Zubovich on Wenger's Religious Freedom

This is the second entry in our review round table on Tisa Wenger's Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (2017). For previous entries, see here.

Gene Zubovich

One of the big stories of the twentieth century is the transition from empires to nation-states as the basis of world order. In less than a hundred years, the majority of the world’s peoples went from living under colonialism to living under nation-states. The number of countries in the world grew from about 50 in the year 1900 to over 200 by the end of the century. Today, the nation-state, whether in fact or in aspiration, is nearly universal.

Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal is a welcome and timely addition to a growing body of literature that helps us connect the world of empire to the world of the nation-state (1). It does so by looking at the role of religious freedom in undergirding American empire and the dissent religious freedom inspired. The book offers a rich portrait of the uses of religious freedom roughly from the War of 1898, when the United States first became an empire, to World War II. Wenger’s argument about religious freedom unfolds in two steps. First, Wenger argues that one of the primary uses of religious freedom has been to support American empire. Empire is premised on a racialized hierarchy of peoples, with white Americans near the top and the Filipinos near the bottom. Arguing that native peoples abroad were not fit to handle their own affairs, American politicians made the case that the country would bring religious freedom to the colonies. This was an Orwellian freedom-is-slavery way of thinking about places like the Philippines, justifying imperialism in the name of liberty.

Building on this argument about racialized hierarchies of empire, Wenger shows that certain groups in the United States were able to move up the hierarchy of peoples by reconceiving of themselves as “religious” rather than as “racial” groups. Jews and Catholics, in particular, were able to move up the racial hierarchy in the United States, ultimately becoming white, by supporting imperialism.

A focus on empire as a framework for understanding religious liberty leads to many insights. Wenger is at her best when discussing the colonization of the Philippines and the dispossession and subjugation of Native Americans. In both instances, religious liberty endowed Americans with a false sense of superiority and undergirded American empire with liberal conceits. She skillfully shows how subjugated peoples at home and abroad talked back to empire, using the rhetoric of religious freedom to defend themselves. Religious freedom was a poor weapon for most of these groups, especially for African Americans, but it was a weapon nonetheless. Here religious freedom unfolds in all of its complexity, serving both power and the powerless, while constraining in a variety of ways the relationship between colonizer and colonized.

But at other moments the empire framework becomes strained and occasionally leads to mundane observations. Take the example of American criticism of pogroms in the Russian empire in the early 20th century. “Advocacy for persecuted Jews abroad may seem disconnected from the horrors of American racism,” Wenger admits, “But by condemning Russian anti-Semitism as a violation of religious freedom, white Americans could celebrate their own nation as the land of liberty and so masked the reality of racial oppression against people of color inside the United States.” (152) This is doubtlessly one of the functions of protestations against pogroms but surely there are other and more significant consequences.

The triangulation of empire, race, and religious liberty yield many important insights in Religious Freedom, ones that will rightfully garner attention and engagement from scholars. But because so much of the premise of this dialogue is centered on religious communities bounded by the nation-state, it made me wonder how different our understanding of religious freedom would be if we thought of some of these national religious communities as international communities. Catholics, for example, were part of a global communion that included the Vatican. In Wenger’s narrative, American Catholics crafted their religious liberty arguments to make room for themselves as a religious minority in a tri-faith nation. True religious freedom, they argued, would make room for Catholics in the political imaginary of the United States, where they would be on equal footing with Protestants. But was religious liberty talk so central to Catholic discourse as Wenger implies? The 1864 Syllabus of Errors (which detailed the faults of liberalism), the “Americanism” controversy of 1898 (where American individualism and the separation of church and state were criticized), and Vatican II (which scholars  often cite as the moment when the Vatican accepted religious freedom and the legitimacy of the Jewish religion) might receive more attention than they do in reference to Catholic thought when situating American Catholicism in a more global context. Given what we know about anti-liberalism in European Catholicism in the era Wenger focuses on, I wonder whether portraying American Catholic discourse as religious-freedom-as-pluralism doesn’t reduce the complexity of Catholic thought and political commitments on the subject.

Similarly, American Protestants supported colonialism. But some were also engaged in an international ecumenical endeavor, beginning in the late nineteenth century, to unite the world’s Protestants. Out of this project came searing critiques of both nationalism and racism, as Michael Thompson’s important study of the interwar era points out. Indeed, by World War II, the leaders of the ecumenical movement announced that the first right was “Freedom of religion and conscience” and, in the same breath, say that “these rights cannot be obtained under a system of racial segregation” and that “the churches must work for a non-segregated church and a non-segregated society" (2).  In their minds, religious freedom was necessary for the free choice of individuals to obey moral law, and that moral law required both desegregation and self-determination. In the 1940s, when Wenger’s narrative ends, the Federal Council of Churches and other ecumenical Protestant organizations decided that religious liberty, race, and colonialism were bound together in precisely the opposite way as described in the pages of Wenger’s book: religious liberty required desegregation and decolonization. This was, of course, only one of many meanings of religious liberty in circulation at the time but it was one of the most important. Leafing through the pages of Wenger’s book, I find very little to help me understand how, in the first half of the twentieth century religious liberty came to have this emancipatory connotation.

Wenger’s Religious Freedom is a critical and wide-ranging account of religious freedom, race, and American empire. It will doubtlessly become a reference point for historians who continue to struggle to make sense of the role of religion in the end of empire—if it did, in fact, end—and the rise of the nation-state.

Gene Zubovich is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Washington University in St. Louis

(1) Among the most recent work on this subject are David Hollinger’s Protestants Abroad, Michael Thompson’s For God and Globe, Adam Becker’s Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (2015), Anna Su’s Exporting Freedom, Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit and Shield of Faith, Rebecca Hodges’s “Christian Citizenship and the Foreign Work of the YMCA” Udi Greenberg, “Protestants, Decolonization, and European Integration, 1885–1961,” Journal of Modern History 89, no. 2 (June 2017): 314–54; Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
(2) “Text of Council Statement,” New York Times, December 4, 1948, 11.


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