Review Roundtable on Wenger's Religious Freedom

This essay kicks off our review roundtable on Tisa Wenger's recent book, Religious Freedom
The Contested History of an American Ideal (2017).  Over the course of this week, we'll hear from a number of scholars about their response to the book before concluding with Wenger's response. Our first review is from Bradley Kime, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is working on a history of wealth transfers, secular governance, and religious undue influence. 

Bradley Kime

If I was stuck on a desert island and could only read one book on American religious freedom, this would probably be it. Rather than quantifying religious freedom’s realization—as if we already know what (religious) freedom is—Tisa Wenger investigates the politics of its historic invocations: “who appealed to religious freedom, for what purposes, and what it meant to them” (1). This is an increasingly familiar and important move. Wenger extends it to the relatively understudied decades between the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War and World War II. She finds that invocations of religious freedom were integral to processes of racialization and colonial governance.

Wenger unpacks this finding with a brilliant, flowing, complex, sustained analysis of the “civilizational assemblages of empire” that have informed “cultural meanings of religious freedom” and vice versa. In the work of Alexander Weheliye, Jasbir Puar, and others, “assemblages” include intersecting, interlocking, and constantly reconfigured ideological/institutional formations of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, humanity, and civilization. Wenger uses the concept to show how “religious freedom talk” has obscured contested distributions of material resources and helped justify, extend, and manage racial empire. For example, by assembling and opposing male Anglo-Protestant modernity and female Spanish-Catholic barbarism, American imperialists justified their seizure of the Philippines: the problem there was not general Spanish imperial oppression but church-state collusion; the American intervention was not more empire under new management but, rather, the establishment of religious freedom. Subsequently, the same civilizational assemblages cast Filipinos as racially unfit to actually exercise religious freedom, and provided categories for their suppression and control. Meanwhile, the imposition of religious freedom in the southern Islands, incrementally and opaquely codified, effectively eliminated Moro political sovereignty by sequestering the power of indigenous leaders within a protected ecclesiastical sphere. 

As in her first book, Wenger also shows how the marginalized and colonized have reconfigured and redeployed religious freedom and its attendant civilizational assemblages in their fights for sovereignty. For example, pan-Indian Shakers and Peyotists secured some measure of contingent self-determination by incorporating churches. Strategic victories like these lead Wenger to conclude that the ideal of religious freedom has no historically necessary or intrinsic conceptual limits, even as she keeps tabs on the internal and external costs such victories entailed. Internal costs included various fissions and foreclosures of collective life—Filipino ecclesiology, Moro political economy, Native American pneumatology, Jewish peoplehood, UNIA pan-Africanism, etc.—necessitated by negotiations of dominant conceptions of religion and adaptations of secular-religious divisions. External costs came—in ways that reminded me of Sylvester Johnson’s work—when the marginalized and colonized became agents of empire themselves: American Catholics claiming the benefits of white religion by participating in the colonization of Filipinos; Filipinos by subordinating Moros; Jews by reinforcing black-white boundaries; black Protestants by colonizing/missionizing Haitians, Liberians, and South Africans; pan-Indian Shakers by denigrating the Ghost Dance; the Nation of Islam by denigrating “voodoo,” and so on.

I recently finished reading for comprehensive exams. One of my reading lists was a small slice of literature on religion and law, in which the emancipatory limits and/or possibilities of religious freedom were organizing questions. These questions have a historical register. How determinative are past and present abuses of religious freedom for present and future uses? They also have a conceptual register. What kinds of puzzles does religious freedom pose? And to what degree are such puzzles intrinsic to any project of religious freedom, or constitutive of any regime of religious freedom? Celebratory accounts aside, some seem to say that the historical and conceptual problems are myriad and profound but, short of fulfilling fantasies of unconditioned freedom from others, you/we can do what you/we want with the malleable rhetoric of religious freedom. Others argue that the problems are unsolvable, self-perpetuating; that religious freedom has always produced what has putatively required its interventions; that it inevitably defers and displaces its inherent contradictions onto those it excludes. Others take up mediating positions: declarations of religious freedom open real possibilities for adaptation and localized liberation, but these possibilities, even in the future, are not unlimited.

I might be wrong to read these positions against each other, but some, including Wenger, do seem more positive than others about the possibilities of religious freedom, despite a deep reckoning with its dark American history. Wenger says the possibilities of religious freedom are not “contained by its history or the apparent logic of its significations,” only by our political imaginations (239). In other words, a religious freedom that defines religion without limiting it, and protects religion without privileging it, can be imagined and implemented toward an emancipatory future. As of this writing, I’m still drawn to arguments for replacing the ideal of religious freedom altogether, but Wenger’s book is a brilliant call to employ, rather than evade, religion’s capacity to capture our collectivity and organize it differently.


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