producing american religious freedom like you mean it

Andy McKee

Finbarr Curtis’s Production of American Religious Freedom is an excellent exploration of an freedom and its boundaries. As Mike Graziano and Sarah Dees have already noted, this book is an assembly of essays about the pieces of American religious freedom. Curtis uses these fragments pulled from a broader American religious frame to highlight “the work it takes to produce religious freedom” within ever expanding free markets, the increasing power of privatization, and systems of surveillance and control. Curtis argues, “Conflict is not what happens when already formed religions bump into each other in public life; conflict makes religions” (2). Curtis assesses the apparent naturalness of producing american religious freedom to point, I think, less towards its deceptive qualities and more towards its contractions and absurdities.

Into his assembled series of conflicts, Curtis wants to consider the “work that it takes to produce religious freedom” (2). It is this idea of work, of producing something, that is the true value of Curtis’s essays. Curtis, in short, relates the politics underlying the how, what, and why something is determined to hold value as either private or public within the framework of religious freedom. These connections, fractures, and fights, moreover, “examines how freedom can force people to make choices or allow them to avoid making choices.” Indeed, what does happen when someone elses freedom makes people uncomfortable and violent? What types of individualism are acceptable and accepted when the organizational and bureaucratic power of the state takes over you, and you, and you?

For Curtis, being uncomfortable underlies the arbitrariness of determining what counts (and what does not count) as religious freedom. This is perhaps best seen where Curtis maps out the tension between individual action and collective social power. In chapter one about Charles Grandison Finney, Curtis argues that Finney was “not interested in freedom for freedom’s sake” (7). Instead, in Curtis rendering, Finney is as much interested in the power of revivals to provide social surveillance as he is with individual conversion. As Curtis argues, “Individual religious freedom, then, was not in a private space removed from public life but was the focus of surveillance, discipline, and security” (13). Religious freedom could only exist when expressed in a controlled, measured, public environment. While revivals and religious conversions produced and policed individual freedom, they likewise influenced how Finney understood his role as a producer of the social norms in which individual conversion made sense and felt right. Curtis here concludes, “Revivals produced persons not through coercion but by freeing people from themselves” (26). The reciprocal play between individual feeling and social order undergirds arguments of freedom at stake in Curtis’s larger narrative.

The subsequent three studies, featuring Louisa May Alcott, William Jennings Bryan, and D.W. Griffith, continue this thread of sentimentalism, sensibility, and liberalism produced with and within the economy. Curtis uses each to push on how understandings of the boundaries of religious freedom are both malleable and vague, depending on when and how these understandings are being used. In each case, moreover, there is a shared sense of nostalgia for a “truer past.” This is, of course, a timely thing to think through given our contemporary political moment. In chapter four on Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, the tension between individual and collective understandings of freedom relies on understanding the actions of the Klan as an overreach of the American federal government. As he notes about both Birth of a Nation and Intolerance (1916) “Griffith employed a familiar rhetoric that attacks African Americans while simultaneously repudiating overt racial animosity. White characters in Griffith saw themselves not as powerful but as victims of the illegitimate exercise of authority” (70). This racialized victimhood produces a crisis of sovereignty in which understandings of the American populous, “The People”, if you will, operates as a fungible tool (not unlike Curtis' religious freedom) that works to reinforces who counts as a proper citizen and who is excluded. This effort to define proper persons and personhoods is on full display for the remainder of the book. If the inherently contradictory “People” that historically makes up “The People” of the United States as a collective whole is impossible to define, the individuals at play here are subjected to the ever increasingly possibility of definition. Here, there, and everywhere, produced productions produced particular people.

In all, this book suggests that religious freedom is, and has always functioned to help structure society. Rather than dwell on a problem of definition, however, Curtis’s analysis and examples provide a specular model of examining the complexities of American life and American freedom. In these ways, the crises to reveal what is really-really-religious freedom reveals more about the system under which Americans have worked than it does about the particulars of the individuals here.

Indeed, Curtis dwells in the fragments of this relationship formed between the requirements of private and public religion. While the individual chapters of this book are perhaps best read as case studies, thinking of them as fragments, as parts alluding to, but never giving, some whole, is both useful and necessary. As Curtis writes in his conclusion, “America does not add up.” As he smartly alludes to throughout this work, perhaps it was never meant to.


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