Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal

Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal

Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal

Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal

Synopsis

Religious freedom is so often presented as a timeless American ideal and an inalienable right, appearing fully formed at the founding of the United States. That is simply not so, Tisa Wenger contends in this sweeping and brilliantly argued book. Instead, American ideas about religious freedom were continually reinvented through a vibrant national discourse--Wenger calls it "religious freedom talk--that cannot possibly be separated from the evolving politics of race and empire.

More often than not, Wenger demonstrates, religious freedom talk worked to privilege the dominant white Christian population. At the same time, a diverse array of minority groups at home and colonized people abroad invoked and reinterpreted this ideal to defend themselves and their ways of life. In so doing they posed sharp challenges to the racial and religious exclusions of American life. People of almost every religious stripe have argued, debated, negotiated, and brought into being an ideal called American religious freedom, subtly transforming their own identities and traditions in the process. In a post-9/11 world, Wenger reflects, public attention to religious freedom and its implications is as consequential as it has ever been.

Excerpt

Americans have long championed the freedom of religion as a defining national ideal. Since the time of the Revolution, pundits and politicians have celebrated this freedom as a pioneering achievement, a signal contribution to the larger causes of liberty and democracy around the world. Because they granted so much importance to religious freedom, Americans invoked it to defend a wide variety of practices, interests, and traditions. I began this book with questions about the kinds of cultural work that these diverse articulations performed. Rather than asking how adequately Americans had achieved this freedom or how rapidly it advanced—queries that assume we already know what it is and how to measure it—I wanted to know who appealed to religious freedom, for what purposes, and what it meant to them. Somewhat unexpectedly, race and empire quickly emerged as key themes in my analysis. I found that some of the most frequent and visible articulations of American religious freedom were exclusive, even coercive. the dominant voices in the culture linked racial whiteness, Protestant Christianity, and American national identity not only to freedom in general but often to this freedom in particular. 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. But in response, the racialized and colonized subjects of U.S. empire also rearticulated this freedom to defend themselves and their traditions. For them, religious freedom became a way to redefine communal identities, to carve out space for themselves and their traditions within the confines of a racialized empire, and even at times to resist its mandates.

This book retells the story of American religious freedom as an illuminating lens into the intersections of race, religion, and empire in U.S. history. It focuses on the decades between the Spanish-American War of 1898 (or, more accurately, the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War) and the Second World War, a pivotal period in our histories of race and empire but one that most scholarship on religious freedom has neglected. It asks how diverse groups of Americans and some of those who became the subjects of U.S.

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