S3:E18 How to Hide an Empire

S3:E18 How to Hide an Empire

What do you think of when you hear the word “empire”? Maybe Great Britain? The Soviet Union? The Mongols? Sure. But what if I told you that the United States is also an empire. And always has been.

Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception. We claimed lands owned by native peoples, and then expanded into places like the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and more. This is the story of war, greed, resources, and tragedy.

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CS: Chris Staron (host)

DI: Daniel Immerwahr (author)

We’ve been asking a lot of big questions lately. Like, what is the difference between communism and socialism? And how do they impact the Christian church? How did the United States react to communism? This week we’re taking a short break from Russia to explore this elemental question… what IS the United States?

(people playing a game)

Like, physically. What is the US? I was recently at the Spark Christian Podcast conference, where I made a bunch of new friends. So, as you do, when you make new friends, I decided to do an art project.

(people playing a game)

Is it just the fifty states and the district of Columbia? Or is it also Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico… What about the land under out embassies in foreign countries? Our military bases?

(people playing a game)

CS: Today on the show we try to explore that question… what IS the United States? If we are a Christian nation, as some people say that we are (and as a lot of people say we aren’t) we should probably know what the US is. Get out your pencil and crayons… we’re redrawing the map.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

I hope you’re as excited as I am. I have been able to speak to some great authors this year and for the next few episodes you get to hear one of my favorites.

DI: My name is Daniel Immerwahr. I’m an associate professor of history at Northwestern University outside of Chicago. And my book is called How to Hide an Empire: a History of the Greater United States.

CS: It’s a great read. My copy is just filled with highlights. In the book, if you can’t tell by the title, he argues that we have this vision of the United States as being one tidy clear cut thing. Fifty states, the district of Columbia not much else. But that’s not accurate. The United States, is like a whole list of countries in their heyday. Great Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Russia… the United States is actually an empire.

DI: And that just has to do with not what the quality of it’s foreign policy is… not really who it is in the sense of character, but rather where it is on the map.

CS: You can explore this to yourself and wow your friends at parties just by looking at a map.

DI: Because most people when they call to mind a map of the United States when they imagine what it looks like they imagine that familiar shape.

CS: Oh, the shape. The US is basically a rectangle with a strip of land going up in New England, another one going down on the south east for Florida, and Texas is just kind of hanging out there on the bottom. How else do you describe the shape? Oh, and we have to include those other two states.

DI: Yes, Hawaii and Alaska too…

CS: Hawaii and Alaska too, maybe in little boxes off to the side…

DI: But that’s mainly the center of it. And the thing is that’s not actually a very good map of the United States. It’s not a very good map now because it doesn’t include places like Puerto Rico and Guam.

CS: Yes! Puerto Rico and Guam. We always forget about Puerto Rico and Guam.

DI: It certainly wasn’t a very good map earlier in US history because it didn’t include really large places like the Philippines. So what I tried to do in my book was to re-tell US history in a re-mapped way to actually show it to… from a different perspective and show you all of the places that are a part of the United States and tell Us history that way.

CS: Not only is our understanding of the United States as it is today just not accurate, but it also does not reflect the past. The United States has been on an aggressive expansion campaign basically since it’s inception.

DI: The first day when the United States had its independence from Great Britain ratified, when the treaties had gone through and signed by both sides, etc… the name of the country was the United States of America and that suggests that it is a union of states. But by that day the United States was no longer a union of states. It was… it wasn’t really a union because union suggests voluntarily entering into… it was an amalgam. It was an amalgam of states and territories.

CS: Territories. That is the keyword, the concept that makes this whole thing really sticky. Sure the founding fathers got together and knocked out the Declaration of Independence then the Constitution and that group of men created a whole new country. They split from Britain and took with them not just people who wanted the new country, but also British loyalists. Including a whole bunch of Christian pastors who preached that we should stay in the Union. Also dragged into this country… the native people who were here long before Europeans. And of course, enslaved peoples who had no say at all.

The US was not just a bunch of states who agreed to this thing. You know this part, right? This is the stuff we cover in middle school. How we slowly took over native American lands. It took a long time for us get to our weird rectangle with a side bubble off to the side.

DI: That’s the map in 1854 after the United States, you know, through a series of annexations and conquests and dispossessions of indigenous people sort of filled out that familiar shape on the North American continent. And 1854 was the year when the final treaty was ratified and that’s what the United States looked like.

CS: Not all of it was violently acquired. We bought the Louisiana Purchase (a bunch of the center and the southern end of the country) from our old friend Napoleon Bonaparte.


NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! My wars they are so expensive! How am I going to pay for this?

AID: I’m afraid our bake sale didn’t go so well, sir.

NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! Have we pillaged?

AID: We have pillaged, sir.

NAPOLEON: Have we plundered?

AID: Indeed.

NAPOLEON: What else can there be? I will have to sell my pointy hats.

AID: Or, if I may be so bold. We could do a real estate deal.

NAPOLEON: I am, how you say, listening.

AID: Sell our holdings in the New World. That would make us a lot of Benjamins.



CS: That’s not how it happened, but wouldn’t it be great if it was?

The Louisiana Purchase may not have been that silly, but at least it was peaceful. The country had expanded quite a lot. But there was a long way to go. Do you know how we got much of the southwest? In the 1840s we fought a war with Mexico to get Texas, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. What we call the southwest is about 1/3 of what used to be Mexico.

A bunch of the states most embroiled in the immigration debate… used to belong to Mexico. Which we purchased or wrestled away from them through war. We could have taken more too. People estimated at the time that we could have conquered all of Mexico. Instead, we took the sparsely populated parts. According to Daniel, we took the parts where there weren’t many brown-skinned people.

John C Calhoun, a Senator who, no surprise, really dug slavery, said:

CALHOUN: “We have never dreamt of incorporating into the Union any but the Caucasian race – the free white race.”

CS: Mind you, this was not whispered in some parlor. This was on the Senate floor.

CALHOUN: “Are we to associate with ourselves, as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed races of Mexico?”

CS: Yeesh. You know, they’re making a third Bill and Ted’s movie. I hope they travel back in time just to slap that guy. (slap sound) No… that’s not the godly thing to say. Okay… maybe Bill and Ted pair him with W.E.B. DuBois and some hijinks ensure, leading, no doubt, to an enduring bromance.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

John C. Calhoun was not alone. Not by a long shot. We invented a lot of shenanigans to keep people of color out of our country. Either consciously or unconsciously people in territories as opposed to states… are largely non-white.

You and I have covered a lot of ground already! Mexico, the Louisiana Purchase. A lot of work to make that nice map we all remember from our elementary school classrooms.

DI: Here’s the thing, though. That map was only accurate for three years.

Only three years of that familiar shape. Everything in that rectangle thing except for the District of Columbia would eventually become a state. Wyoming, California, Arizona, Texas, on and on. To form what we think of as the lower 48, the core of the country. That map that so many of us can draw with some degree of accuracy. Lasted for three years.

We’ve been talking for a long time about how communism impacted Russia. In a few weeks, we’ll start talking about the US response to that movement. How, since the USSR was communist and atheist, the US tied Christianity to capitalism. That may seem trivial, but our ties to capitalism have a huge impact. You can attend churches that preach the benefits of capitalism. That encourage their congregants to bring in so much money, have side businesses, or where the preacher will straight up push a product from the pulpit. Big oil gets tied to our faith. Arts and craft supplies. Even chicken sandwiches. I’m not here to tell you that’s good or bad, but we are going to explore how, at least in the least 150 years it came to be that capitalism, the US, and Jesus got tied together.

Before we get there, I feel like we need to talk about what the US is. What it really is.

Let me start with a story.

Last year I was at the Podcast Movement conference in August. My friend Eric and I were just two of a few Christians in a sea of podcasters. Because this show is about the church, I ended up having conversations with many people about the church. About Christianity. But something somewhat unexpected happened: almost everyone who talked with me about God also brought up the United States in one form or another. Politics, the president, a Christian company, some moment in history.

There I was in this giant hotel, talking about the most important thing in my life, my faith, and… in order to share Jesus with my new friends I had to also give compelling arguments for US policies on foreign affairs, domestic laws, and apologize for the darker parts of our history. There were all of these hurdles in the way of me sharing the gospel. And that isn’t a new thing. It has happened my whole adult life.

Being tied to the US isn’t all bad. We’ve got some great things like the national parks system, access to public education, equal voting rights, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. The trouble is that Christianity is also tied to US history. Murdering native people. Slavery. Gerrymandering.

The purpose of this series is to expand our idea of what the United States is. It’s all of those things, good and bad. In my personal ministry that connection often slows down or inhibits my ability to share the gospel. It might be different for you.

One more thing before we go. People throughout the Bible are confronted with idol worship, putting anything else ahead of God. Money, statues made of stone and metal. Patriotism itself is not bad. Loyalty to a group is part of the human experience. But when that patriotism trumps our worship of God… we’re in danger of worshipping an idea over the creator.

The purpose of this series is not to make us feel bad. But to add some depth. It’s not just people within the US who are impacted. Our actions to the rest of the world reflect back on God. For better or for worse. Because our aggressive expansion didn’t stop with manifest destiny.

At some point, after conquering from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all the stuff we learn in middle school… we looked out across the waves and said… huh… I wonder what’s over there.

We’ll continue that story in the next episode.

Special thanks to Daniel Immerwahr. His book is “How to Hide an Empire”. We’ll be hearing from him in the next few episodes. Truce is listener supported. If you want to continue to stretch what’s possible in Christian media, partner with me by donating even a little bit each month. If you do it on Patreon you’ll even get access to bonus materials not heard anywhere else. Like updates on the shows progress from me or extra audio I couldn’t use in the show. Learn more at trucepodcast.com. Follow us on social media at @trucepodcast.com. My challenge to you this week: sign up for our email list! You’ll get notifications about new episodes, links to our guests, access to our media fast curriculum, and so much more. Sign up on the website.

Special thanks to our vocal volunteers. They include Holland Webb from The Afterword Podcast, Angel McCoy from Angel reads the Bible, Colleen and Danny from Fitness and Houston’s First, Savannah, and Erin . You can see some of their drawings of the US on the website and our social media feeds.

Thanks for listening. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.