Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
The concept of religion which has served Christianity well cannot remain the stable, much less the privileged, lens through which we examine Christianity “itself.”
-Gil Anidjar, “Christianity, Christianities, Christian” (42)
In To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, labor historian Bethany Moreton describes the rise of the Wal-Mart model of Christian free enterprise. This moral reform project tapped into a deep reservoir of need, hope, faith, trust, and anxiety in the communities in which it flourished. Moreton describes the moral and gender economies in which the Wal-Mart model took root. She discusses Wal-Mart’s foray into Latin America in the heady post-Cold War 1990s, emboldened by “a fertile crosspollination of military, commercial, and evangelical interests in US foreign policy” (178-79). For many Americans this is a deeply familiar story, so familiar that it can be difficult to step back and see a bigger picture. This chapter considers theologies of American exceptionalism as refracted through Moreton’s account of Wal-Mart’s Christian free enterprise, Winnifred Sullivan’s book Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution, and Lisa Sideris’ paired essay in this volume on techno-exceptionalism. I explore how the Janus-faced capacities of Protestant forms to both be and not be ‘religious,’ an important feature of American exceptionalism, is expressed in these contexts.
When I first read Moreton, I had recently taught Sullivan’s Prison Religion. The latter reflects on her experience as an expert witness in a legal challenge to an Iowa prison ministry program. In reading these books side by side I was struck by the extent to which Sullivan’s argument about the impossibility of U.S. disestablishment in the Iowa prison case illuminates Wal-Mart’s capacity to both be and not be ‘religious,’ marking the corporation as so quintessentially American. Reading the books together clarified what I now understand as a productive ambiguity surrounding Christianity that threads quietly through Moreton’s text but is obscured by her easy invocation of the modifier ‘Christian’ in ‘Christian free enterprise.’ It is not only Moreton. An unfounded certainty concerning what is or is not Christian pervades American public discourse. References to Christianity tend to confuse as much as they clarify.
While Sullivan and Moreton offer sophisticated correctives to this tendency, most Americans and America-watchers cling to outdated assumptions about the boundaries between the political, the religious and the economic. The Janus-faced capacities of Protestant forms to both be and not be religious is easy to miss. This productive ambivalence both affirms and naturalizes what Jothie Rajah (2014: 137-38) describes as “an affective conviction in the United States as transcendent.”1 I am interested in the religious politics of these affective convictions. As Nadia Marzouki writes, “to invoke affective feelings is to propose a ritualist vision of the community, one founded on a mimicry of feelings and ways of life” (2017: 26-27).
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Asked at a prayer breakfast whether Wal-Mart was a Christian company, former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist replied, “No, but the basis of our decisions was the values of Scripture (89).” Interestingly, in her ethnographic work, Moreton finds that “for most of its life the company did not lay any claim to a Christian identity.” Rather, she explains, “Wal-Mart transformed itself into a national Christian icon from the bottom up,” with its corporate identity shaped by employees and consumers. “Far from building on or actively manipulating an unbroken Southern heritage of old-time religion, official Wal-Mart came rather late to appreciate its employees’ and customers spiritual priorities” (122). Sam Walton and his wife Helen were liberal Presbyterians who supported the local offices of Planned Parenthood in Bentonville, Arkansas—Wal-Mart’s headquarters. In 1989, Helen Walton was elected as a trustee of the Presbyterian Church Foundation, where she established the Sam and Helen Walton Awards for church development, with a $6 million gift.
Like Don Soderquist, most Americans do not think of Wal-Mart as Christian or even religious but as non-sectarian. Like the United States itself, Wal-Mart rises above the particularity of religion. The effect is both to distinguish and to naturalize Protestant Christianity in a particular way. As noted in the Introduction to this volume, Protestant ideas and institutions can choose to appear not as religion but as the natural antinomian evangelical essence of America—having gotten rid of all the “religion” stuff. Soderquist’s response aligns with this account. It reflects the possibility of basing one’s actions on Scriptural values that are American, and potentially universal, without necessarily being religious.
This productive ambiguity sits at the heart of American religious exceptionalism and is not confined to Wal-Mart. It characterizes the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), the Iowa prison faith ministry and rehabilitation program at the center of Prison Religion. Sullivan attributes IFI’s success to Protestantism’s capacity to shape-shift and be not a religion, legally, but rather a universal system of values. This capacity to rise above the fray and stake a claim to neutrality and universality allows IFI’s theology to migrate, though ambivalently and never completely, from the realm of religion to that of universal values. This fluid aspect of the phenomenology of American exceptionalism enables particular religious and political possibilities. For many Americans, “disestablished religion” is understood as a distinctive new form of religion/politics. It relies on persuasion and a free market in religious ideas rather than on state support and inherited membership. It is inherently free, enjoying a fluid and unmarked status. To acknowledge this capacity of Protestantism to be a religion and also to transcend its particularity and not be a religion is a means of access into the phenomenology of American disestablishment.
Like Soderquist’s understanding of Wal-Mart, IFI’s proponents understand their program’s values to both scriptural and universal. These include an emphasis on freedom, morality, choice, and service to community, family, and nation. Whether or not these values are understood as religious or as Christian is beside the point—an irritating distraction orchestrated by reactionary secularist opponents of a non-impositional, non-sectarian, and emancipatory intervention. For proponents, the program’s moral and spiritual foundations are the product of free will and the outcome of a free religious and economic marketplace. Inmates make a series of unencumbered individual choices. No one is forced to join. Choices emerge naturally and without coercion when barriers to freedom are lifted, and possibilities for material and moral improvement permitted to flourish uninhibited by heavy-handed government interference and regulation. This is a compelling narrative. It is not unrelated to the politics of religious freedom.
Wal-Mart’s free enterprise model and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative also resonate with what Lisa Sideris describes in her companion essay as Americans’ techno-scientific optimism in the face of the climate emergency. Sideris uses the term ‘techno-exceptionalism’ as shorthand for the dominant American response to environmental degradation and limitation. This particular theology of American exceptionalism relies on a suspicion of state interference, faith in private markets and the individual, and an unwavering confidence in the potential for innovation and universalization. Americans’ faith in science and technology, Sideris explains, exhibits a religiosity of its own which operates at the expense of the natural world and nonhuman life. The Wal-Mart model, IFI, and techno-exceptionalism all traffic in a capacity to transcend both politics and religion. They present themselves as the definition of freedom and the essence of America. Sideris mentions Stewart Brand’s famous statement: “we are as gods and we have to get good at it.”
It is tempting to dismiss all of this as naïve, misguided or simply jingoistic, but it would be a mistake. The Wal-Mart model, IFI prison ministry, and techno-exceptionalist responses to environmental threats—like the idea of America itself—are not and in some sense can never be (only) a religion. Each embodies a collective, affective aspiration that is accessible and desirable for all, whether one identifies as Christian or unbeliever, as American or not-yet American, as domestic or not yet domesticated. For Moreton’s interlocutors, the globalization of the free enterprise model is, like IFI, “as self-evident as gravity” (Sullivan 2011: 126-27). For prison ministry advocates, any exclusivity attributed to IFI is not inherent to the program but is something others bring to it (Sullivan 2011: 155). Sympathizers dismiss accusations of exclusivity as defeatist readings of their efforts, not unlike skeptics who cast doubt on ecomodernist optimism. IFI, Wal-Mart and techno-exceptionalism, are not, or are not only, Christian (read: exclusive or sectarian) enterprises. They are suspended in a state of productive ambivalence. They evoke and they efface. They are all the more powerful for it.
U.S. foreign relations also appear in a new light when refracted through the capacity of Protestant forms to be and not be ‘religious.’2 In the American imperial project, Protestant ideas and institutions appear both as a religion that may be freely chosen, but also as an implicit standard, set of civilized values, and the horizon against which other practices are classified as “religious,” “superstitious,” and/or “political” to be regulated and, at times, criminalized.3 Protestantism is often not understood as a religion but rather as the implicit normative backdrop against which others were deemed to be modern or un-modern. Since the founding, the United States has sought to convert others to American ways of being human, understood both in religious and non-religious terms. The U.S. government has sought to transform societies in the Philippines and Haiti in the early twentieth century, Japan, Germany, and Iran in the mid-twentieth century, Iraq and Afghanistan in the early twenty-first, and Myanmar, Venezuela and Iran today. Moreton describes the post-Cold War 1990s when markets and missions thrived in a renewed field of possibility with the United States at the helm. Today, aid agencies, non-governmental organizations, and foreign investors refer to “the Myanmar account” as a “frontier market” and “hot spot” (Kennard and Provost, 2016).
The American occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) illustrates these dynamics. As historian Kate Ramsey explains, the U.S. authorities there drew a close association between Haitian “sorcery,” and popular insurgency. Laws against les sortilèges (spells), which were understood to prohibit vodou, were strictly enforced in the name of establishing moral decency and consolidating American control of the island. These objectives were understood to go together. Anti-superstition campaigns against vodou in Haiti targeting materialism and paganism also targeted Catholicism. In Haiti, American attempts to enforce moral decency (and repress vodou, Catholicism, and other dissenting beliefs and practices) were not understood to involve the export or establishment of religion but rather the promotion of universal values, the free market, modern scientism, public health, secular marriage and gender conventions, the rule of law, and religious freedom. This is part of a larger, global story involving the construction of modern ideals of political subjectivity, religion, citizenship and nation in which hierarchies of race and religion played formative roles. In his work on spiritism in Brazil, for example, Paul Johnson has described the effects of the purification of the mid-seventeenth century category of religion, “a properly civil religion,” in dialogue with a “protoanthropological notion of spirit possession as civil danger.”4
The Janus-faced religion/not religion binary is also woven into U.S. legal traditions and decisions including the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court rulings in 1901 involving the status of the inhabitants of the U.S. territories of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, all acquired by the United States in the Spanish-American War. The Court was tasked with deciding whether constitutional rights applied to individuals in these territories. It held that full constitutional protection of rights does not automatically extend (ex proprio vigore—of its own force) to all territories under U.S. control. These cases helped to formalize a legal gradient of U.S. citizenship,5 upending the illusion of a clean domestic/foreign distinction, dividing governed populations on civilizational terms, and cementing racial and religious hierarchies mapped onto degrees of American-ness. These gradients and hierarchies retain their social and cultural foothold today in debates over immigration and extremism, police abuse and murder of unarmed African Americans, the ongoing usurpation of Native American land and lifeways, and the dilatory U.S. government response to post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.6
In Empire of Religion, David Chidester wrote that “the enduring opposition between the primitive and the civilized structured the birth of religious studies in America…in the US, this division of labor in dealing with internally colonized people was crucial to the birth of an academic field of inquiry that was distinct from but located within the European empire of religion” (2014: 290). Haitians under U.S. rule a hundred years ago were not seen as foreigners but as uncivilized and primitive, as quasi-liminal domestic subjects. The same holds for the Japanese and Filipinos under American occupation (Thomas 2019; Wheatley 2018). Other similarly unstably categorized subjects of U.S. rule—such as Puerto Ricans as formalized in the Insular Cases—were deemed not-quite American, or more famously, “foreign in a domestic sense” (Burnett & Marshall 2011; Sparrow 2006).
In their co-authored volume Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, Paul Johnson, Pamela Klassen and Winnifred Sullivan introduce the term churchstateness. They explain: “‘the state’ has been often described and theorized, but “the church” less so, at least beyond ecclesiastical contexts too indebted perhaps to its sense as given. The phenomenon of their often enmeshed and intercalibrated forms—a crossed and intertextual churchstateness—requires more detached and empirically grounded description and conceptualization” (2018: 2). One might say that U.S. domestic churchstateness (our way of doing religion and state things at home) is understood to be free, voluntary and disestablished, whereas foreign churchstateness often is not. There is freedom at home and establishment abroad. Exporting American churchstateness is understood as non-impositional and benevolent. It would be selfish not to share the good news.
In his essay “Christianity, Christianities, Christian,” Gil Anidjar calls for a shift in attention away from the academic destabilization of religion and toward the site from which the concept of religion was first established and disseminated:
The limits of ‘the religious’ (to be distinguished from ‘the ethical’ or ‘the aesthetic’) have become more fluid, even porous, most visibly perhaps in relation to ‘the political’ but beyond it as well. Equally significant, however, is the fact that the very site (in the ethnographic sense of the term) where the concept of religion was established and elaborated, from which it was disseminated, has remained largely and oddly immune to these developments. How to think of such a site? How to call it, even? Is it the Christian West? Judeo-Christian civilization? Is it modern Europe? Be that name what it may, how to understand its referent? If we grant it a measure of integrity (and that is a big if), will it be primarily religious? Will it be political, cultural, geographical, economic, or all of the above? (2015a: 40).
This requires an interrogation of our understanding of Christianity as (merely) a religion:
Everything is therefore as if the interrogation of the concept of religion did not unsettle our understanding of Christianity as a religion. A strange essentialism. For what if Christianity were not a religion? Not exclusively so? What if, for two thousand years, it had been more than a religion? Or something else altogether? Christianity only became a religion (in the restricted, modern sense) latterly. Having learned what we could from and about the concept of religion – its novelty, its questionable disappearance, its containment – it may be necessary to reconsider what we mean by Christianity (2015a: 41).
Anidjar is right. It is a strange essentialism that allows us to interrogate the concept of religion without also unsettling our understanding of Christianity. To do so is to make visible the shape-shifting capacity of U.S. Protestant Christian ideas and institutions in the sites explored in this chapter and this volume. Using the word religious to refer to Christian forms often serves to mask the protean reach of those forms, reflecting an unwillingness or incapacity to grapple with the demands of the history of “actually existing Christianity” as opposed to what Anidjar calls “Christianity as one religion among others.”7
Rather than conceive of Christianity as one religion among others, rather than presume that it belongs to the limited realm of the religious (to be distinguished from the aesthetic and the legal, the political and the scientific, say), one might shift perspective and explore the possibility that Christianity, “actually existing Christianity,” is a specific series of agencements, a multifarious, distributive order (or series thereof) that divides between certain realms (the theological from the political, to invoke again this familiar paradigm), at times creating them out of (almost) nothing, at times unifying those realms and arranging them after a fashion, after a number of fashions (42).
Wal-Mart’s free enterprise model is a series of agencements: a multifarious, distributive order that simultaneously divides certain realms (the religious from the commercial or political) and unifies them, arranging them after a certain fashion. The same holds for IFI. “Actually existing Christianity” - the free market of (non)-religion and the religion of freedom - enables ecomodernist exceptionalists to become de facto planetary managers, supporting geoengineering rather than reduced emissions and calling for innovations to reduce the symptoms of obesity rather than limiting food intake.
Theologies of American exceptionalism are shot through with an undercurrent of cosmic optimism that can make this difficult to see. As one of Moreton’s interlocutors quipped, marking (and making) the difference between “us” and “them,” “Guatemalans are so pessimistic, so discouraged. They can’t see a Wal-Mart.” Denying the prospect of limits, these American theologies—technological, political, spiritual and economic—recoil from multilateral agreements, workers’ rights, environmental accords, and international criminal justice. Ceding control to foreign entities compromises the American way of life, impeding what would otherwise unfold naturally as barriers to freedom, prosperity, scientific progress, and the capacity to think new thoughts8 - all figured as innocent apolitical endeavors - are progressively lifted. This is part of what Sacvan Bercovitch famously described as the “America-game.”9 When it is realized, at last, even discouraged Guatemalans will see a Wal-Mart. Or at least buy a coffee mug.
Anidjar, Gil. 2015a. “Christianity, Christianities, Christian.” Religious and Political Practice, vol. 1, issue 1: 39-46.
Anidjar, Gil. 2015b. “Birth from Death.” Humanity Journal blog (July). http://humanityjournal.org/blog/birth-from-death/
Bercovitch, Sacvan, 1998. “The Winthrop Variation: A Model of American Identity.” Proceedings of the British Academy, 97: 75-94.
Bernstein, Elizabeth & Janet R. Jakobsen. 2010. “Sex, Secularism and Religious Influence in US Politics.” Third World Quarterly vol. 31, no. 6: 1023-1039.
Burnett, Christina Duffy and Burke Marshall, eds. 2001. Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expansion and the Constitution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Burnidge, Cara Lea. 2016. A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion and the New World Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chidester, David. 2014. Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dew, Spencer. 2017. “Have it your way: Puerto Rico and the Myth of American Freedom.” The Immanent Frame (November 15). https://tif.ssrc.org/2017/11/15/have-it-your-way-puerto-rico-and-the-myth-of-american-freedom/
Fessenden, Tracy. 2006. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Graziano, Michael. 2017. “Race, the Law, and Religion in America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (September): 1-30. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.501
Green, Steven K. 2015. Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Paul Christopher, Pamela E. Klassen, & Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. 2018. Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Johnson, Paul C. 2011. “An Atlantic Genealogy of ‘Spirit Possession,’” Comparative Studies in Society and History 53, no. 2: 393-425.
Josephson, Jason Ānanda. 2012. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kennard, Matthew & Claire Provost. 2016. “How Aid Became Big Business.” LA Review of Books (May 8). https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/aid-became-big-business/
Kramer, Paul A. 2002. “Empires, Exceptions and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880–1910.” Journal of American History 88, no. 4: 1315–1353.
Marzouki, Nadia. 2017. Islam: An American Religion. New York: Columbia University Press.
Moreton, Bethany. 2010. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Moyn, Samuel. 2015. Christian Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Orsi, Robert A. 2012. “Afterword: Everyday Religion and the Contemporary World: The Un-Modern, Or What Was Supposed to Have Disappeared But Did Not.” In Samuli Schielke and Liza Debevec, eds., 146-61, Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion. New York: Berghahn Books.
Rajah, Jothie. 2014. “Sinister Translations: Law’s Authority in a Post-9/11 World.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (Winter).
Ramsey, Kate. 2015. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sparrow, Bartholomew H. 2006. The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. 2009. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Thomas, Jolyon Baraka. 2019. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wheatley, Jeffrey. 2018. “U.S. Colonial Governance of Superstition and Fanaticism in the Philippines.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 30 (2): 1-16.
“A paradox marks the narrative of law, nation, and authority in the specific instance of the United States. While…law and nation refer to each other and find authority in each other, there is a subversion of secular modernity in one crucial respect: the narrative of law, nation, and authority constructs the United States as itself transcendent” (Rajah 2014: 125).↩
Distinctions between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ do not map cleanly onto this history. Paul Kramer wants to get rid of these terms, describing them “as actors’ categories forged in struggles over space, sovereignty, and boundary-making, the work of cartographers and border guards, the tremendous power of which can only be apprehended if they are discarded as terms of art” (2002: 1357). Blurring the domestic-foreign allows for interesting distinctions to emerge at the edges of categories like “citizen,” as when Kramer describes “distinctions among populations that lend shape to its vertical gradations of sovereignty (1350)” or when Michael Graziano, writing on the politics of U.S. racial hierarchies, refers to imaginaries of U.S. citizenship that rely on “a legal gradient rather than a binary of ‘citizen’ or ‘non-citizen’” (see below).↩
On the religion-politics-superstition trinary see Josephson 2012.↩
Paul C. Johnson, “An Atlantic Genealogy of ‘Spirit Possession,’” Comparative Studies in Society and History 53, no. 2 (2011): 298. In this article Johnson illuminates the transnational genealogies of the category of spirit possession and its implications for Brazilian “religion,” showing how the Penal Code of 1890 came to regulate “spiritism” and “magic” under the heading of public health. “When the 1891 Brazilian Constitution declared the freedom of religion, for example, it was already obvious that the article would not include Afro- Brazilian Candomblé under its protections. The reason it was obvious was that Candomblé and other possession religions had already been subordinated to the Penal Code of 1890, which regulated “spiritism” and “magic” in the name of “public health.” Managing African and other deviant religions after abolition required a re-imagining of the nation, its religious profile, its proxemic rules, and its regulatory style” (413).↩
As Graziano (2017: 9) explains the reimagining of U.S. citizenship as a legal gradient by those who opposed the Fourteenth Amendment meant that the classification “citizen” was applied to African Americans without imbuing them with the same legal or theological protections afforded their white counterparts. In short, “American ideas about race and theology produced a racialized vision of citizenship as a gradient in which some citizens could exercise more religious freedom than others” (2017: 11).↩
Spencer Dew, “Have it your way: Puerto Rico and the Myth of American Freedom.” The Immanent Frame (November 15, 2017). https://tif.ssrc.org/2017/11/15/have-it-your-way-puerto-rico-and-the-myth-of-american-freedom/↩
Thanks to Winni Sullivan for pointing this out.↩
As Constance Furey explains: “By spiritualizing newness, as Bercovitch says, Winthrop essentially invited subsequent thinkers like Emerson and Cavell to spiritualize their own novel moves: to depart from the tradition he represented, to replace theology with philosophy, and to associate America then not with a new covenant but a new way of thinking” (emphasis added).↩
(1998: 94; Furey, this volume). According to Bercovitch, “the City on a Hill is...the first New World ideal to invest the very concept of newness with spiritual meaning grounded in a specific, then-emergent, now-dominant way of life. In that double thrust of Winthrop’s image lies the explanation—the how and the why—for its continuing usefulness to the culture. As a rhetorical figure, it derives from two traditions that proved inadequate as the ideological framework for modern nationalisms: kingship and Christianity. Winthrop varied both those traditions to accommodate a modern venture, and in the course of variation he opened the prospect for something new under the sun, the America-game” (Bercovitch 1998: 94).↩