Graziano on Wenger's Religious Freedom

This is the final review in our round table on Tisa Wenger's Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (2017). For previous entries, see reviews by Kime, Zubovich, and Su. Look for a response from the author tomorrow!

Michael Graziano

Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (2017) is an ambitious book. It’s asking big questions about religious freedom and looking for answers in an international context. Rather than interrogating religious freedom as something familiar--something good or bad, a myth or an impossibility--Wenger is instead interested in who talks about religious freedom, and why they do so. Ranging from the 1890s to the 1930s, Wenger examines what people had to gain (or, perhaps, what they hoped others might lose) by engaging in what she terms “religious freedom talk.”

Wenger sees religious freedom as part of an Enlightenment project, an idea that challenged empire but also contributed to it, since ideas about freedom (particularly when paired with ideas about race) helped explain why certain areas had to be conquered, colonized, and controlled. Wenger situates religious freedom in the early 20th century as something important but mercurial, developing alongside what she terms the “imperial hierarchies of race, nation, and religion” (2). In no uncertain terms, Religious Freedom argues that religious freedom cannot be understood apart from histories of race, empire, and nation: these are not historiographic side dishes in a book otherwise about “religious freedom.” In Wenger’s telling, U.S. religious freedom--from its emergence out of the efforts to protect conscience during the Enlightenment--provided space for race and religion to intermingle and mutually develop. Wenger argues persuasively that to track one of these “assemblages” (a term she borrows from Deleuze) requires thoughtfully interrogating them all.

This is also a book interested in modernity, and what it means to be “modern.” For the subjects in this book, being modern means being free--religiously free--and self-governing. White Anglo Protestant Christianity was understood as the peak of civilizational progression (by, as it happens, White Anglo Protestant Christians). These same people perceived other races, religions, and nationalities as unable to catch up. We’ve heard parts of this story before, but Wenger’s contribution is to show how this tension plays out simultaneously at home and abroad. In other words, it is neither solely a domestic or foreign development. As the language of religious freedom came to mark people who were fully modern from those who were not, for example, some American Catholics and Jews used religious freedom to cloak themselves in the protective whiteness of the imperial project. Around the same time, Christian Filipino leaders--fresh from wars with Spain and the United States--reimagined religious freedom talk in order to distinguish themselves from their Muslim neighbors and argue for the national independence of a united Philippine islands. For others, including especially Native Americans and African Americans, appeals to religious freedom were less effective, having to overcome as they did the imperial systems of the Reservation and Jim Crow. Through each example, Wenger makes clear that religious freedom is a strategy, a way to be a civilized modern in a world where one's ability to be oneself correlated with how civilized and how modern one was presumed to be by people in power.

To my mind (that is, a mind interested in religion, law, and national security) the book is particularly noteworthy for three reasons.

First, the book begins in the 1890s. In the history of American religion and law, this is significant: Wenger’s is a history of religious freedom that begins before the incorporation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses (that is, before individual states were bound by them). It can be tempting--and I write from personal experience--to begin narrating this history after the Supreme Court (attempted) to standardize religious freedom law. For a subfield that often seems very SCOTUS-centric, this is a welcome change. This allows Wenger to highlight diverse understandings of religious freedom as they percolated around the country.

The second noteworthy point is not when the book begins, but when it ends: before World War II. Wenger is interested in American empire. This is an important topic on its own, but many studies of American empire focus on the 1940s and subsequent Cold War, when the emergence of American global power refigured how the US acted on the world stage. That later time period rightfully receives a great deal of attention, but Wenger makes clear that the early 20th century offers scholars of American religion just as much to consider.

Finally, Wenger does both of the above by attending to assemblages of race (not while or in addition to looking at race) because, as she demonstrates, attention to race is necessary to understand these broader changes. Wenger’s book suggests that the multifaceted approach we have come to appreciate in religious studies and US history--an approach that presumes attention to gender, race, class, etc. is always already necessary & present--is in some sense about religious freedom, or at least about how competing understandings of the idea have shaped American history (and the history of the wider world) in important and powerful ways. Two examples I found particularly persuasive involved Filipino perspectives on modernity and Native American negotiations around the Ghost Dance.

In the first case, Wenger demonstrates that talking about religious freedom was a way to claim being modern. This was recognized not just by American observers--who dismissed Filipino claims to both religious freedom and self-governance--but by the Filipinos themselves, who saw that “religious freedom” had a special currency in US politics. Invoking it was a way to say that they, too, were modern and that they, too, were capable of governing themselves. In the second case, Wenger uses the Ghost Dance to make clear that “religious freedom talk” could offer strategic advantages for liminal groups, but always at the cost of painful trade-offs (109-112). Making religious freedom claims meant conforming (to a certain extent) with the dominant society’s vision of proper religiosity, and so Native American religious practices were consciously reimagined to look as Christian as possible. Wenger illustrates how these self-conscious changes allowed some of these groups and their practices to survive without losing sight of the fact that it was white settler Christianity--itself supported by ideas of religious freedom--that compelled these changes in the first place.

While the periodization offers much for readers to consider, I was left wondering whether the anti-imperialist critiques after World War II--particularly those that would be made by some of these same White Anglo Protestant Christians--had antecedents in this time period. Where would we root the liberal critics of the US military-industrial complex in this narrative? Similarly, how should we make sense of other transnational relationships of religious groups--such as American Catholic relations to the Vatican during the rise of European Fascism--as part of the focus on US empire?

Of course, it’s easy for a reviewer to suggest other angles when a book ambitiously surveys as much time and as many places as this one does. The book necessarily relies on a wide range of secondary literatures. Wenger is clear in how she connects these literatures (and in how they fit into her thesis) but the analysis often takes a front seat, limiting the impact of the individual actors who pop up in the text or are hinted at in footnotes. There are individuals who shine through (I was particularly fascinated by Dean Worcester, a University of Michigan Zoologist who took on an official role in the US’s civilizing imperial project in the Philippines [30-43]). At times, though, I did wish the book would pause the analysis to linger at greater length on individual subjects and their stories.

I noted this absence largely because at other times stories and analysis are balanced with great effect. This is evident in one of my favorite parts of the book, the section on the Moros in the Philippines (82-100). In under twenty pages, Wenger covers a lot of ground and makes it look easy: from how religious freedom discourses operated “at home” and “abroad,” to the parallels in American perceptions of Muslims and Mormons, to how in turn this parallel was gendered and racialized through marking certain practices (such as polygamy or slavery) as uniquely racial and unmodern. Wenger does this without losing touch with the sources of both US officials and Moros leaders. This is a section I plan to assign to future classes, since it encapsulates Wenger’s big ideas so well.

In this section, as in others, Wenger deploys a battery of primary sources. Her paragraphs are peppered with one or two-word quotes, allowing the reader to stay focused on the book’s arguments while not forgoing a taste of the primary sources themselves. For example, Wenger uses an October 1899 issue of the periodical Outlook to illustrate the divergent interests of empire. Wenger shows how to a contemporary reader, news reports of the Boer War competed for page space with condemnations of Filipino barbarity, alongside news of the business world and laments for the insufficiently manly seminary education of then-contemporary American ministers. Wenger presents these concerns about race, nation, gender, and religion in the service of demonstrating how religious freedom “helped constitute the civilization hierarchies of empire” (34).

From my vantage point, we needed a book like this. As Americans began exporting their own brand of religion and religious freedom to the rest of the world, this necessarily had an effect on foreign peoples and lands in addition to Americans on US soil (wherever it was in the world). Wenger’s work is a reminder that for many Americans, to be religious meant to be free. And this mattered, in short, because the people making decisions about world order were, increasingly, Americans.

Michael Graziano is an Instructor in the Department of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of Northern Iowa.