“Religious freedom” has always been partial, aspirational, and constituted by the systems of power that shape the society as a whole.
“I wanted to know how religious freedom has intersected with the histories of race and empire in the United States.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Tisa Wenger.Wenger is Associate professor of American religious history at Yale University.Her book is Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Tisa Wenger:In the current climate the ideal of religious freedom is more hotly contested, or even weaponized on behalf of white Christian nationalism, than it has ever been. By exploring the cultural and political workings of this ideal in the early twentieth century, my book offers comparative and historical perspective on this contemporary scene.
I did not set out to write a history of the origins, development, or legal trajectories of religious freedom, all of them worthy but well-traversed themes. Instead, I wanted to know how religious freedom has intersected with the histories of race and empire in the United States.I found that the most prominent discourses of religious freedom—what I call religious freedom talk—worked more often than not to sustain U.S. white Christian supremacy and to enable U.S. imperial rule. At the same time, religious freedom provided an ambivalent (but invaluable) tool of resistance for colonized peoples and for racial-religious minorities in the United States: Filipinos under U.S. rule, Native Americans, Jews, and African Americans of many different religious identities and commitments.
“Discourses of religious freedom worked more often than not to sustain U.S. white Christian supremacy.”
The book documents a longstanding association between white Christian nationalism and religious freedom talk. I show how religious freedom has worked most often to support those whose traditions are already most prominent and therefore most recognizable as religion, both in the legal system and in the culture as a whole. This history illuminates the conceptual and structural biases that continue to impede racial and religious minorities who advance their own religious freedom claims. At the same time, I argue that this ideal has been valuable for subaltern peoples, who invoked it to carve out space for their communities against the racist and imperialist grain.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In all honesty, this book will not be the first or most important resource for activists and community organizers on the topic of religious freedom. Having said that, I would be thrilled to learn that activists were reading this book. I would hope that those who do find their way to it will find both a cautionary tale and a source of hope for the future possibilities of this ideal.
The cautionary tale involves the cultural biases and hegemonic structures that continue to shape and constrain the freedom of religion in American life. Activists don’t need me to tell them that religious freedom these days is most often invoked to support a specific set of conservative Christian claims, mostly around issues of abortion, contraception, and sexuality. (Incidentally, my biggest regret about the book is that I did not seriously attend to themes of gender and sexuality. While these were not central to early twentieth-century religious freedom debates in the way they are today, attending to them would have helped historicize the current debates, adding to the utility of the book. For an excellent religious history of the “culture wars” over gender and sexual morality, see R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (2017).)
“Religious freedom claims from minority communities and traditions are so often minimized or delegitimized.”
Back to the caution: my book shows how the dominant strains of religious freedom talk have reflected majoritarian concepts of religion. The (white Christian) majority tends to see “Christian values,” Christian practice, and the contours of religion in very particular but often taken-for-granted ways. To gain traction—or even to be culturally legible—religious freedom appeals need to fit or at least to approximate that mold. This dynamic helps explain why religious freedom claims from minority communities and traditions are so often minimized or delegitimized. In the book, the troubled history of Native American religious freedom claims provides a particularly illuminating example. Their history also suggests that even when religious freedom claims succeed, they have often required minority communities to reshape themselves, squeezing their traditions rather uncomfortably into a predetermined mold. Activists who want to challenge majoritarian uses of religious freedom, or to advance alternative appeals to this ideal, would do well to anticipate these concerns.
The hope my book imparts is that religious freedom—like any other ideal—is malleable and always open to reinterpretation. Subaltern and minority groups have historically invoked and redefined this ideal (and through it the concept of religion) in more inclusive ways. Despite the systems of privilege and power that constrain this freedom, I believe that its future remains open to new and more inclusive visions to come.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
First, I hope that readers will un-learn any assumptions they might hold about what religious freedom means and about the “religion” it is supposed to protect. At the most basic level, the book shows that religious freedom has always meant different things to different people, and that it can be redefined and redeployed in multiple ways. Rather than taking claims in its name for granted—or accepting the idea that “religion” writ large stands on one side of a certain issue (same-sex marriage, for example)—I want readers to interrogate the cultural and religious norms behind such claims. What formations of religion and of “freedom” are being posited? What alternative practices or communities are being marginalized or entirely written out of the story?
Second, I want readers to un-learn triumphalist accounts of American religious freedom and to challenge standard narratives of either progress or declension. Popular accounts too often place the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on a pedestal, assuming that the “Founding Fathers” worked out the perfect formulation for this freedom, in theory if not in practice. Progress narratives assume that its scope has steadily advanced in the United States ever since. Declension narratives posit a past era of perfection from which we have suddenly (or steadily) fallen. Either misrepresents the messy and contested complexity of religious freedom in U.S. history, a history in which “religious freedom” has always been partial, aspirational, and constituted by the systems of power that shape the society as a whole.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This is a really difficult question because, truly, there are far too many to name. My work is shaped first of all by my teachers—Ann Taves, R. Marie Griffith, Albert J. Raboteau, and especially Leigh Eric Schmidt—all of them brilliant historians of American religion who offer models of scholarship that is archivally grounded, beautifully written, and theoretically astute.
Inspiration and insight for this book came from several critical historians of American religious freedom: Sarah Barringer Gordon, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, David Sehat, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, all of whom challenge received narratives about how this freedom has operated in the United States and (in Hurd’s case) around the world. My thinking on the broader “civilizational assemblages” of religious freedom is made possible by some key theorists of religion and secularism who have also been attuned to themes of race and empire: first of all Talal Asad, but also Tracy Fessenden, Saba Mahmood, Arvind-Pal Mandair, and Tomoko Masuzawa.
“Nineteenth-century racial hierarchies and subjectivities were structured by everyday, often pedestrian scenes of (white) freedom and (black) subjugation.”
Scholars in indigenous and postcolonial studies (which I should note are quite different and sometimes clashing fields) have shaped my understanding of the cultural systems of settler colonialism and U.S. empire. I am thinking especially of Jodi Byrd, Reynaldo Clemeña Ileto, Julian Go, Lisa Lowe, Uday Singh Mehta, Audra Simpson, Ann Laura Stoler, and Patrick Wolfe—all of them modeling the kind of capacious and critically engaged work that I hope to produce.
Just as important are the critical race theorists and historians of race and religion who have formed my thinking on race and its historical intersections with religion, liberalism, and empire. These include Saidiya Hartman, who shows how nineteenth-century racial hierarchies and subjectivities were structured by everyday, often pedestrian scenes of (white) freedom and (black) subjugation; Matthew Frye Jacobson on the history of whiteness; Sylvester Johnson on the imperial contexts for U.S. racial formations and consequently for African American religious history; and Judith Weisenfeld, a rare model of exhaustive archival research, skillful critical analysis, and collegial generosity, whose work on early twentieth-century religio-racial movements reoriented my understanding of identity formation in African American communities.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I can best answer this question by returning to the hope (see #2 above) that activists and community organizers might find inspiration in this book to re-imagine religious freedom in more just and inclusive ways. This freedom in isolation is not going to solve anyone’s problems. Indeed, my book shows how an exclusive focus on this freedom can crowd out other values and other claims, with sometimes oppressive results. Yet religious freedom remains as a crucial ideal in U.S. culture, and progressive activists would do better to reclaim than to abandon it.
Ultimately no discourse is singular in its meaning or limited in the kinds of cultural work it can perform, and no ideal can be entirely contained by its history or the apparent logic of its significations. The principle of religious freedom seems necessarily to define as “religious” those practices and traditions it defends, placing them in opposition to that which is not so designated. To define religion is to limit religion, to set its boundaries and hence to delineate its other. But the potential shape of these definitions and oppositions are infinite in their possibilities. Whatever the streams of its dominant configurations and however powerful they might seem, this ideal (like any other) has the potential to overflow their limits and to carve out new channels that have yet to be imagined.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]