inside/outside dynamic” applied to my research on evangelicalism in England — an activity I undertook as one of five Emerging Scholars affiliated to the Luce-funded At Home and Abroad project from which this volume emerged — proved enormously fruitful as I worked to turn my doctoral research into a book. 

The final product, Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England, provides an ethnographic account of Christian-interest litigation in a non-U.S. context. It focuses on the growing number of (primarily Protestant) Christians in England going to court to argue that they face anti-Christian discrimination. These claimants are sometimes spoken of as having adopted a confrontational, “American” approach to public engagement. And although the similarities should not be overstated, there is some truth to this assessment. The high-profile test cases they generate are often strikingly similar to the headline-grabbing “religious freedom” cases taken by U.S. Christian legal organizations, including Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop. While not exactly what Hurd and Sullivan mean by the term, many people in England view this litigation as “religion, American style.”

But in contrast to the situation facing their peers in the disestablished United States, Christian legal activists in England are operating in a country with an established Protestant church. (For an interesting history of the development and divergence of these two models of church-state relations, see Evan Haefeli’s chapter, “A Home, Made Abroad.”) Taken in light of At Home and Abroad, then, one way of looking at my project is to ask: What does it mean to apply politico-legal strategies developed in a context of disestablishment to one in which Protestantism remains the established faith? What happens when the logics of “home” and “abroad” are swapped, when “inside” is applied “outside”?

What happens when the logics of “home” and “abroad” are swapped, when “inside” is applied “outside”?

Hurd and Sullivan argue that U.S. disestablishment allows Protestant Christianity to operate “both as a religion and not a religion… to not be a religion in disestablished mode but to be a religion in free exercise mode.” (This argument is also weaved throughout At Home and Abroad’s companion volume, Theologies of American Exceptionalism.) So conceived, U.S.-style religious freedom carves out protections for Christianity when its norms depart from those of the state, even as the frequent overlap of these norms enables a kind of unofficial Protestant establishment. 

In England, however, Christian establishment is a fact. In this context, I argue, taking on legal challenges to protect “Christian values” risks the marginalization of those same values, as moralities once woven into the fabric of national life are separated out from their quotidian context and rebranded as “religion” or “religiously-motivated.” By taking freedom of religion test cases and reframing their once commonplace beliefs as the niche interests of a minority group, these Christians — in many ways cultural “insiders” — increasingly find themselves on the outs.

In applying the inside/outside dynamic to my own work, I hope to have demonstrated its utility for scholars of religion who, although they may not be “American religionists” in a narrow sense, have much to gain from thinking along with Hurd, Sullivan, and their contributors. At Home and Abroad shows just how (a)broad the field of “American religion” is — and how parochial, in a sense, the exceptionalist narrative telegraphed in gleeful re-postings of the American Jesus meme turns out to be. 

For those keen to distance themselves from the presumed excesses of religion (and/or the United States of America), it can be comforting to present what otherwise looks like parody as an accurate reflection of theo-politics. After all, the more ludicrous you take U.S.-American religion to be, the less likely (you think) you are to fall under its spell. No doubt this explains not only the “greatest American who ever lived” post, but its many pop culture variations (historic and contemporary), including its portrayal in film, its send up in song, and its (frequently apocryphal) attribution to farmers, preachers, and politicians from 1881 to the present. Indeed, the meme’s longevity suggests the depth of our investment in this idea of American religious exceptionalism: if it weren’t real, we’d probably have to invent it. ♦

Méadhbh McIvor is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. She is the author of Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Recommended Citation

McIvor, Méadhbh. “American Jesus, At Home and Abroad.” Canopy Forum, June 14, 2021.