Religion and US Empire: Critical New Histories
edited by Tisa Wenger and Sylvester Johnson
“Ordinary Affects of U.S. Empire”, A review by Candace Lukasik
“American imperialist culture has seeped into Egyptian blood.” – Kirollos
We sat on the back patio, eating watermelon in the heat of the sun on a chilly March day in 2021. Kirollos moved to the United States from Egypt with his family at 8 years old and settled in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. Having returned to Egypt in his teenage years and then again in his 20s, Kirollos was disheartened by what he experienced back in the “homeland”:
Drinking Starbucks and Americanos and lattes and watching ‘Inception’ and listening to Pop Smoke, Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash; Knowing about Blake Shelton and Country Music…It seems like Egyptians there knew more about American culture than their own culture.
Kirollos is Coptic Christian, or a Copt, and focuses his life and work around community organizing and mutual aid. Part of our conversation centered on the instrumentalization of his Middle Eastern Christian identity by American conservatives, in Nashville and beyond. Beyond those persecution politics, though, Kirollos’ concern was focused on the pervasive transformation and erasure of the Egypt he once knew in the service of American capitalist expansion. Considering the explosion of American-styled beach towns, the post-Arab Spring push for the expansion of American franchises in Egypt, the focus on American clothing brands, and the overall dream of immigration to the U.S. by way of the Green Card Lottery, ‘where is America not?’
Tisa Wenger and Sylvester Johnson’s new volume Religion and US Empire: Critical New Histories offers a new set of perspectives to the broadening conversation in American religion (including and especially the global reach of American evangelicalism) as well as anthropology on U.S. empire as a concept and lived experience for millions of subjugated populations inside of the U.S. and around the world through drone strikes, military might, structural readjustment programs, and the reformation of cultural life via new mediatized publics. While attending to the material costs of empire on subjugated communities, Religion and US Empire makes clear that the United States, from its founding, has been an empire that has been enmeshed with religion. Put differently, American religion is an imperial formation — not simply as a scholarly field, but also in the sense that religious traditions in and out of America have been historically formed and shaped by the United States as an empire.
While generally arguing for a disciplinary call to integrate a methodology of imperial thinking in the context of American religious history, Religion and US Empire also makes important inroads into a broader, public conceptualization of the United States as an empire. Empire does not only regard physical territory and the traditional understanding of colonial rule between the colony and the metropole. Rather, empire is pieced together as lived condition, opening up space to reconsider imperial thought by way of its affective dispersion — empire “…emerges…through a differential of power, not geography” (3). Thinking about U.S. empire as a scholarly field of inquiry and lived condition, then, allows us to follow the transgressions of sovereignty; or how U.S. imperialism seeps into the blood of other polities, cultures, and communities that are not formally part of the United States (as state, colony, or otherwise) (12).
Transgressing sovereignty is not the only form of U.S. imperialism, as that would entail a discussion of states, policy, and diplomacy in some fashion. Rather, if we think about the intersection of empire and religion through material interests — in the extraction of natural resources and labor, as well as the extraction of cultural and economic distinctiveness and difference — imperial formations like the United States control and transform even the most ordinary movements, preferences, affective commitments, and forms of community (2). Religion and Empire, thus, speaks to the ordinary affects of empire — to observe how empire is immanent; not a distant web of power.
While this volume attends to the imperial transformations tracked in U.S. religious history, it also lends itself to contemporary and specifically intimate, ethnographic lifeways in contexts that I have researched as an anthropologist. Many Copts dream of immigrating abroad, and in particular to the U.S. Their desire to migrate may only seem like a response to Copts’ religious positioning and persecution in a Muslim-majority society – that is, a desire to escape religious persecution and government corruption by emigrating from Egypt. However, most Copts that I have been in conversation with throughout Egypt admit that their desire to immigrate to the United States is also focused on the promise of economic and social success in the United States — to the ideal and promise of the American dream. The promise of immigration to the U.S. is not simply constructed off of the corruption of the Egyptian state, but also through the dissemination of U.S. imperial power in reshaping religious life and sectarian relations at home and abroad.
In the development of U.S. imperial power, indigenous genocide ran in tandem to missionary expansion, even in places like Egypt where American Christian missionaries sought the conversion of souls and lifeworlds from the mid-late 19th century. That missionary work included the re-education of Egyptians, especially Christians. As Tisa Wenger’s chapter in the volume details, “settler secularism,” or the conversion of indigenous cultures and religious traditions into Western Christian logics of good religion, required “…discipline and perhaps even the violent hand of the state to keep them under control” (42). Unlike most white settlers, Christian missionaries believed that indigenous communities had the capacity to be civilized. Yet, this very capacity solidified racial distinctions between missionaries and native populations: “If true religion was a gift, Native people, racialized as superstitious heathens, were perpetually identified as inferiors to whom it must be given” (46).
In the mid-19th century, the Anglo-American Protestant movement in Egypt sought to evangelize both Muslim and Christian Egyptians. Rather quickly, missionaries realized that Muslims would not be fertile targets of conversion, and set their sights on Coptic Orthodox Christians. Anglo-American missionaries opened dozens of schools, medical facilities, and public libraries; initiated rural development programs; and promoted literacy campaigns for the sake of Bible reading, thereby attuning the Coptic tradition to new practices, even if many Copts did not fully or formally convert. At the same time, in order to entice more missionaries to Egypt, recruitment pamphlets and books depicted Egypt as “a land of darkness in need of the light of truth from missionary activity.” Missionary reform projects and its Coptic constituents portrayed Coptic Orthodox Christianity as deficient, and sought to transform the faith from the inside/out. These efforts were echoed across the Middle East and elsewhere, and ran parallel to the expansion of global American influence.
For example, as Christina Davidson’s chapter in Religion and US Empire shows, white American missionaries in the Dominican Republic merged the U.S. imperial project with their own. “They fused the discourse of pan-Americanism with the contemporaneous Protestant ecumenical movement, and behind the veneer of Christian unity, they instilled racial hierarchy” (204). The encounter between U.S. missionaries and local communities in places from the Dominican Republic to Egypt during the 19th and early 20th century was not only about spreading the correct form of Christianity, but, importantly, about conscription into an American imperial project, of which Christianity was a vital part. “…The relationship between white U.S. missionaries and their intended converts was never meant to be equal, let alone reciprocal” (224). Other chapters, such that from Sylvester Johnson in the volume, attend to how empire flows through those subjugated by empire and in the service of it.
Examining the case of Liberia, Johnson shows how Black settlers relied on U.S. militarism to assist in conducting warfare against Indigenous Africans (66). Empire is not simply administered by those who benefit most. Rather, its force can be traced in the asymmetrical moments and events of domination, displaced across different geographies that reconfigure oppressor and oppressed, settler and colonized. Such crossings must be mapped through different, “coexisting forms of composition, habituation, and event” (Stewart 2007, 4). As Johnson notes, Black Christian missionaries from the United States were transposing the affective charge of the Mississippi plantation onto “Mississippi in Africa”– a portion of Liberia they settled – and focusing their efforts on civilizing African kin. At the same time, white missionaries in the United States were evangelizing and using Christianity as a civilizing force against Native populations and cultures (71). In this way, we can imagine how empire diffuses its force unevenly and uses a form of religio-racial power as an ostensibly civilizing force.
In her chapter “Imperial Intersections,” Cara Lee Burnidge comparably argues that empire is administered by asymmetrical power relations. Imperial formations, whether liberal or brutally militaristic, are located “…not in pure ‘foreign’ or ‘domestic’ spaces, but rather in active sites of social construction…” (120). Flowing throughout the chapters of the volume, U.S. empire hides in plain sight — at the border and traversing geography. The place-making practices of empire are fashioned by the pervasive power to reconstitute forms of life asymmetrically located in American supremacy — in the capacity to destroy and repair.
This volume offers other valuable insights about how U.S. empire was/has been constructed by way of religious (i.e. Western Christian) domination and reformation. Jonathan Ebel’s chapter on religion, war, and weaponry, for example, examines how Evangelical political theologies have informed targeted death (through napalm and drones) in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Ebel focuses on how “American evangelicals express American imperial territorialities and weave them into and around their faith” (257). While Evangelicals are centered in such discussions of empire and religion, I would argue that this formulation says more about U.S. empire than it does about the particularity of evangelical faith. (Or possibly one cannot be detangled from the other?) In that, other Christian and non-Christian faiths that have taken root in the United States have also been captivated by Evangelical forms — in mission work, global capitalist imaginaries, and American exceptionalism. This last point on exceptionalism foments violent division with other places against U.S. imperial reach (whether militarily, financially, or ideologically). The “territoriality of bodies,” as Ebel puts it, in these negative places is understood not simply as a military response. Rather, the response itself is imbued with a theological anthropology of precision and “near omniscience” that “condemns sinners to sudden, recorded, and therefore cataloged, consumable deaths” (270).
U.S. empire then can be understood as a “tangle of potential connections” in its ability to wrap all others in its grasp. Returning to Egypt, the tentacles of U.S. empire place other Eastern Christians not only in its ideological grasp — as bloodied bodies in the service of a global war on Christians — but also offer a form of salvation from their persecution. The Diversity Visa (or Green Card Lottery) has been a pathway for many Coptic Christians to immigrate to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Copts inside and outside of Egypt apply in the hopes of migration and prosperity.
One priest from an Upper Egyptian village has applied to the Lottery a dozen times, and has even sought alternative methods of migration to the U.S. Year after year, he has tried to obtain a visa in the hopes of seeking a better life for him and his wife. In 2017, he called me while I was visiting a nearby village. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated and Copt after Copt I met with expressed a message of hope for a more favorable policy of support for Middle Eastern Christians than under Obama. The priest called and told me, “Trump…I see him as a good person. Better than Obama. Obama didn’t like Christians. I was at the American embassy in Cairo for an interview and they rejected me right away.”
In the concluding chapter of the volume, Lucia Hulsether argues that the manifestations of empire “…are less likely to look like spectacular power plays and more likely to take the form of assimilative exercises structured around affect, attachment, and humanization” (313). Part of these assimilative exercises is connected to how contemporary problems are framed and how potential solutions are made possible. In the case of marginalized, minority migrants like Copts, their contemporary problems in Egypt are charged with colonial legacies of subjugation and ongoing conditions of anti-Christian violence and sectarian strife. While such problems are shaped by national imperatives and local conditions, they are also transvalued and instrumentalized by Christian conservatives in the U.S. and beyond.
While at times exacerbating such problems, the U.S. has also offered refuge from them–for example, in the form of migration from their minority condition in Egypt to the potentiality of being part of a Christian majority in the United States — the absorption of their difference into a “hegemonic episteme” (309). While many Copts during my own transnational fieldwork have argued for the benevolence of the United States — in saving Christians and improving socio-economic life for those in and out of the U.S. — the subtle ways in which diasporic Coptic suffering in the form of working class labor and racial discrimination is sidelined in favor of U.S. hegemony as protector of Christians around the globe speaks to how empire can be both the sickness and the remedy.
While predominantly focused on foregrounding critical histories, Religion and U.S. Empire jointly offers a layered methodology for scholars considering the intersections of imperial formations and religious life in and beyond the U.S. By rethinking American religion as already-constituted by empire, then, scholars can better understand how religious life here extends far beyond our borders, and expands through the ordinary affects of American hegemony.♦
Candace Lukasik is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Mississippi State University, whose research focuses on the intersections of religion, race, migration, and empire. Her first book manuscript, entitled Martyrs and Migrants: Coptic Christians and the Persecution Politics of U.S. Empire, ethnographically examines how American conservative politicization of Middle Eastern Christians has shaped collective memory, patterns of transnational migration, and inter-communal solidarities. She can be found on Twitter @lukasik_c.
Lukasik, Candace. “Ordinary Affects of U.S. Empire.” Canopy Forum, November 11, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/11/11/ordinary-affects-of-us-empire/