U.S. Empire and the Politics of American Religion

Candace Lukasik

Photo by Artem Zhukov 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.

This essay was originally read at Columbia University’s IRCPL event on March 17, 2021.

In the American Examples project at the University of Alabama, the idea of American religion itself has been up for debate. During a recent discussion, Michael J. Altman, a principal investigator on the project, recounted a question from the previous year’s cohort, to which Altman had answered, “something someone calls religion, somewhere someone calls America.” In thinking about Winnifred Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s path-breaking volume, At Home and Abroad: The Politics of American Religion, the imperial politics of scale and perspective are central keys of analysis of the idea of American religion. As they note in their introduction, the idea of American religion is “enabled by a productive and hierarchical ambiguity about what counts as ‘religion’ at home and abroad, one that helps to maintain the gulf many Americans experience between themselves and others” (1). In my comments below, weaving together the different scales of analysis in this volume and in my own multi-sited fieldwork among Coptic migrants in Upper Egypt and Coptic diaspora communities in the United States, I will turn from the question of what counts as religion (or even American religion), and instead consider the rhythms, sentiments, logics, and violence of U.S. Empire (or the idea of “America”) as lived and experienced by its agents, subjects, and objects. I especially would like to focus on U.S. Empire’s contemporary impact upon transnational religio-racial communities — where the impact of such ambiguity is most acute. As Nadine Naber has argued on the relationship between Arab diasporas in the U.S. and homelands under the grip of U.S. military interventions, drone strikes, and economic imperialism, “the diaspora of contemporary U.S. Empire means that one lives one’s homeland differently, as part of a transnational diaspora.”1 Naber, “Imperial Whiteness and the Diasporas of Empire,” 1113.

Again, from their introduction, Sullivan and Hurd note how the U.S. has “consistently intervened to convert others” and to “reorder” ways of life (3). The imbrication of different scales within these imperial processes of reordering and remapping various traditions concern the diverse chapters in this volume. Nancy Buenger’s chapter traverses different spatial scales in her comparative look at movements for “Home Rule” in early twentieth-century Chicago and the U.S. occupied Philippines, where equity powered the expansion of U.S. imperial reach from within and beyond official borders (56) — both feeding into the discretionary power and infrastructural reach of empire. Jolyon Thomas’ chapter on the politics of religious freedom in Japan makes the argument that “Japan is closer to ‘home’ than ‘abroad,’” by which he means the distinction between here, there, and everywhere is incredibly fraught when speaking about the contemporary tentacles and historical reverberations of American colonization. “Our missiles are based there. Our ideals were implanted there,” he writes (206). Similarly, in Sunila Kale and Christian Lee Novetzke’s chapter on the cultural politics of yoga between India and the United States, scales of global translation between different spatial frames often obscure other contexts. They show how yoga within the subcontinent was a site of racial-religious exclusion, reflecting “a culture dominated by a high-caste, well-educated, Westernized, and globalized elite formed since the end of the colonial period” (222). The racial politics of caste travel with Indians to the United States and get translated in new ways. As Sonja Thomas has recently affirmed regarding the presence of an Indian flag at the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 (carried by a Syro-Malabar Catholic), “The history of casteism, slavery, and racialized discrimination provides a template for racism amongst dominant caste Catholics in America.”

Migration across borders reconfigures subjectivities and lifeworlds formed through intimate relations and assemblages of belonging. As Sarah Imhoff describes in her chapter on American Zionist homemaking in Palestine through the life of Jessica Sampter, “‘abroad’ does not fully capture home’s opposite” (118). The demarcation then between religion/not religion, as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd writes in her chapter, is “not especially relevant to the substance and texture of these affiliations, affects, and forms of solidarity” (237). Rather than trying to locate the boundary-lines between religion and non-religion, and instead by oscillating between the broader structures of legal and political power and the intimacies of everyday life, we may be able to sharpen our understanding of U.S. imperial formations (always imbricated with the politics of religion) as they travel and are forged, resisted, and lived around the world.2Carole McGranahan and John F. Collins, eds. Ethnographies of U.S. Empire. (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 5. In a recent op-ed, Coptic-American journalist Sam Fouad gestures toward how U.S. Empire, as a structure of translation, is a religio-racial formation, writing: “Traveling between the United States and Egypt as a Coptic-American is a unique experience. There is something disorienting about moving from a religious minority group into the majority and, at the same exact time, moving from a racial majority group into a minority. The leap from Egypt to the United States comes with a shift from being a member of a persecuted religious group to joining the majority religious group. At the same time, being a non-white Christian in America often means being tokenized or used as pawns when it behooves the dominant, evangelical white Christianity.” 

At Home and Abroad challenges us to unpack these asymmetrical politics of perspective, and to search for the moments where America organizes “religion” into and away from other forms of life.

Images of bloodied Egyptian Coptic bodies and their hagiographic accounts of witness to Christ have circulated among Western Christian religio-political networks over the past three decades. In my work, I describe this persecution politics as an “economy of blood,” one that at once glorifies death and martyrdom, and also racializes non-white others in American society. From Greek Orthodox influencers in Congress to American evangelicals like Eric Metaxas to Trump’s personal lawyer and Messianic Jew, Jay Sekulow, the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians has been transvalued through shifting and messy religious networks and strategies of empire. As Evan Haefeli’s chapter describes, anti-popery paranoia of the late nineteenth century “reflected tensions within protestant culture that sharpened the nativist anti-Catholic response to the thousands of Irish, German, and other Roman Catholic immigrants” (29). Anti-popery functioned like a “hidden hand,” Haefeli writes (32). To analyze the multivalence of American religion, as At Home and Abroad does, a multi-scalar approach is required across a variety of cases to better understand not only the power structures that produce the conditions of possibility, but also the ways in which communities reconfigure themselves through such conditions. 

Depending on how you locate the question, America is both hard to see and so apparent one cannot escape its oppressive grasp, as both Courtney Bender and Matthew Scherer discuss in their respective chapters. As Bender briefly mentions, the project of becoming America is one in which “all the diversity of the world will be embraced by [its] promise” (109). When considering the U.S. War on Terror, indeed, the entire world was embraced by the promise of American securitization. After 9/11, many groups — including Coptic Americans — were dragged into the grips of its reach. After a New Jersey gas station owned by a Coptic Christian was raided by the FBI shortly after 9/11, on suspicion of connection with the hijackers, the owner remarked, “Middle Eastern people, we all look alike, you know what I mean.” This economy of blood I describe requires such a multi-scalar approach to analyzing how American conservative Christianity religiously includes persecuted Middle Eastern Christian others and how U.S. Empire racially excludes them.

Pamela Klassen’s afterword to the volume reminds the reader that one must have a kind of “double vision,” oscillating between different scales and perceptions of American power, in order to observe the “malleability of religion” within its expanse (305). Through the localization of U.S. Empire in its intimate formations and ordinary affects, we can see the space between home and abroad as discursive constructions and shifting indexes, as anthropologist Noah Salomon argues towards the end of his chapter on Sudanese partition (299). For Salomon’s interlocutors, as well as mine between New York-New Jersey and Upper Egypt, the question is not how to bring America into view. The most rural of villages in Upper Egypt have strong and expansive transnational Coptic kinship connections to places like Des Moines, Iowa; Nashville, Tennessee; and Jersey City, New Jersey. Rather, the question is: “Where is America not?” (300). As the assemblage that both determines global problems and articulates their solutions, America is a gatekeeper of mobility, not only of bodies, but ideas and sensibilities. Yet, there are different ambiguities that scale and perspective convene when brought together, generating a “tangle of potential connections.”3Kathleen Stewart. Ordinary Affects. (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 4. Rather, as Melani McAlister observes, these connections are not “pathways that neatly link…in a solid set of lines.” (251) Different keys of analysis yield different traction on imperial power. At Home and Abroad challenges us to unpack these asymmetrical politics of perspective, and to search for the moments where America organizes “religion” into and away from other forms of life. ♦

Candace Lukasik is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of “Economy of Blood: The Persecuted Church and the Racialization of American Copts” in American Anthropologist.

Recommended Citation

Lukasik, Candace. “U.S. Empire and the Politics of American Religion.” Canopy Forum, June 23, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/06/23/u-s-empire-and-the-politics-of-american-religion/