Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad

About this project

Religion has always been central to American self-understanding. But there is and always has been a difference in the United States between the domestic version of religion and religious freedom and the versions offered for export. This difference is not merely the result of different contexts, but rather, of the fact that the two are different faces of a distinctive understanding of religion that is internal to American religious self-identity.

As with other aspects of the myth of American exceptionalism, religion—American style—has a curious inside/outside dynamic based in assumptions about ourselves and the other which contributes to the stability of the myth across many different domestic constituencies, left, right, and center. That dynamic is enabled by a productive hierarchical ambiguity about what counts as “religion” at home and abroad, helping to maintain the gulf many Americans experience between themselves and others. Religion at home is assumed to be both tamed and free in a way not yet achieved by religion elsewhere.

  • The first of three phases of the project will elaborate on this argument, making more precise how the productive ambiguity about what counts as “religion” at home and abroad works.
  • The second phase will open the study to a historical dimension by considering the implications of the framework for understanding earlier moments in the history of US foreign relations, such as the settlement of Liberia, the US mission in the Philippines, the Japanese occupation, the Cold War, and US relations with Latin America.
  • The third comparative phase will examine the implications of the inside/outside framework for jurisdictions beyond the United States.

The “At Home and Abroad” project is funded by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.