Religious Freedom

The Contested History of an American Ideal

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Tisa Wenger
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Religious freedom” is the hottest topic in American religion these days. And Tisa Wenger’s book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, is among the most exciting interventions into this hotly contested scholarly (and political) debate about the boundaries of this quintessentially American ideal. In fact, among Religious Freedom’s greatest contributions is to move this debate beyond the borders of First Amendment religion clauses, and beyond the borders of what became—geographically, legally, and culturally—the United States.

Wenger’s Religious Freedom is also a critical addition to the now shelf-full of books on how definitional debates about the limits of religious freedom shaped the contours of American whiteness. I read James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time in both the classes that I’m teaching this term. So when I read Wenger’s observations about the American “white,” I was reminded of Baldwin’s famous observation about the American “Negro”—that he is “a unique creation; he has no counterpart anywhere, and no predecessors.” The difference between the Negro and the white is the latter’s relative racial stability. The Negro could never become white. But, as Baldwin suggested, he just might become a slave again, perhaps in another name (Jim Crow, sharecropping, mass incarceration). To mitigate against their renslavement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, Wenger shows in chapter 5 that African Americans pointed to the fruits that religious freedom had produced for them—not as individuals, but as “a people” (208)—to create “modern” and “civilized” institutions. Here also I’m reminded of both E. Franklin Frazier and W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of the “black church” as “a nation within a nation.” These nations could become empire building ones, bringing “American” religious freedom and racial uplift to the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora. Wenger also shows how non-Protestant immigrants—Jews and Catholics in particular (chapters 1, 2, and 4)—became religious others in order to shed their racialized status in the eyes of the white, Anglo-American Protestant gatekeepers to membership in the American republic. “By reclassifying their difference in the language of religion,” Wenger writes, “some minorities could claim the protections of the First Amendment and escape the stigma of racial minority status” (2).

Unlike most studies of American whiteness, to make her argument, Wenger not only moves from the outside in, but also from the inside out. That is (again), she takes her readers beyond the geographical boundaries of the United States. She traces how the “assemblages” (3-4) of race, religion, class, gender, and empire shaped the limitations of religious freedom. Wenger begins her book five years after Frederick Jackson Turner announced that the frontier was closed, and with it, the US completed its transcontinental empire building, thus ostensibly freeing the nation from Indian savagery, Catholic popery, and Mormon polygamy. After the close of the frontier, the US recalculated its mandate to spread “freedom” not just from sea to shining sea, but also to the Pacific Islands and Caribbean. Wenger focuses on the Philippines (chapters 1 and 2) where inhabitants remained under the yoke of heathenism and/or Catholicism and/or Islam. 

And yet the empire of “freedom” building within the borders of the US wasn’t complete. And here is my favorite chapter is “Making Religion on the Reservation.” The borders of the US closed around Native peoples. Or more accurately, the borders pushed them off their historical lands and onto reservations. While they were managed as colonial holdings, instead of sovereign nations as the Indians had been promised, these reservations became culturally foreign territories. The missionaries sent there believed that converting/coercing those indigenous Americans who survived three centuries of genocide to adopt Christian identities, praxes, and epistemologies would free the Indians from their Indian selves. But the would-be colonized subjects reconfigured their religions—the millenarian Ghost Dance, for one—to resemble Christianity, or even to accept Christianity (see the Indian Shakers of the Pacific Northwest, 113), so that they rebuilt Native culture within Christian frameworks. In doing so, Natives gained (a bit of) agency and autonomy to express their own constitutional freedoms (103). But the cost was the suppression of Native traditions—in particular, individual religious experiences, corporate sovereignty, and the lack of a distinction between the “sacred” and the “secular.” 

The payoffs of Wenger’s analyses are many. For one, her framework can be used beyond the American context. For example, take the internal colonial project that the French state has undertaken since the early 1980s. In the name of “egalité, liberté, fraternité,” the French have passed laws prohibiting the wearing of “ostentatious” religious garb in “public” spaces—most critically public schools. While the law’s rhetoric is apparently neutral, it clearly targets the second and third-generation “Magrhrébins”—the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants from former French colonies in Northern Africa who moved to France to seek work and education, and often to flee the chaos and violence that the French colonial project in Africa created. Advocates of these laws believe that by forcing these girls and women to remove their veils, they are freeing (liberté) them from anti-modern, patriarchal control, so they can have access to equal educational and career opportunities (egalité), as well as sheding the physical and mental markers of difference so they can fully integrate (fraternité) with their fellow French citizens. But, as the late Saba Mahmood and others have helped us understand, such projects are not “secular.” They are deeply enmeshed with the perpetuation of empire and Christendom (“Can Secularism Be Otherwise?,” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, eds. M. Warner, J. Vanantwerpen, and C. Calhoun, Harvard University Press, 2013). Yet like the Native subjects that Wenger profiles, these would-be subjects of colonial imposition often use the very ideologies of the French republic to assert their liberty, equality, and fraternity (or more precisely sorority) to advocate for their rights as French citizens to wear the veil. 

Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom is so compelling that I wish there was more of it—for example a chapter dedicated to Puerto Rico. This would be useful to understand the relationship between empire building on that island, whose liminal “unincorporated” status—American, but not a state—leaves millions of US citizens unable to exert their freedoms and rights to protect themselves from the “unnatural” disasters of debt and climate-change charged hurricanes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Max Perry Mueller is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tisa Wenger is Associate Professor of American Religious History at Yale University, and the author of We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom.

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