Talking God in the United States

Rachel Gordan reviews "Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal" by Tisa Wenger.

Talking God in the United States

Religious Freedom by Tisa Wenger. The University of North Carolina Press. 312 pages.

THIS IS NOT a book about whether the United States is a country of religious freedom — let’s get that out of the way, as so much else about religious freedom remains contested. Instead, Tisa Wenger, a Yale historian of American religion, examines the discourse of religious freedom during the first half of the 20th century.

If readers did not already appreciate the significance — and the malleability — of what Wenger calls “religious freedom talk” in American history, we might have been reminded of it this past spring when President Trump signed a “religious liberty” executive order. Wenger calls religious freedom, as it exists in American society, “a shared cultural value that has been defined and deployed in a wide variety of ways.”

Trump invoked values of religious freedom when he announced in the Rose Garden in May that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore.” Building on the 2014 Hobby Lobby Stores Supreme Court case, which found that the Affordable Care Act mandate that certain corporations must provide female employees with no-cost access to contraception was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the president’s executive order provided regulatory relief to companies objecting to an Obamacare mandate for contraception in healthcare. The president declared that he was “giving our churches their voices back,” leading to applause from some conservative religious groups, while others felt the act had not gone nearly far enough. Writing for Bloomberg View, legal scholar Noah Feldman observed: “This order is constitutionally kosher — in part because it does so little.” Whatever Trump hoped to accomplish, his staff likely understood the value of invoking religious liberty discourse, which, as Wenger observes, performs all manner of cultural work.

Looking under the lid of this wide-ranging conversation, Wenger asks: What are Americans really talking about when they talk about religious freedom? In part, they are invoking one of the United States’s “signal contributions to the larger causes of liberty and democracy around the world.” Equally relevant is the inverse of that question: What are Americans not talking about when we talk about religious freedom? That is, what concerns and issues are typically masked by religious freedom discourse? Race and empire — terms that do not harmonize quite as well with the American Dream — are often just below the surface of national conversations about religious freedom, Wenger finds, explaining that “the most audible varieties of religious freedom talk — the many ways in which people invoke this ideal — helped define American whiteness and make the case for U.S. imperial rule.”

Wenger’s case studies bear out this conclusion. Thus, in the aftermath of the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War, President McKinley’s administration posited religious freedom as nonnegotiable in the United States’s colonization of the Philippines, a way to strengthen Anglo-Protestant claims to racial-religious supremacy. At the same time, religious freedom talk provided a means for racial-religious minorities to reject constructs of Anglo-Protestant supremacy, assert their civilizational credentials, and thus improve their standing in the racial-religious hierarchies of US empire. In the debate over the Philippines, Wenger shows, Catholics refused to accept the Anglo-Protestant logics of religious freedom and the secular modernity that it signified. Instead, they deployed religious freedom talk in order to identify Catholicism as an all-American religion, implicitly claiming for Catholics the civilizational status of white Americans. Religious freedom talk enabled “a new access for Catholics to the privileges of whiteness in American life.”

There are parallels in the Jewish example that Wenger offers in her chapter about the tri-faith movement. Jewish communal leaders who promoted the values of religious liberty during the first half of the 20th century hoped to steer American perceptions of Jews away from the racial category and toward religion:

If the Jews could be defined not as a race or a nation but solely as a religious group — a difference to be protected and even celebrated on the all-American grounds of religious freedom — then perhaps the lingering barriers to full Jewish participation in the cultural and civil life of the nation could finally be removed.

Religion was never a category that entirely fit Jewish self-understanding, which included categories of nation, culture, and race, but it did prove a useful tool. Wenger’s argument here is important: she shows how the case for Judaism as a religion was “forged in and through a rhetoric of religious freedom that must be understood as part of the discursive apparatus of U.S. empire.” As a study of multiple religious groups, Wenger’s book also shows readers how much Jews benefited from the religious liberty discourse, compared with other groups who were not able to leave behind their racialized status.

As with Jews, the category of religion was not fully accurate for Native Americans, who did not distinguish certain beliefs and practices as religious and set apart from other secular parts of life; Native American languages generally did not include words that could be translated as “religious.” The very distinction between religion and the secular in Native American traditions, Wenger points out, was one that resulted from Indian interaction with government agents. Once they were forced to accept settler-colonial rule, early 20th-century Native Americans used the principle of religious freedom to defend particular practices and traditions from suppression by governmental agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In order to benefit from the protection of religious liberty, they found that they had to convince the government that their doings were legitimately religious, by playing up resemblances between their indigenous practices and Christianity. Or, they could play the BIA agents’ game in reverse, by claiming their activities were not religious, and thus did not need to be condemned as heathenism or savagery.

Wenger finds that those Native ceremonies defended in religious terms tended to conform more closely to what counted as religion in the mainstream United States — that is, Christianity. In the case of dance ceremonies, for example, Indians discovered that the most effective way to defend these practices was in nonreligious, purely social terms. Very quickly, definitions affected content:

If Native American dance cultures became increasingly secular in the early twentieth century, such changes were at least to some extent a product of their need to escape attacks that had been framed in specifically religious terms.

Not all Native Americans were willing to make these adjustments, however. One Indian dance leader in the 1920s recognized that the value of religious liberty included too much policing and disciplining of Native culture. He instead called for self-determination:

I do not understand why one people can say what is good for another people and what is bad for them. The Indians did not try to tell white people whether or how they should dance; why then should white people presume to impose their own standards on Indians?

If Native American tradition was a realm affected by the value of religious liberty, race cast African-American religion too far beyond the pale of white civilization to be protected by religious liberty values. Then, too, religious freedom was but a minor theme in the larger struggle for freedom waged by blacks. Examining the early 20th-century context of rising nativism and racial violence, Wenger finds African Americans losing patience with the integrationist policies of established black churches and civic organizations. They turned to new religious movements sweeping the African-American community, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Moorish Science Temple (MST), the Peace Mission Movement (PMM), and the Nation of Islam (NOI). These groups attempted to transcend their racialized identities by emphasizing their religious dimensions, but they were largely unsuccessful.

The PMM gradually gained some legitimacy as a religion in the eyes of wider society, but that acceptance came with ambivalence. For example, a committee of prominent white citizens, appointed to investigate PMM leader Father Divine’s activities in New Jersey, produced what they intended to be a balanced report but was in fact larded with condescending language: the committee noted the excessively emotional and gullible nature of Father Divine’s followers. Part of their critique was that there should be clear distinctions between religion and science and medicine, whereas the PMM had transgressed those boundaries. Wenger observes that over time, the PMM responded to the wider society’s criticism by “taming its radical edges and conforming more and more closely to the dominant society’s norms for religion.” By the 1950s, Father Divine joined tri-faith religious leaders in denouncing communism as a threat to American values of freedom, democracy, and religion. Religious freedom talk thus allowed the PMM to claim the status of religion in the United States by retreating from political arenas.

Meanwhile, the NOI was denounced as a religious cult in the early 20th century. Only in the second half of the century would Black Muslims in this country learn to use the language of religious freedom to their benefit. Malcolm X first joined the movement while in prison, where he led a group of fellow prisoners in a protest against prison food and mandatory typhoid inoculations:

By framing their cause in the language of religious freedom, they defined their identity and practice as religious — a defensive strategy and a claim to legitimacy that even then had a chance of succeeding. In the shifting legal environment of the 1960s, courts would begin to grant Muslim prisoners the right to food that fulfilled their dietary requirements on First Amendment grounds.

On the one hand, the battle for religious liberty was the least of African-American concerns. Yet it is exactly this idealistic status of religious liberty that has made it so important. To talk of the need for religious freedom was to claim a soul, an interiority of experience, and concerns beyond mere survival. It was — as Wenger shows — to infuse blackness, Native Americanness, Filipinoness, or Jewishness with spiritual significance. At the same time, it was to declare oneself an American with all of the idealism that has been associated with that descriptor.


Rachel Gordan teaches religious studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Gordan is an assistant professor of religious studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Florida. She received her PhD in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard and her BA in American Studies at Yale and has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Toronto, where she held postdoctorate fellowships.


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