The Production of American Religious Freedom

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Finbarr Curtis
North American Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious freedom is typically understood as an inherent good in American public life. This is largely the case because freedom performs multiple functions simultaneously: it undergirds America’s founding documents, it rings true in countless stadiums across the country, and it even serves as the musical canvas for television commercials for everything from mid-range cars to international cruises. For many, America continues to be the land of the free, and the home of the brave—a shining city upon a hill. For others, America is free precisely because of what it has to suppress, and sometimes oppress, in the name of freedom.

For scholar of religion Finbarr Curtis, American religious freedom is anything but a liberatory experience. This is largely the case because it calls  its own set of disciplining practices into being once articulated by its various practitioners. As a result, Curtis’s primary subject is the contested concept of religious freedom itself, as understood and deployed across time by various types of persons in the United States. Unlike narratives that track historical change exclusively, The Production of American Religious Freedom reads more like a collection of meditations on important themes in American religious history that serve as case studies for conceptual problems in the study of religion. The text does not foreground a central narrative or formal thesis statement. Nevertheless, it unfolds chronologically, beginning with the writings of revivalist Charles Finney and ending with a reflection on corporations and personhood in the twenty-first century.

Curtis deftly uses his introduction to establish the book’s methodological architecture and narrative scope. He is ultimately interested in how social conditions and institutions produce disparate notions of religion and religious freedom for their respective inhabitants as products of various economies. In light of this, Curtis argues that religious freedom “is a malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes,” including individual self-organizing or “self-governing.” These deployments reflect a larger national economy, one that is beholden to “institutional forces that define, produce, and distribute contested social resources in American life” (3). Through the use of genealogy, Curtis reveals just how disparate the uses of religious freedom have been in American history as the result of “competing visions of the proper relationship between public and private life” (5).

Periodically throughout the book, Curtis explores the various uses of the rhetoric of religious freedom by individuals—ranging from Malcolm X to Al Smith to D. W. Griffith—in order to demonstrate how it has contributed to the ongoing collapse of “the public” in favor of the less visible “private.” As such, Curtis explores how individuals have appropriated the rhetoric of religious freedom as products of historically contingent economies and their respective styles of thought. For the likes of  revivalist Charles Finney, for example, the most important metaphor was that of the sinner. Finney’s task during the Second Great Awakening was to convert as many people as he could in the name of revival and Jesus Christ. He increased his chances of success by studying the ways in which individuals made decisions within a revival context. After careful study, Finney realized that the the last thing he wanted was for potential converts to make their respective decisions of their own volitions. As Curtis explains, this type of freedom was anything but an exemption from social or political control. “Instead of a process in which individuals became free,” Curtis argues, “democratization might be better understood as a shift toward democratic forms of governance [and surveillance]” (10). Seen this way, Finney was a successful revival leader due simply to his popularity and the number of people he converted as a result.

Such arguments, however, do not take into account just how the people’s will became fixated on Finney in the first place. As Curtis contends, not only did Finney gather people as consumers of a limited resource, he also “produced environments in which social norms and public standards prescribed a limited variety of acceptable forms of individual discipline” (12). For Finney, the perfected individual was the disciplined individual, one who made the very same decisions as his or her neighbors within the Godly community of believers. If a form of democratization did indeed take place during this period (as many have argued), then it unfolded through the techniques and management of voluntary decisions. As a result, Curtis demonstrates how Finney’s market logic rendered the number of converted souls as the standard for measuring social impact in the early republic. The fact that Finney’s creation of the sinner unfolded within democratic forms of governance should come as no surprise. If anything, the surprise arises when the intuitively drawn connections between popularity and democratic freedom are revealed to be arbitrary, and thus historically conditioned. As Curtis argues, these types of assumptions continue to shape readings of antebellum religious history because scholarly argument continues to take Finney at his unquestionable word.   

Curtis follows his Finney chapter with chapters on the aforementioned figures plus Louisa May Alcott, intelligent design, and William Jennings Bryan. In particular, Curtis’s insights regarding Bryant and his criticisms of evolution are a welcome addition to an otherwise binary rendering of him as either a progressive or conservative fundamentalist. In these sections of the text, Curtis also engages larger theoretical issues pertinent to the humanities and social sciences. His discussions of secularism, populism, and the privatization of public life alone are worth the price of admission. In addition, Curtis’s prose style elucidates even the finest descriptive points of complex writers such as Michel Foucault, Lauren Berlant, Cornel West, and Giorgio Agamben, just to name a few.

Curtis concludes his collection by reminding readers that his analysis examined the social institutions which produce different persons and thus different applications and articulations of the rhetoric of religious freedom. As a result, the realization of religious freedom could not be further from its intuitive manifestation in American public life as more freedom, more choices, and thus more free people. “Religious freedom does not liberate people from rules, norms, constraints, and forms of governance,” argues Curtis. “On the contrary, religious freedoms are forms of governance, ways that Americans regulate themselves” (168). Curtis’s work—which could just as profitably be titled Genealogies of Secular Liberalism—should not only be widely read this coming school year, but for the foreseeable future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

L. Benjamin Rolsky is an Independent Scholar of American Religious History.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Finbarr Curtis is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Literature and Philosophy at Georgia Southern University.


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