From the late 1970s to its defeat by the Government of Sri Lanka in 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for Tamil independence in Sri Lanka. The ultimate aim of what was often considered to be one of the world’s most disciplined and efficient insurgency groups was to create an independent Tamil homeland (which they called Tamil Eelam) in the northern and eastern parts of the island. The LTTE based itself on a unique mix of Tamil nationalist, socialist, and feminist visions of a new future for the marginalized Tamil communities of Sri Lanka. The LTTE became feared for its extensive use of suicide missions, carried out by soldiers of both Hindu and Catholic backgrounds. Because of the marginalization of the Tamil-speaking Muslims from the Tamil nationalist project, none of the LTTE soldiers were Muslims. Generally speaking, religion played—and in the 21st century continues to play—a minor role in the ultimate nationalist goal of establishing Tamil Eelam. Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka centers around Tamil culture, language, literature, and regional identity, not religion. The LTTE’s official ideology was strictly secularist, expressing a clear separation between religion, the state, and politics. The LTTE accepted individual religious practices in its ranks—for example, having a personal crucifix or a holy picture within military camps, but did not facilitate institutionalized religious practice. Yet religious formations, controversies, and practices have been important, if not crucial, to Tamil separatism and, ultimately, to the LTTE itself. In a short period of time, the LTTE developed a unique martial culture and martyr cult, drawing on numerous cultural and religious sources in Tamil society. This martyr cult encompassed references to the Christian tradition of martyrdom, Hindu bhakti (devotional) literature, and classic Tamil heroic poetry. Each martyr’s self-sacrifice formed part of a symbolic universe that was fundamentally nationalistic, but Christian and Hindu references and ritual language were employed to help to legitimize the sacrificial act. The ideology of martyrdom transcended the martyrs’ religious backgrounds, and instead of a place in paradise or release from the cycle of reincarnation, it promised eternal life in the memory of the nation. Within the cultural and political universe of the LTTE, the nation and its territory became sacralized, and the LTTE’s meticulously articulated martial culture began to take on quasi-religious qualities. At the ideological level, the LTTE propaganda machinery managed to balance secularism, deep religious sentiment, and religious diversity, and religion functioned as a multilayered concept used for a variety of purposes by military and political leaders. Religion can also be identified as various “fields” within the movement: “civil religious,” “Śaiva religious,” and “Tamil Catholic religious,” allowing for overlapping yet distinct Hindu, Catholic, or nonreligious identities under the sacred canopy of Tamil nationalism.
The United States has been uniquely God-centered among Western nations, and that includes its foreign policy. From George Washington to the present, all presidents and policymakers have had to consider God in varying degrees either for their domestic audience or because they believed in a version of Providential mission in the world. In the beginning, the new United States was filled with religious people whom the founders had to consider in crafting the founding documents. In time, the very idea of the United States became so entwined with the sense of the Divine that American civil religion dominated even the most secular acts of policymakers.
Cara Lea Burnidge
Scholars of American religious liberalism, like the historical subjects they study, wrestle with the place and power of modernity in American history and culture. Recognizing and articulating the influence of modernity requires constant attention to what is, broadly speaking, “foreign.” It includes religious people, groups, ideas, and practices that developed in relationship to liberalism as a historically transnational ideology and movement, as well as those people, groups, ideas, and practices classifiable as “liberal” in relation to the contemporary moment. The historical events, figures, and ideas central to liberal ideological movements in America felt connected, through both their perception and experiences, to ideas, places, and people outside of “America.” This heightened the sense of belonging to an exceptional, if not universal, culture while also placing that culture in global perspective. Identifying who and what is and has been “liberal,” as well as narrating their history, thus requires attention to what Thomas Tweed and others have referred to as “global flows.” As a result, “American religious liberalism,” as a subject of study, does not merely denote a religious liberalism located within the geopolitical borders of America, but a religious liberalism formed, expressed, and experienced through a context of “America.” Consequently, foreign relations have a long and tangled history with American religious liberalism and liberalizing cultural moments and movements in the United States.
Foreign figures, ideas, movements, and institutions are a constitutive element in the historical narrative of America’s religious liberalism. From German theologians who introduced American Christians to new biblical hermeneutics to transnational reform movements inspiring new forms of religious practice through social and political activism, global intellectual networks have encouraged Americans’ development of liberal modes of thought and practice. The politics of global empires and international society has also inspired liberal activism through international societies and nongovernmental organizations advocating for anticolonial, pacifist, abolitionist, suffragist, human rights, and many other humanitarian causes. This global context for American reform activism has been a significant factor in the development of liberal factions of numerous religious affiliations. The “global flow” of liberal reform pushed Americans toward spiritual experiences in developing areas of the world through both missionary efforts and individual spiritual exercises. Contact with the “outside” world often turned otherwise conservative or moderate missionaries toward liberal or liberationist theologies. Liberalism also brought “world religions” to American shores.
Engagement with “others,” however, is not the only key factor in the intersection of American religious liberals with foreign relations. Religious liberalism has animated each “tradition” defining the history of U.S. foreign policy. Not least of all, religious liberals were instrumental in crafting and promoting internationalism in the long 20th century. Theologically liberal Protestants were in many ways the ideological architects behind interventionism as U.S. foreign policy. Liberal Protestant metaphysics and political activism assumed that intervention was necessary because it improved the lives of those deemed less fortunate and, consequently, was a universal agent for good in the world. Liberal religious institutions and the theologies they produced encouraged intervention (in all its various forms: economic, cultural, militaristic, diplomatic, etc.) on local, national, and international scales for the sake of a nebulous “greater good,” the more sectarian notion of “social salvation,” or even ultimately, and unironically, world peace. To liberal Protestant eyes, such intervention followed the example set by Jesus, fulfilled God’s will for humanity, and provided an opportunity to meet God in the natural world, either through encountering the “least among these” or establishing peace on earth. By the mid-20th century, liberal Catholics and Jews helped to reconstruct public perception of this “American way” around the notion of a shared Judeo-Christian foundation to American identity and action in the world.
Anne M. Martínez
The border between the United States and Mexico has artificially divided languages, cultures, landscapes, and religions for more than a century and a half. This region is the crossroads not only of Anglo-America and Latin America, but also of multiple empires; the Aztec, Spanish, and US empires each staked a claim on this region, leaving political, economic, cultural, and religious markers on the landscape and its peoples. These imperial bodies brought their preferred religious practices and religiously inspired social, economic, and political cultures, which reshaped populations and landscapes from the 15th century to the present. Religion has been a significant dimension of this region from prior to the arrival of the Spanish through the early 21st century.