Empire of Sacrifice

Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence

Jon Pahl
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 274
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  • Book Info
    Empire of Sacrifice
    Book Description:

    It is widely recognized that American culture is both exceptionally religious and exceptionally violent. Americans participate in religious communities in high numbers, yet American citizens also own guns at rates far beyond those of citizens in other industrialized nations. Since 9/11, United States scholars have understandably discussed religious violence in terms of terrorist acts, a focus that follows United States policy. Yet, according to Jon Pahl, to identify religious violence only with terrorism fails to address the long history of American violence rooted in religion throughout the country's history. In essence, Americans have found ways to consider blessed some very brutal attitudes and behaviors both domestically and globally.In Empire of Sacrifice, Pahl explains how both of these distinctive features of American culture work together by exploring how constructions along the lines of age, race, and gender have operated to centralize cultural power across American civil or cultural religions in ways that don't always appear to be "religious" at all. Pahl traces the development of these forms of systemic violence throughout American history, using evidence from popular culture, including movies such as Rebel without a Cause and Reefer Madness and works of literature such as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Handmaid's Tale, to illuminate historical events. Throughout, Pahl focuses an intense light on the complex and durable interactions between religion and violence in American history, from Puritan Boston to George W. Bush's Baghdad.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6844-0
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Blessed Brutalities
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book concerns a single problem: “America” has become an empire, and that empire is not innocent, even though many citizens of the United States seem to imagine that their nation has some sort of divine right to dominate that does not implicate Americans in anything that might deserve blame.¹ I am bothered by this logic, which ascribes innocence to all things American, not because I am particularly alienated but because it seems to me not to be true. For instance, how could almost three out of four U.S. citizens in 2003 be persuaded to support sending young men and...

  6. 1 Rethinking Violence and Religion in America
    (pp. 13-34)

    The genesis of this book, although I did not know it at the time, was a conversation at a Wednesday luncheon in Swift Hall of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago in the early fall of 1988.¹ I had just returned from South Dakota where I had attended a powwow in Oglala. The temperature had been 104 degrees Fahrenheit under a blazing, cloudless sky, yet the dancers and drummers had not missed a beat as they wove the sacred hoop in a circle of movement and sound. As I was about to launch into an extended ode of...

  7. 2 Sacrificing Youth: From Reefer Madness to Hostel
    (pp. 35-62)

    Agents of both modern secular and sacred communities have benefited from relegating “religion” to its appearance in traditional denominations or private practices.¹ Secular agents have selectively exploited for their own interests the symbolic power of appeals to transcendence without necessarily embracing the ethical limits and ideological baggage (e.g., “superstition”) associated with historic traditions.² Conversely, agents of historic religious traditions have cooperated with the institutions of politics and markets by differentiating the operations of these “realms” from those of religion, thereby gaining access to material power and ensuring their own “salvation,” or at least the peacefulness of their consciences. Such cooperation...

  8. 3 Sacrificing Race: “The Slaveholding Religion” from Jarena Lee to Spike Lee
    (pp. 63-102)

    Aside from Nietzsche’s insightful but mostly misdirected rantings, the history of slavery as areligiousphenomenon has not yet been told.¹ That does not mean that there have not been many fine historical studies of religion and slavery in the Atlantic world.² But as with other scholarly examinations of faith traditions in the American academy, a tendency to reify religion into its institutional form has led observers to miss the dynamic interactions among forms of cultural authority across institutions and eras.³ Historians are increasingly recognizing the complex origins and legacies of slavery in Atlantic cultures.⁴ This recognition of the cultural...

  9. 4 Sacrificing Gender: From “Republican Mothers” to Defense of Marriage Acts
    (pp. 103-140)

    In slavery, masters held people in bondage using religious reasoning that worked in tandem with ruthless economic exploitation and brutal force.¹ European “Christians” exercised this innocent domination with unique zeal against Africans, but they also used it with other groups, particularly the indigenous peoples of North America.² But perhaps the most remarkable and consistent feature of religious tyranny in American history, as the epigraph from Abigail Adams might suggest, is its application to constructions of gender and sex.³ Until 1920, women were systematically excluded from voting in U.S. federal elections. That this exclusion was grounded in religion is still not...

  10. 5 Sacrificing Humans: An Empire of Sacrifice from Mary Dyer to Dead Man Walking
    (pp. 141-166)

    American history contains recurrent patterns, I contend, of people generating and accommodating themselves to religious constructions that have produced, protected, obscured, and justified the material control or domination of land and peoples under unwarranted assertions of innocence.¹ I call this logicinnocent domination. It has appeared in displacements of material interests onto religious constructions organized around categories of age, race, and gender (which overlap and intersect, but for the purposes of my analysis I have treated as being distinct). All these constructs communicate a peculiarly exclusive notion of “American” identity or imagine a nation—and now an empire—in which...

  11. Epilogue: Innocent Domination in the “Global War on Terror”
    (pp. 167-176)

    After September 11, 2001, citizens of the United States had an opportunity to shape a remarkable global consensus against religious violence. The “blessed brutalities” of suicide bombers might have mobilized Americans to lead a global and interfaith movement to renounce such a use of religion for nefarious ends. Instead, policies and practices emerged that mirrored the terrorists’ religious violence, now with the weight of American military might and economic power. As it developed, the “global war on terror” was framed in unmistakable ways as a religious war, albeit in ways that many citizens failed to recognize as religious. These religious...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 177-220)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-250)
  14. Index
    (pp. 251-256)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 257-257)