American History

Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal with Tisa Wenger

America is known as a country of religious freedom, but what does that really mean?

Learn more with Tisa Wenger, an associate professor of American religious history at Yale University and author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

America is known as a country of religious freedom, but what does that really mean? Join Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history at Yale University, as she discusses her latest book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Who is Tisa Wenger?

Many thanks for inviting me to do this interview! I’m an historian of American religion at Yale University, where I work on the intersections of religion, race, and colonialism in United States history. I got interested in these topics through my childhood experiences as the child of Mennonite missionaries who spent a total of twenty-three years in five different African countries.

We lived in Swaziland for five years in the late 1970s, and I remember my parents hosting refugees from the anti-apartheid struggle in neighboring South Africa and wrestling with what it meant to be white missionaries in that context. Only later did I realize just how recently Swaziland had gained its independence from British rule.

Tisa Wenger (left) as a little girl with her parents and brothers as they prepared to leave for Swaziland in the late 1970s.. Credit: Tisa Wenger.

When I decided to go to graduate school, I wanted to understand why missionaries like my parents had traveled around the world—and how these religious currents intersected with the histories of race and empire.

The topic of religious freedom was a later addition. Following the threads of religion and colonialism, my dissertation and then my first book, We Have a Religion, centered on the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico in the 1920s and their response to U.S. government policies that suppressed Indigenous ceremonial practices. I argued that Pueblo appeals for religious freedom had complex and ambivalent consequences, effectively redefining indigenous dance ceremonies as “religion” and so shifting the terms of debate within and beyond Pueblo communities.

When I finished that book, I wanted to pose similar questions on a larger historical stage. I was not particularly interested in charting the origins of religious freedom, offering a legal history of Supreme Court decisions, or outlining my own proposals for what religious freedom should mean. All of these are important topics amply treated by other scholars.

Instead, I wanted to understand how diverse groups of people invoked this ideal in U.S. history and what kinds of cultural and political work it has done.

The resulting book traverses half a century, from the 1890s through the 1940s, with chapters on religious freedom in the Spanish-American War, in the Philippines under U.S. rule, for Native Americans, for American Jews, and for African Americans of various religious commitments. It shows the wide range of appeals that have been couched in religious freedom terms, and the often unintended consequences of these appeals for how people understand their own communities and traditions.

If yesterday were your last day of teaching, what would you miss most about Yale Divinity School?

This is an easy one: I would miss my students.

It is an immense privilege to teach students who are so diverse in racial and ethnic identity, religious commitments, experiences, and professional goals; experienced enough to know why they’re back in school and what they want to do with their lives; and overwhelmingly committed to making a positive difference in the world.

They ask questions that can shift my angle of vision, their energy sustains me, and they go on to do amazing things in the world.

Tisa Wenger (center) with Ann-Catherine McNeill (left) and Anthony Trujillo (right) at the 2019 Yale Divinity School graduation. Credit: Tisa Wenger.

What is Tisa Wenger’s personal relationship with faith?

In a word: complicated. I have been wrestling with Christianity in one way or another for most of my life. At fourteen I was baptized by my father into the Mennonite church he then pastored.

In college I found it more and more difficult to believe as I’d been taught. This crisis of faith came in part through a feminist awakening, but an even bigger factor was the realization that if I’d been born at a different place and time my religious practices and convictions would have been correspondingly different.

These days I see that reservation as rather shallow.

Faith and practice need not be universal to provide sustenance, meaning, and even truth.

I don’t identify as a Christian but I have immense respect for many who do. My family and I are now Unitarian Universalists, a faith community that supports the search for truth, justice, and the common good. In the UU world, all the sides of my wrestling, cynicism, and idealism are not just welcome but expected and encouraged.

What is it that fascinates Tisa Wenger about religion in history?

There are so many answers to this question, so many levels at which I could answer. I would have to say first that I see the concept of “religion” itself—understood as a distinct sphere of life, a cultural or social category that can be transported and/or compared across place and time—as a historical artifact, the product of an early modern Europe that was being transformed by its new global explorations and developing colonial expansions.

I am fascinated at how the category of “religion,” in this sense, emerged as part of the modernity that developed in tandem with colonialism; and at how religion could simultaneously enable colonial conquest, systems of racial exploitation, and communities of resistance.

I am equally fascinated by the many ways in which the traditions we call religious work to shape our sensibilities, self-understanding, and ways of being in the world.  

Tisa Wenger signs copies of her book, ‘Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.’ Credit: Tisa Wenger.

What is religious freedom?

There can be no single objective definition of religious freedom because there are no stable or comprehensive definitions of either of its constitutive terms. Scholars of religion have been trying to define their object of study for two centuries, and there are perhaps as many definitions as there are scholars. The concept of freedom is equally elusive.

Both are shape-shifters, with different meanings to different communities in different times and places. As Winnifred Fallers Sullivan argued in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, to rule on religious freedom the courts must somehow define religion, and in so doing they inevitably set some limits and exclude some claims.

That said, in my view it is neither desirable nor possible to eliminate religious freedom from our constitutional or cultural toolbox, and some definitions of this freedom are more just and inclusive than others.

Imperfect and elusive as any definition might be, I think it essential to make the effort.

Religious freedom should provide some protection to the communities of practice that see themselves as religious, with particular attention to minorities and historically marginalized traditions.

But no freedom should be given the power to trump other rights and freedoms.

From both an ethical and constitutional perspective, religious freedom cannot mean that a self-proclaimed conservative Christian majority—which these days most vocally invokes this freedom—has priority over those who do not share their convictions.

My book demonstrates just how varied the meaning and consequences of religious freedom have been, and the dangers of granting it too much power.

What is the idealized perception of religious freedom in U.S. history?

This depends who, when, and where. For much of U.S. history, though, an idealized definition would have been that people must be free to believe and worship as their conscience dictates.

One of the biggest problems—past and present—is that those charged with implementing this freedom have had fairly limited assumptions around what counts as religion, most often shaped by the white Protestant majority. And there have been regular battles over whether this freedom adhered primarily to individuals, congregations, or larger religious organizations.

An oversimplified version of this history would describe the individual version “Protestant” and the collective “Catholic,” but of course many of those who prioritized freedom for the individual were not Protestants; and Catholics have never been the only ones to seek freedom for a religious community, institution, or corporation.

What surprised Tisa Wenger in the course of her research for Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal?

When I started my research for this book I cast a very wide net. I looked initially for just about any discussion of religious freedom, anyone who might be invoking this idea, really for any purpose.

I knew I would need to narrow my focus, but I wanted to see what unexpected and hopefully illuminating stories would emerge from the archives.

One big surprise was to discover how critical religious freedom was in U.S. debates over the Spanish-American War and the colonization of the Philippines. Anna Su’s book Exporting Freedom, which came out a year before mine, also covers this ground. But until then none of the scholarship either on the history of American religious freedom or on U.S. imperialism had explored this connection.

I chose to begin my book with that history, partly because I wanted readers to feel a jolt of the unexpected: who expects a book on religious freedom to open with the Philippines?

And then, once the connections are clear, why have historians NOT previously told this story?

I think this approach explodes narrow, parochial, and expected narratives about religious freedom.

You mention Spencer Fluhman in your Acknowledgements. How did he assist with your book and what did you think of your experience lecturing at the Maxwell Institute?

Spencer Fluhman became a good friend when he and I were in the same cohort of the Young Scholars in American Religion program, through the Center for the Study of American Religion at IUPUI. He has always been a supportive colleague in the field, interested in discussing whatever I’m working on.

We had several good conversations at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion while I was writing this book. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of supportive friends and colleagues with whom one can talk about ideas at their formative stages.

Spencer was most helpful when I was working on the Philippines chapter, specifically the section that involves a turn-of-the-century controversy over polygamy among the Muslim Moros of the southern Philippines—a controversy that back in the U.S. linked up to ongoing battles over the cultural and political status of the Latter-day Saints.

I had a lovely time at the Maxwell Institute this February.

My new book project will include some Mormon history, and when I got the invitation to speak at the Institute I decided to take the opportunity to spend a week in the BYU archives.

The Institute was generous enough to host me for the entire week and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a few other historians there.

For my talk, rather than just presenting some portion of my book, I asked what a chapter focusing primarily on Latter-day Saints might have looked like. It felt a bit like a mash-up of Religious Freedom and my new research, and it was a little rough around the edges, but the audience was generous and asked some great questions.

Overall a wonderful visit and I hope I have the chance to go back sometime.

Tisa Wenger lectures on religious freedom at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University in 2019. Credit: Blair Hodges

What is an example of a culture changing its ‘religious freedom talk’ in order to adapt to its changing needs?

Native American history offers a useful illustration here. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when many Indigenous nations still controlled their own lands and were beyond the bounds of effective U.S. control, they invoked religious freedom—if at all—to support their own cultural autonomy and integrity, the right to their own traditions and ways of life without interference from Christian missionaries, white settlers, or the U.S. government.

This is what I would call a collective or even nationalist version of religious freedom, and we can find parallel varieties of religious freedom talk among Filipino revolutionaries at the turn of the century, black nationalists in the 1920s, and Native American sovereignty activists throughout the twentieth century.

In contrast, when Native communities were under the direct control of U.S. government agents who aimed to suppress tribal identities and traditions, they appealed to the freedom of religion under the U.S. Constitution as a way to protect those traditions. 

Why do you want historians to understand and acknowledge the gritty realities of religious freedom?

I want not only historians but the general public to understand these gritty realities because they work against false triumphalist narratives of religious freedom that are not just bad history but actually help perpetuate the injustices and inequities of our society.

My book shows how white Christian nationalists have historically used religious freedom to bolster their own privileged status and to claim the right to rule over others. It also shows how various racial and religious minorities and colonized populations have more or less successfully appealed to this same freedom—and how this freedom has so often been limited along racial lines.

Understanding this history, I hope, can inspire more inclusive visions of religious freedom and also greater humility among its advocates across the board.

If you could go back in time and witness any significant event associated with religious freedom, what would you most want to observe?

This is a tough one because there are so many possibilities!

One key moment that would be especially interesting to me is the formation of the Native American Church in Oklahoma at the turn of the century, when the movement’s leaders faced a protracted legal battle over the ceremonial use of peyote, their central sacrament.

It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall as peyote leaders mapped out their legal strategies and decided to incorporate as a church.

How explicit were they about that strategy?

How did they talk about religious freedom, and what were their primary concerns?

Some of these discussions are accessible through the historical record, but it would be fascinating to witness the conversation and to glean new insights into Native American political strategies and views of religious freedom in that time and place.  

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal with Tisa Wenger”

Wenger under values the progenitoration of African Americans in shaping contemporary “religious freedom talk” domestically and internationally as African-Americans rearticulated the initial American religious freedom ideals. The progenitor role of African-Americans is under valued by how Wenger uses the broadly sweeping and scope of confounding terms like “minority” as opposed to identifying the specific minority. To lump all minorities together dilutes and devalues the contributions of African-Americans to the initial and subsequent continuum of global “religious freedom formation. “

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