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Secularism and U.S. Empire

From nineteenth century talk of manifest destiny to twenty-first century evangelical interventions in U.S. foreign policy, religious motivations have undergirded American empire. This course recognizes the role of religion in the processes and relationships of U.S. imperialism. We’ll focus on the similarly important role of secularism in shaping ideologies, practices, and experiences of empire. Over two centuries, American imperialism has been tied to imaginings, formal and informal, of the United States as a secular nation—a government and culture where “religion” exists apart, as something privatized and optional. This course considers how U.S. formations of “the secular”– and efforts toward defining and regulating “religion” that they incubate– extend into imperial relationships. We’ll ask how these co-emergent categories have played into the interlocking modern projects of capitalism and colonialism. We’ll pay attention to how “the secular” and “religion” are assembled, historically, from ideas about race, class, gender, and sexuality, and how the state has invoked both to police racial, sexual, etc. identity and behavior. American imperialism extends to distant peoples, and it also bears on “domestic” populations who, by virtue of race, sexuality, immigration or felon status, are governed in ways that produce their marginalization within the body politic. This course examines how secularism and religion-making work in the service of empire, and how these diverse subjects of empire receive those categories and resist, trouble, or otherwise make them a part of their own lives.


This syllabus was created for the Young Scholars in American Religion program.

Kathleen Holscher

University of New Mexico

Public College or University
Institution Type

Resource Type

Graduate Course
Class Type

Date Published

Religious Studies, American Studies

Atheism/Agnosticism/Skepticism, General Comparative Traditions
Religous Tradition

Class/Power, Empire/Foreign Policy/Globalism, Gender/Women/ Sexuality, Politics/Law/Government, Race/Ethnicity

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