Response to the forum on Wenger's Religious Freedom

Our blog has recently hosted a series of reviews on Tisa Wenger's Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (2017). See these previous entries here. We conclude with a response from the author. 

Tisa Wenger

It is truly an honor to have this forum on Religion in American History, and I am fortunate to have such insightful and generous critics. I began my research for Religious Freedom with some big-picture questions that were simmering as I finished my first book, We Have a Religion. What kinds of cultural and political work has the idea of religious freedom done in US history? How did diverse groups of Americans invoke this idea, and what frameworks of ‘religion’ did it impose on them? In short I did not want to write about what religious freedom is, or how we should define it, but instead about what it does: how it has shaped communal identities in and beyond the United States and intersected with American relations of power.

At first I planned to write an even broader book than the one I eventually produced, one that would have covered all of U.S. history from the Revolution to the present. I did a lot of research and started a lot of chapter drafts that fizzled and may never see the light of day. Eventually I realized that my analysis kept circling around the themes of race and empire, which ultimately took center stage. Likewise I kept returning to the turn of the twentieth century and the decades that followed, both for the compelling stories I found in this period and for its relative absence in the scholarship on religious freedom—a historiographical gap that Michael Graziano also recognizes in his response. Until Anna Su’s recent book, Exporting Freedom, nobody really had linked the history of American religious freedom to the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. For this reason, and to highlight the connections I found between religious freedom talk and U.S. imperialism, I decided to start the book there.   

I want to respond to these critics in pairs, starting with Michael Graziano and Gene Zubovich, whose concerns are more historical. Both of these critics applaud my attention to race, nationalism, imperialism, and modernity. I share Graziano’s wish for the nuance and flavor that more attention to individual actors such as Dean Worcester would have provided. I thank him for acknowledging the challenge of finding the right balance between individual stories and big-picture analysis in a book of this scope.

When Zubovich comments that Religious Freedom begins when “the United States first became an empire” in 1898, he assumes a periodization of U.S. imperialism that my introduction directly contradicts—but that my focus on this period may unintentionally reinforce. I argue instead that the fin de siècle age of high imperialism, when the United States first acquired substantial overseas territories, must be seen in continuity with its earlier continental conquests and westward expansions. This period also laid the groundwork for the new forms of imperialism that would come to prevail after the Second World War, as Graziano’s response also notes.

While all of these critics generally appreciate my focus on empire, Zubovich suggests that this theme is occasionally overplayed. Whether or not he’s right about this—readers can judge for themselves—I do want to contest the specific example he provides. My point about American protests against anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia was not to minimize the pogroms’ brutality, to challenge the sincerity of the protests, or to suggest that obscuring racial violence in the United States was their only meaningful consequence. In fact I devote significant attention to the rise in anti-Jewish violence and to the import of Jewish and Christian responses throughout this period. The point was rather more specific: that by framing the problem as a religious rather than a racial one, American protestors placed the United States on the high moral ground of religious freedom. With this categorical sleight-of-hand they resisted the comparisons to racial violence in the United States that both Russians and African Americans (for quite different reasons) were making at the time. I agree with Zubovich that these protests were not only about masking U.S. racial and imperial violence, and I don’t think my analysis suggests that they were. But I do think that we need to see this masking as one of their consequences, and that this episode provides an early example of religious freedom as an ambivalent tool for U.S. assertions of global power.

Zubovich also faults the book for incomplete and misleading portrayals of both global Catholicism and ecumenical Protestantism. These are important critiques. I am very much aware that anti-liberalism dominated the larger world of Roman Catholicism in this period, especially in Europe. Other historians like Peter D’Agostino and Bob Orsi have reminded us that American Catholics were also embedded in this larger Catholic world. The preoccupation of an earlier generation of U.S. Catholic historians with Americanism and Americanization, they suggest, were more about the historians’ own anxieties than they were an accurate depiction of the religious cultures of U.S. Catholicism on the ground. I attempted in the book to acknowledge this larger historical and historiographical context, in part by attending to the Catholic critics of U.S. imperialism, tri-faith initiatives, and even the ideal of religious freedom. In fact those Catholics who reacted against liberal articulations of religious freedom were as much a part of the history I wanted to chart—part of the story of American religious freedom—as those who embraced this ideal. But it’s difficult to attend equally to those who did not employ the language of religious freedom at all, and so it may well be true that the book gives a misleading impression of global (and even of U.S.) Catholic discourse.

Zubovich is certainly correct about the gaps in my treatment of ecumenical Protestants, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, and these comments make me wish that I could go back and revise my last two chapters. The FCC and other ecumenical Protestant organizations did indeed begin to challenge racism, nationalism, and imperialism in this period, and sometimes they linked these critiques to the religious freedom ideal. Zubovich’s own forthcoming work on mid-century ecumenical Protestantism will significantly advance our understanding of this scene. Graziano makes a related point when he asks about the role of liberal anti-imperialists in these years. In fact anti-imperialists (liberal and otherwise) do make a strong appearance in my first chapter, as do Filipino, Native American, and African American critics of imperialism later in the book. These critics joined a rising global tide of anti-colonial movements that also strongly influenced the ecumenical Protestants Zubovich mentions. I must admit that I was more interested in the utility of religious freedom for the colonized people and racialized minorities who challenged imperialism than I was in the ecumenical Protestant elites. Still, more attention to the latter would have deepened my analysis and provided a more accurate trajectory for religious freedom talk in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

Anna Su and Bradley Kime, my second pair of critics, are less interested in challenging my historical analysis than in its contemporary implications. Su sums up my argument beautifully with the image of religious freedom as a “mirage in the desert” that “offered a promise of salvation” to minority and colonized communities such as Filipinos under U.S. imperial rule, Native Americans, African Americans, and American Jews. These groups are internally diverse and very different from each other, and their experiences with the utility and consequences of religious freedom talk were by no means the same. But time and again all of these groups found this freedom a shape-shifting mirage that receded into the distance and also transformed them in the process of its pursuit.

After this appreciative summary, Su moves beyond the scope of my book to ask about the extent to which the ideal of religious freedom, and by extension my analysis, remains relevant and compelling in the contemporary United States. She recognizes, of course, that this ideal remains hotly contested and relevant especially for conservative politics today. Consider for example the president’s executive order on religious liberty last year, the announcement this January of a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” within the Department of Health and Human Services, and the conservative white Christian leaders who regularly invoke religious freedom to explain their support for this president.

Given the state of this current debate, Su’s claim that religion (and by extension religious freedom) “is no longer special” seems to me an overgeneralization. Our disagreement here, I think, is one of emphasis more than substance. The context for religious freedom debates has certainly changed in the past few decades. But when Su says that “we no longer identify religious liberty with Christianity,” who exactly is encompassed by this “we”? She is certainly right that many on the political left today no longer see religious liberty this way, or consider religion more important “than any other deeply held moral commitment.” Indeed, the conservative politics of recent decades have increased such suspicions of “religion” and lead many people to view religious freedom as inherently opposed to progressive interests.

It may well be true, then, that the relevance of religious freedom to those outside of conservative Christian circles is declining. But the latter remain demographically and politically potent, and their narratives of religious freedom have a great deal in common with the white nationalist Christian religious freedom talk that I found so prevalent a century ago. Just as important, scholars should not allow the prevailing false binary of secular left vs. religious right to stand. There are many Americans who claim a religious identity but do not identify with the Christian right or its politics of religious freedom, and some who do not identify as religious but assert the freedom from rather than for religion. Such appeals, often obscured in public discourse, may also prove to be a shape-shifting mirage. Certainly they remain circumscribed by new versions of the civilizational assemblages that my book describes. Yet their religious freedom talk remains a crucial part of the contemporary scene. Muslims, Native Americans, and a variety of Christian and Jewish progressives, for example, articulate appeals for immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, same-sex and transgender rights, and environmental justice at least partly in these terms. This strikes me as another piece of the puzzle, another way in which religious-secular distinctions are being (re)formed, another set of narratives to which scholars of American religion should attend.

Kime is less concerned with the cultural relevance of religious freedom than with questions about its liberatory potential. After an insightful and generous reading of the book, and after noting the growing body of critical scholarship that it joins, he asks whether religious freedom is finally salvageable, either as a legal principle or a cultural ideal. He rightly identifies me with what he describes as a mediating position, one that despite all these critiques does not (yet) wish to abandon this ideal. Despite the historical and ongoing imbrications of religious freedom with the civilizational assemblages of race and empire, despite the constraints and costs that religious freedom has so often imposed, I come to the conclusion—along with both Kime and Su—that it is neither possible nor desirable to eliminate religious freedom from our lexicon. Religious freedom is hardly the only cultural ideal that carries some baggage, and scholars who point out its conceptual, legal, and historical problems are not going to stop anyone else from invoking it. In my view, the prospects of reclaiming are almost always a better bet. And despite the powerful weight of the past, despite the definitional conundrums that have disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, I still think that collectively, given the cultural toolboxes that we have inherited, we are better off with this freedom than without it.

Tisa Wenger is Associate Professor of American Religious History at Yale University