Empire of Sacrifice

The Religious Origins of American Violence

274 pages

June, 2012

ISBN: 9780814768952



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Jon Pahl is professor of the history of Christianity at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of many books, including Paradox Lost: Free Will and Political Liberty in American Culture, 1630-1760 and Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place.

All books by Jon Pahl

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 September 11, 2001, U.S. scholars have understandably discussed religious violence in terms of terrorist acts, a focus that follows U.S. 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 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 and 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. 


  • “Pahl intends his work as a call to take up the opportunity missed after 9/11, to ‘shape a remarkable global consensus against religious violence.’ This work’s basic paradox is that religions ‘produce violent power’ but exist ultimately to ‘eliminate violence.’ That paradox captures the troubling message but hopeful conclustion to the work.”


  • "Empire of Sacrifice is a provocative and engaging work of cultural criticism worth reading for the questions it poses about religion and violence as categories, and for the many intersections of the two it finds in places where either religion or violence or both are hidden in plain sight."

    —Jonathan H. Ebel , The Journal of American History

  • "Empire of Sacrifice is a though-provoking work, sure to join other scholarly considerations of religious violence . . . the book will assist anyone interested in learning more about the religious roots of contemporary violence in American national policies."

    —Rebecca Moore, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

  • "An astute indictment of four centuries of American violence." 

    —Dan McKanan, The Journal of Religion

  • “A true achievement of Empire of Sacrifice is its untangling of the ‘blissful logic’ that preserves American virtue at all costs. Illuminating the cultural and religious assumptions that justify subtle and not-so-subtle forms of violence, this book invites a healthy self-critical stance on American civil religion and social practices. After reading Empire of Sacrifice, it is impossible to avert one’s eyes to the disturbing, complicated confluence of religion and violence in American culture.”

    —Jennifer Beste, Xavier University

  • “By uncovering the many ways Americans have misused religion to justify violence, Pahl holds up hope to end the histories of dead men walking. His work contributes to a more peaceful, forgiving, loving and just future for America.”

    —Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking

  • “Pahl exquisitely illumines the pathway by which religion has made possible American empire and poignantly sketches those who have had to sacrifice to create the superpower we know today. Empire of Sacrifice is an admirable experiment in pulling back the curtain on the religious and cultural mechanisms that are often lost in what Pahl calls our national obsession with ‘innocent domination.’ His case studies are finely tuned windows into the ways in which religion has both abused and freed Americans along lines of gender, race, and class. This book acts as a clarion call for us to think twice when we are called upon to ‘sacrifice’ in the name of God—a strategy that all too often hides our violence in the cloak of religion.”

    —James K. Wellman, Jr., author of Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest

  • "Empire of Sacrifice is the most broad-sweeping scholarly examination of religion and violence in the United States written to date."

    —Jeffrey Williams, American Historical Review

  • [This book] is a wide-ranging, amply detailed, and ethically intelligent book with clear political stakes.”

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