The paired posts in this series were developed in connection with a workshop supported by the three-year Luce Foundation funded project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Read the introduction to the series here.
This is the third installment in this series of paired essays. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd takes a look at Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, exploring how it fits into “The America-Game” framework. Then, in the second essay, Lisa Sideris responds with a reflection on Robert Paarlberg’s The United States of Excess.
To read the previous posts, click here.
In To Serve God and Wal-Mart, labor historian Bethany Moreton tells the story of the rise of the Wal-Mart model of free enterprise as Christian service. This model, she explains, tapped into a deep reservoir of need, hope, faith, trust, and anxiety in the communities in which it took root, and which also shaped it in profound ways. Chapter 12 of her book (“On a Mission: The Walton International Scholarship Program”) explores Wal-Mart’s export of Christian free enterprise to Latin America in the 1990s, emboldened by what Moreton describes as “a fertile cross-pollination of military, commercial, and evangelical interests in US foreign policy.”
Reading Moreton, I was struck by the possibilities that emerge when one considers the capacity of the American Christian free enterprise model to simultaneously be and not be religious. This productive ambivalence threads quietly through the book. Asked at a prayer breakfast whether Wal-Mart was a Christian company, for example, former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist responded, “No, but the basis of our decisions was the values of Scripture.” Indeed, as Moreton notes, “for most of its life the company did not lay any claim to a Christian identity.” That aspect of Wal-Mart’s corporate identity took shape, at least in part, from the ground up, motivated by employees and consumers. “Far from building on or actively manipulating an unbroken Southern heritage of old-time religion,” she writes, “official Wal-Mart came rather late to appreciate its employees’ and customers spiritual priorities.”
What Wal-Mart says and does, for many of these individuals, is not understood to be religious but rather non-sectarian, based on values that are understood to be universal such as freedom, choice, and service to community, family, and nation. Protestantism is not, and cannot be (only) a religion in this context.
The “At Home and Abroad” project explores the capacity of Protestantism to both be and not be a religion as a significant aspect of both the phenomenology of disestablishment and the religious politics of American exceptionalism. For many Americans, US constitutional religion—disestablished religion—is understood as a distinctive new form of religion/politics in human history. It relies on persuasion and a free market in religious ideas rather than on state support and inherited membership. This exceptionalist understanding and experience of disestablishment animates Christian free enterprise and enables a range of other political, social, and economic possibilities at home and abroad.
In a study of the phenomenology of disestablishment in the United States, Winni Sullivan’s Prison Religion examines the legal and sociological implications of this Janus-faced capacity of American Protestantism. Drawing on her expertise as a scholar of American law and religion, and experience as an expert witness in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) prison faith ministries in Iowa, Sullivan concludes that part of IFI’s success can be attributed to Protestantism’s capacity to both be and not be a religion. That is, it can be a religion in some circumstances but it can also shape-shift and be not a religion, legally, but a universal system of values. One result is that for IFI’s proponents, “any exclusivity attributed to it is not something inherent in the project but something others bring to the reading.” The same holds for Christian free enterprise. For Moreton’s interlocutors, the globalization of neoliberalism is “as self-evident as gravity.” Like IFI, any exclusivity attributed to Christian free enterprise is not considered inherent to the project but is something others bring to the reading. Wal-Mart is not, or is not only, a Christian (read: exclusive or sectarian) corporate enterprise. In depending on while also disavowing its religious, political and economic particularity it is, like IFI, both formed by the American experiment and engaged in reinventing it (Sullivan 2011).
The capacity of Protestantism to both be and not be religious is a productive aspect of US policy vis-à-vis a range of external others as well. The United States has often sought to convert others to particular ways of being human, and being religious. The 1990s were a critical moment in the projection of a particularly triumphalist rendering of US power, a time when markets and missions were thriving in a renewed field of possibility, as Moreton suggests. But this isn’t new. The United States has sought to transform societies and individuals in the Philippines and Haiti in the early twentieth century, Iran in the mid-twentieth century, Iraq and Afghanistan in the early twenty-first, and Myanmar and elsewhere today. Aid agencies, INGOs, and foreign investors today refer to “the Myanmar account” as a “frontier market” and “hot spot.”
The capacity of Protestantism to be a religion in some circumstances, and to shape-shift and not be a religion in others is critical to these efforts and to the religious politics of American exceptionalism. It is part of what Sacvan Bercovitch, with his famous chess analogy discussed by Constance Furey in this series, described as the “America-game.”
During the United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), as discussed by Kate Ramsey, US authorities drew a close association between Haitian “sorcery” and popular insurgency. Laws against les sortilèges (understood to prohibit vodou) were strictly enforced in the name of establishing moral decency and consolidating American control of the island. These objectives were seen as going together. Here and in other US imperial contexts attempts to enforce moral decency (and to repress vodou, Catholicism, and other dissenting beliefs and practices) were not understood to entail the export or establishment of religion but rather the promotion of universal values, the free market, the rule of law, and religious freedom. Protestantism has two faces here: It is both a religion that may be freely chosen, and also not a religion but an implicit standard, a set of civilized values, the horizon against which a range of political and religious practices are categorized as “religion” or “politics,” judged, valorized and, at times, criminalized. Anti-superstition campaigns against vodou in Haiti, targeting materialism and paganism, also targeted Catholicism. In these campaigns Protestantism served not as a religion but as the implicit normative backdrop against which others were deemed to be un-modern. Robert Orsi describes this religious excess–modernity’s remainders–as that “which was supposed to have disappeared but did not.”
For its proponents, Americans and perhaps others, Christian free enterprise is not a religion but a natural way of being, religiously, economically, and socially, when all obstacles to freedom have been transcended. Its unstable and ambivalent naturalization and nationalization of Protestantism—the free market religion and religion of the free market—helps to secure the American exception, necessitating, for some, a tireless and violent drive to remake the world in our image.
In her companion post Lisa Sideris describes a similar impulse animating American techno-exceptionalism, embodied, she explains, in an enduring US commitment to a philosophy of excess and adaptation in the face of climate change as opposed to mitigation (geoengineering rather than reduced emissions; innovations to reduce symptoms of obesity rather than reducing food intake). American Christian free enterprise and techno-exceptionalism both rely on a philosophy of anti-statist corporate governance characterized by a deep suspicion of state interference, trust in private markets, and confidence in the potential for universalization. Both appear to have no need for, or to have always already transcended the need for, multilateral agreements and constraints, including environmental and workers’ rights agreements, the International Criminal Court, and so on. Ceding control to foreign entities is seen as compromising the American way of life through a sort of über-state interference in the lives of the governed, impeding what would otherwise unfold naturally as barriers to freedom, prosperity, scientific progress, and growth are progressively overcome.
An undercurrent of cosmic optimism runs through the scientific narratives Sideris studies. A similar current runs through the Wal-Mart model. 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.”
The belief that the United States occupies a special place on the world stage has driven such notable endeavors as westward expansion, the civil rights movement, and modern space exploration. America’s relationship to science and technology, vexing and ambiguous as it is, exists alongside and is inseparable from a stubborn legacy of exceptionalism. Compared to other nations, for example, America is notoriously resistant to climate science. The United States has the highest CO2 emissions per capita, yet remains one of the countries least concerned about climate change. At the same time, the majority of Americans continue to trust that hard work, technological innovation, and a few well-timed scientific breakthroughs will secure our bright future.
Exactly what it can mean for one nation—even an allegedly once and future great nation—to anticipate its own future brilliance against a backdrop of global environmental collapse is an interesting question. Might there be a connection between American techno-scientific optimism and our lack of concern for the environment? Does persistent belief in narratives of ascent somehow hinder the cultivation of environmental values? Might narratives of exceptionalism actually abet the destruction of nature?
My recent work analyzes a cluster of ascendant scientific narratives and their likely negative impact on environmental and moral sensibilities. Science-inspired myths, such as The Universe Story or The Epic of Evolution are popular both within and beyond the academy. These narratives present cosmic unfolding, from the Big Bang to the present, as a modern creation myth. The “new story” is touted as universal and empirically true. As such, it informs us of who we are, where we are going, and how we should properly orient ourselves to the natural world. And yet, in prizing human intelligence and complex consciousness as inevitable products of telic cosmic processes, these narratives embody naïve faith in progress and may underwrite dangerous forms of human exceptionalism, including techno-exceptionalism. They may well ratify, in other words, the very attitudes and assumptions that drive environmental destruction.
In our so-called Anthropocene age, belief in exceptionalism (of various sorts) and unshakeable faith in progress increasingly masquerade as environmentalism. Consider the peculiar rise of “ecomodernism,” an ideology that scoffs at ecological limits and embraces the quintessential fantasy of futurists that technology will allow humans to “decouple” from nature. Emboldened, rather than chastened, by an Anthropocene vision of humans as a geological force that is wholly remaking the planet, ecomodernists believe we will meet all environmental challenges with intensified agriculture and urbanization; nuclear energy; genetically modified food sources; climate engineering, bioengineering, and other amazing technological feats. Humans are de facto planetary managers. We can look forward to a great Anthropocene, a new “dream” to replace the gloom and doom of moribund environmentalism and its tedious talk of sacrifice, scaling back, fitting in.
Where visions of American exceptionalism once fueled frontier fantasies of discovering and conquering a “wild” and pristine west, ecomodernist exceptionalism embraces the “end of nature” thesis, dismissing previous generations of environmentalists as romantic idealizers of a nonexistent nature. Either way, environmental exceptionalism reveals its bedrock optimism, its abiding ethos of more and better. New worlds exist yet to be conquered or engineered. More energy to fuel our exploding population will be discovered or created. With perfected knowledge and cutting-edge technology we will engineer our way out of trouble. However novel and daunting our current challenges, the basic storyline—what Timothy Morton calls “modernity once more with feeling”—remains the same. We can no longer tell the difference between genuine resourcefulness, or resilience, and sheer excess. Virtue and vice. The former simply enables more of the latter. In its classic frontier mode and in its post-environmental pursuit of Anthropocene greatness, exceptionalism denies and recoils from the prospect of limits.
Exceptionalism exalts the workaround. We are captivated by stories of savvy Americans manufacturing the means of their own survival from meager materials at hand. If the Apollo 13 astronauts could fix their runaway CO2 problem with tube socks and duct tape, we have no grounds for despair. Or consider the recent hit film, The Martian, in which American astronaut Mark Watley, played by Matt Damon, is marooned on Mars with little prospect of survival. “I’m left with only one option,” he casually intones to the camera. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” Damon’s signature line is now emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and shared via hashtags and GIFs (though some engineers felt slighted by the sole emphasis on “science”). Celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was moved to tweet that it was his favorite line in the film.
Rejection of limits is often fueled by a heady mix of science, technology, religion, and neoliberal capitalism. A popular exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History puts a uniquely American spin on “the” story of human evolution. It tells an uplifting tale of humans’ infinite ingenuity and adaptability in the face of environmental challenges. Indeed, charting the salutary influence of radically changing climates on our species’s evolutionary ascent appears to be the exhibit’s primary agenda. Fluctuations in climate are not just normalized by the Hall of Human Origins: they are revered as a wellspring of human creativity and innovation. Impressive milestones in human evolution, notably tool use and pronounced increases in brain size, are cleverly correlated with periods of climate instability. The punchline to all of this—and a well-deserved black eye to the Smithsonian—is that the Hall of Human Origins is richly funded by climate-denial financier David H. Koch.
Interestingly, the Human Origins’s “Broader Social Impacts Committee,” which is charged with public outreach and dialogue, is comprised of American scholars of religion and religionists. The overtly religious nature of this committee, whose apparent charge is to mediate between Koch-compromised Smithsonian scientists and the American public, raises important questions. What sort of religion is the Smithsonian selling? What exactly is The Martian, or the “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” or The Universe Story promoting, for that matter? Whatever else they may be up to, each displays an undercurrent of cosmic optimism. The Smithsonian exhibit’s curator Rick Potts describes himself as “actually quite optimistic” about the future—or, in his generic phrase, “our” future (but whose future exactly?). Potts cites, as the source of his optimism, humans’ amazing abilities to innovate technologically, to think new thoughts. This all sounds suspiciously American.
Yet, despite Americans’ putative love of that which is truly hard and genuinely new, rarely does our impressive capacity for change embrace the arduous and novel path of reining ourselves in, of abjuring a quest for limitlessness. Of resisting the temptation to science the shit out of things.
In The United States of Excess, Robert Paarlberg argues that American exceptionalism is synonymous with exceptional excess. Exceptionalism-as-excess sheds light on America’s climate policy failures. “Faith” in science and technology, he notes, is central to America’s lack of urgency on a number of fronts. While skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, Americans are “far more inclined than Europeans to trust that science and technology will provide a response.” Our technological optimism also seems disproportionately invested in cheap and dangerous technofixes—carbon capture and storage techniques, or geoengineering strategies like solar radiation management—that require no appreciable change in our consumption patterns and aim to protect America and America alone. Rather than reduce our emissions (mitigation), we succumb to the allure of adaptation strategies—like geoengineering. Rather than prevent obesity by reducing food intake (mitigation), we seek technologies that treat obesity and its complications (adaptation).
Perhaps there still is a noble argument to be made that the (receding) religious traditions of the world, as well as the (declining) arts and humanities, attest to the meaning and satisfactions of honoring limits. Writer and climate activist Bill McKibben valiantly advances this unpopular case in his anti-excess manifesto Enough. But as even he concedes, talk of limits sounds so negative, so unpleasant. Inevitably, “eat your bran” loses out to “pass the ice cream.” The Bill McKibbens among us will always be drowned out by the Stewart Brands urging us to embrace our godlike capacity, our infinite malleability. And anyway, restraint is not the stuff of celebrity tweets or meme generators. It doesn’t sell T-shirts and coffee mugs. It doesn’t sell, period. It may be one way, but it is not the American way.
To read the other posts in the series, click here.