The contested history of religious freedom, with Tisa Wenger [MIPodcast #91]

  • In this episode, historian Tisa Wenger of Yale University joins us to talk about religious freedom—the legal right to worship according to the dictates of a person’s own conscience. An important ideal to be sure, but—as historians like Wenger are fond of saying—it’s complicated.

    We’re talking about her new book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.

    About the Guest

    Tisa Wenger is Associate Professor of American Religious History in the Divinity School, American Studies, and Religious Studies at Yale University, where she has been teaching for almost ten years. Wenger’s work explores the cultural politics of religious freedom, the religious histories of the American West, and the intersections of race, empire, and religion in U.S. history. Her books are We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). She lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with her husband Rod Groff and their three children, along with a dog, two cats, a rabbit, five chickens, ten fish, and a sizable vegetable garden.

  • BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.

    Historian Tisa Wenger of Yale University joins us to talk about religious freedom—the legal right to worship according to the dictates of a person’s own conscience. An important ideal, to be sure, but as historians like Wenger are fond of saying: it’s complicated. We’re talking about her new book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.

    Send questions and comments about this and other episodes to me at

    Our review of the month comes from “mpwhit.” It’s a five-star rating It says, “The guests that are brought in and topics discussed are spectacular. This podcast is a gift, thank you.” You’re welcome. And thank you for leaving us a review. And now, Tisa Wenger.


    BLAIR HODGES: Tisa Wenger, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.

    TISA WENGER: Thank you. It’s good to be here.


    HODGES: So your book is called Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Let’s talk about religious freedom itself as enshrined in American law.

    WENGER: So the first amendment is simply “Congress shall make no law respecting the free exercise of religion or the establishment thereof.” I think that’s the right wording.

    HODGES: You don’t know it word for word yet? I used to.

    WENGER: Apparently I do, but it’s… Anyway, so of course the wording was debated hotly by the framers of the Constitution and what they came up with was something of a compromise. I don’t want to go into the details of that compromise right now because that’s not what the book is about, but safe to say people have been arguing about it ever since.

    HODGES: The almost ambiguous nature of that amendment set up the conflicts that you trace throughout the book, really.

    WENGER: Exactly.

    HODGES: It’s almost if they had been more clear, maybe you would have had to write about something else.

    WENGER: Well I have a feeling that no matter how they had worded it people would have found ways to fight about it.


    HODGES: Exactly. So when many Americans think about religious freedom they think of this legal right that people have to worship according to their own desires and not have the government or other people interfere with that. It sounds like a really positive thing. Freedom? Freedom is good.

    WENGER: Absolutely. I think we’re all in favor.

    HODGES: Yeah. You’ll hear very few people say, “Oh, less freedom on that.” But people might expect a book then that sort of praises the principle of religious freedom and shows how it’s benefitted different people, but in the introduction to your book on religious freedom it says that your book is actually a cautionary tale. Why do you think caution is necessary?

    WENGER: I think too often we have kind of simplistic narratives that are celebratory and also that don’t reflect enough about how differently religious freedom can be defined and used that it comes into competition with other goods in society and other freedoms. To simply elevate religious freedom above all other can be a problem; can lead to less justice rather than more.

    But I was interested in the book not so much in what religious freedom is or in defining it or in giving a legal history, but really in looking historically at how public discourses about religious freedom have operated. Who was talking about religious freedom? When I started the book I really cast a wide net in terms of research. I was looking all over the place in historical sources for who is talking about religious freedom.

    When I started I really had a hugely unrealistically ambitious idea about what I was going to do with this book, and I was like I’m going to talk about all Americans at all times throughout U.S. history and do this kind of history of the cultural politics of religious freedom, and I was so overwhelmed by the amount of material that I was finding that I had to pull back from that and kind of focus the book, which quickly became apparent to me, but it actually took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to focus the book. So I have reams of research that didn’t make their way into the book at all.


    HODGES: With all that research how did you even arrive at that to begin with? What sparked your interest in the idea of religious freedom?

    WENGER: I got to the topic of religious freedom kind of through the back door, I would say, out of my first book, which didn’t start out being about religious freedom but ended up being about it. I was looking at a particular controversy over the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, that first book is called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. So religious freedom entered into the book.

    I was asking the question how did Pueblo Indians start to conceptualize their traditions as religion because there’s—and there are kind of two backstories to that really—one being in Native American studies and the study of Native American religion it’s pretty clear that most Native people don’t have a word in their languages that translate as religion.

    HODGES: It’s a different category that they would use.

    WENGER: Yeah. They kind of divide their societies in different ways, and organize their societies in different ways. So in religious studies there’s this whole conversation about is the category of religion and this sort of social structure’s institutions of having religion as something separate from other parts of life, does that become then a European or Western imposition on other societies that comes along with colonization?

    So I was interested in looking at how that played out in a particular Native American community, and argued that the Pueblos in particular started to think of their traditions as religion, and not until the twentieth century when they were kind of fending off the suppression of their ceremonies by the U.S. government. So they did so in order to make a religious freedom argument. That’s how religious freedom entered in. Then I was interested in what the consequences of that were for them.

    So coming out of that book I wanted to ask a similar set of questions about religious freedom on a broader scale, so that’s how this book started. Who is talking about religious freedom? What does it do for them? How does it shape how we all think of what religion is? How does it shape people’s identities and communities in relation to American racism and imperialism? Those are the themes, race and empire. For a long time the working title of the book was “Race, Empire, and Religious Freedom,” but the press didn’t like that title.

    HODGES: Gotta go with the press.

    WENGER: We compromised.


    HODGES: That kind of sets up the pattern of the book itself where basically what we have in this book are stories of people who face some kind of restrictions about their ways of life, some kind of imposition on their ways of what American European Westerners would start to call religion, and then they resist that in some way, and usually by adopting that category to defend themselves.

    WENGER: Correct. With the exception of the first chapter really which is, I think, setting up the rest of the book by talking about how religious freedom operated in the particular case of the Spanish American war and the colonization of the Philippines kind of as a tool for U.S. imperialism.

    HODGES: Before we get to that, too, did you have a religious background yourself as well that kind of sparked your interest in this? Or was that incidental to arriving at that through your Pueblo research?

    WENGER: Yes. I do. Yes, I think it is relevant. I grew up Mennonite, in the Mennonite church. My parents were Mennonite missionaries. They had a long career as missionaries in five different African countries. So I was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa and lived in Swaziland as a child where we actually had refugees from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa at the time visiting our home at times. So I was hearing a lot of really interesting dinner table conversations and as a child I wasn’t quite aware of all of this, but looking back at how we were there really not that long after Swaziland became independent from the British empire, so the kind of post-colonial transitions of a newly independent African country combined with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, which is almost entirely geographically surrounding Swaziland was very formative for me in terms of my concerns about religion, race, and empire.

    So that background I think shaped me as a scholar and the reason I got into religious studies, and my concerns in religious studies, broadly speaking. That doesn’t lead me directly to the topic of religious freedom, but I think, as perhaps maybe is already evident from what I’ve been saying, religious freedom was where I got to through that set of concerns, rather than my starting point. In some ways I think for me, all the way writing through this book, religious freedom is more a lens through which to talk about these other issues. It’s not that I don’t care about religious freedom, but that wasn’t really ever my starting point. Which gives me a different perspective on the history of religious freedom than someone who really started focusing on that topic I think.


    HODGES: Thank you. Let’s go to the Philippines then. Your book’s opening chapter takes us back to the late 1890s. McKinley is president. The United States is celebrating victory in the Spanish-American War, and this is where you begin this chapter. Religious freedom kind of became a marker of American supremacy to a lot of Americans, that they were bringing this amazing thing to the Philippines.

    WENGER: That’s right. I also look in that chapter at how this was predominately a Protestant discourse and American Protestants claimed religious freedom as something that was really distinctly Protestant or a Protestant gift to the world. So then defeating Spain, which was kind of caricatured as a tyrannical empire because of its Catholicism, and so Catholicism is the enemy, so then I’m able to look at what did American Catholics think about that and how did American Catholics position themselves, as well as to some extent American Jews, who I talk about more in a later chapter.

    But it was quite interesting to see the different ways that Catholics and Protestants talked about religious freedom in relation to the war with Spain and the colonization of the Philippines. Then Filipinos are discussed by all of these groups, really, as racially inferior—

    HODGES: They need tutelage. They need this enlightened group, whether Spain or the United States, to come in and sort of civilize them and bring religion to them.


    WENGER: Exactly. Both American Protestants and Catholics talked about Spain as having sort of only partially civilized them.

    HODGES: This is the problem of religious freedom here, right? Because Catholicism had deep roots there at this point, they had been governing there, and now American Protestants are coming in and kind of stripping power away from that, which the Catholics could then say is infringing on their religious freedom.

    WENGER: That’s exactly right. You’ve read the book well.

    HODGES: Thank you.

    WENGER: So the Protestant voices, and of course I’m overgeneralizing here and that’s a little more texture to the story in the book—

    HODGES: That’s a pitch to go read the book, everybody.

    WENGER: Thank you. The Protestants really in general saw Catholicism as the problem, the reason that Filipinos had only progressed “so far” in their civilization.

    HODGES: Like how well schooled were they, how well educated were they. What were their businesses looking like? How well was their society structured? On every level.

    WENGER: On every level American Protestants saw Catholicism as a barrier to expanding freedom in the Philippines.


    HODGES: If that’s the case then, how deeply were they really interested in religious freedom then if they were also at the same time stripping power away from another religious body? Did they grapple with that paradox?

    WENGER: Some of them did. So interestingly the American Protestants in lots of colonial fields, including the Philippines, would coordinate with each other and set up territorial divisions. The Baptists will take this area, the Methodists will take that area, but in the Philippines the Episcopal Church didn’t want to play that game because they said you guys are evangelizing these Catholics, but the Catholics are already Christians. So there was an Episcopal bishop there who said, “We have no interest in trying to evangelize Catholics, and we need to work with the Catholics.” So that was a kind of conflict among Protestant groups in the Philippines. They certainly had different ideas about that.

    HODGES: Did Catholics try to invoke the principle of religious freedom? Spain didn’t have a first amendment, they had views about how society and religions should mingle, and here come these Protestants who are taking over. Did they try to push back by saying, “Hey, what about religious freedom?”

    WENGER: They absolutely did. Both Filipino Catholics and American Catholics pushed back against that and some of them said Protestants shouldn’t be coming in at all because they have this very derogatory view of Catholics and they’re trying to push out Catholics and instead we should be building up the existing Christianity and the Filipino people don’t want Protestantism, so honoring their religious freedom, the way to do that is to honor their Catholicism.


    HODGES: Which would include letting them keep their land that they had, and not kicking priests out of the country. Literal, real things.

    WENGER: Huge land disputes because the Catholic church owned huge plantations really in the Philippines, where they also exploited Filipino workers, the church as other colonial sort of institutions did, but the church isn’t distinctively villainous in this, but the church did own huge areas of the islands so then there were big fights about that in the courts under American colonial rule.

    Religious freedom entered into those battles because first of all it was a battle over who had really owned that land? Was it church land or was it government land? If it was government land then it should transfer to the new government authority, which—

    HODGES: And then it’s not a religious freedom issue because it wasn’t your land to begin with. “Sorry!”

    WENGER: Right. But the Catholic church argued on religious freedom grounds that this was church land and for the government to take it away was a violation of the rights of the church and therefore of the first amendment and of the freedom of religion. The U.S. Colonial Authorities weren’t buying that, and by the way what we haven’t talked about yet is the other group involved in those disputes, which are Filipino nationalists, because the Filipinos had been involved in their war for independence against Spain—


    HODGES: And even within the Catholic Church as well you had priests who were resistant to, or trying to do things that the Catholic Church would say hey, you can’t do that.

    So you have schisms in the Catholic Church and schisms with government by Filipino nationalists who said, “We want our own independence. We don’t want Spain and we also don’t want the United States.”

    WENGER: That’s right. So they had been involved in their own revolutionary war before the United States ever entered into the war against Spain and initially Filipino revolutionaries welcomed Americans as allies against Spain, and they kind of saw parallels between their revolution and the American Revolution.

    So they thought the United States was going to be an ally in throwing off this colonial overlord, and then they were really angry when the United States turned around and made a peace treaty with Spain that turned the Philippines over to the United States, and the United States then claimed ownership of them and denied their appeal for independence. So they then turned that war for independence against the United States.

    In terms of these religious freedom issues and the church, there were some… the Catholic Church had not given equal status to Filipino priests. There were Filipino priests, but they had been mostly barred from this sort of most important positions, and even heading up major parishes and so forth, they were more the role of assistant priests. They were angry with that and had been for a long time trying to get that change and get equality within the church. That’s mostly what they wanted initially. They wanted equality within the church, not to break away from the church.

    The Catholic Church then because the Catholic Church in the Philippines was run by Spanish bishops and a Spanish archbishop, they were naturally opposed to the independence movement and so when Filipino priests joined the independence movement they were severely disciplined and even excommunicated for doing so. So when the church threw them out, they started their own Philippine Independent Church and Gregorio Aglipay became the new archbishop of that newly independent church. American Protestant missionaries were thrilled by this and saw it as a new Filipino reformation—

    HODGES: Yeah, sort of a new Protestant movement right here.

    WENGER: Exactly, and thought that the Philippine Independent Church would merge easily with American Protestant denominations, and kind of go under their tutelage. So they were rather surprised when Filipino Christians said sorry, but we’re not interested in your Protestant structures.

    HODGES: We’re still Catholic.

    WENGER: We are still Catholic. We want our own church. We are Catholic in everything but—

    HODGES: Except for the connection to the Vatican. Which we still want.

    WENGER: Exactly. They had still wanted until, that gradually changed. The Philippine Independent Church eventually splintered and a major part of it joined the Anglican communion and for a while was within the structure of the American Episcopal Church, and other splinter groups became Unitarian. In fact Aglipay himself by the end of his life claimed a Unitarian identity.


    HODGES: So how do you tie a bow around that chapter? How does that chapter sort of wind up in your book?

    WENGER: This, by the way, we’ve moved into the subject of chapter two, which is what happens on the ground in the Philippines.

    HODGES: I sort of combined those two into this interview section.

    WENGER: Yeah. Well the main question of that chapter is how did the people of the Philippines then use this ideal of religious freedom to kind of speak back to the U.S. Empire? How did it work for them, or not work for them?

    For the Philippine Independent Church I kind of show how they used religious freedom as a tool to carve out space for themselves in the Philippines.

    HODGES: Religious freedom could be a sword that cuts both ways.


    WENGER: Yes. Exactly. It was on the one hand a tool for U.S. imperialism, on the other hand a tool for these colonized people to say, “Not so fast. We have our own religious movement and according to the U.S. Constitution…” but then the other part of the chapter is talking about a very different group of people in the Philippines, who are the Muslim Moros in the southern Philippines, who saw themselves as a distinct people and didn’t… very different from the predominately Catholic Filipinos.

    So they too, I would say, had religious freedom used against them and used religious freedom to try to defend their own ways of life and their own structures of governance and of religious practice in the southern Philippines, which didn’t ensue these southern islands in the Philippines. Which didn’t eventually work out very well for them because the U.S. saw Muslims and the Moros as even more “savage.” Those were the words that American colonial officials used at that time, and actually at various times compared the Moros and other indigenous minority groups in the Philippines to Native Americans as people who needed to be civilized, uplifted, who were if they saw the majority Catholic population in the Philippines as half-civilized, they saw these people as savage, barbarian, not civilized at all.

    That’s kind of the scale of civilization, this hierarchy that was both… you can see there how race and religion are kind of co-constituted in the way that Americans were thinking about and categorizing and treating these people quite differently. So how religious freedom policy from American officials from the colonial government played out differently for these different populations. So I’m thinking about all of those things in these first two chapters of the book.


    HODGES: This is where the book gets, not complicated perhaps, but complex. The issue of religious freedom is not so simple when you start thinking about it in terms of race; when you start thinking about it in terms of empire it becomes more complicated and people can read more about how the Philippines shook out in the book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal by Tisa Wenger. We’re talking with her today about that book.

    So let’s talk about indigenous people. Let’s come back to American soil here. So the United States government was trying to figure out religious freedom overseas, these colonial endeavors, but there are also some things at home that demanded a lot of attention. So Native Americans is one thing. Your book shows how Native peoples used the principle of religious freedom to defend their ways of life, even though religious freedom wasn’t a Native category for them. So let’s talk about Native Americans invoking American freedom. We talked about this a little bit, but let’s pick up with that.

    WENGER: Let me just start by saying in starting with the American Spanish War and the Philippines, I took maybe a perverse pleasure in that structure because first of all people don’t expect to go to the Philippines in a book about American religious freedom.

    HODGES: I certainly didn’t.

    WENGER: I didn’t when I started my research. I didn’t expect to start there. Some of my initial readers before the book was published said why do you have the Philippines before Native Americans? Clearly the colonization of Native Americans happened before the colonization of the Philippines and shouldn’t that story be told first? I considered that and there would have been a logic to that, certainly, but I decided to keep the Native American chapter in the middle in part because, well for several reasons.

    It disrupts our expectations. It’s also the case that the kind of chronological center to the story I’m actually telling is a little later than the material that I focus on in the Philippines, which is really 1898 to the very early years of the twentieth century. So in the Native American chapter it’s moving from kind of 1890, the Ghost Dance, through the 1930s. I don’t in any significant way move that far forward in time in the chapters on the Philippines.


    HODGES: So basically chronologically the United States encounter with Native Americans in the beginning wasn’t focused on questions of religious freedom, and Native Americans weren’t thinking about it in those terms. They were thinking about it in terms of survival and keeping land and things like that.

    WENGER: Right. Although in my broader research found Native Americans talking about religious freedom as early as the eighteenth century. I think I could make a broad generalization to say that where the United States has colonized people, whether or not those people had much discussion about religious freedom as such before the United States got there, they start to use it almost immediately thereafter.

    So different Native nations as they have this colonial encounter start using religious freedom as a way to argue back to the United States. There are different ways that works and this is another dimension that comes up in the chapter on the Philippines as well but we didn’t talk about today, is religious freedom as nations. So on one hand when different groups are trying to resist colonization in the first place, they sometimes used religious freedom to say we have our religion, we are a separate nation, we have our own religious freedom, and so forth. We don’t need your laws, and we don’t need your religion. Stay away entirely.

    HODGES: And follow your own principles. If you really value religious freedom, then you need to value ours as well.

    WENGER: Exactly. But then after they’ve been forced, often at gunpoint, to accept colonial rule, and then are under U.S. law, then there starts to be a conversation about give us religious freedom and appealing to the U.S. Constitution as U.S. citizens and subjects. Then sometimes the conversation becomes more complex because individuals within tribal groups can be arguing for religious freedom against tribal authorities at times and appealing to U.S. officials, and on the other hand can also be as groups appealing for religious freedom under U.S. law.

    All of this to say I see the chapter on Native Americans very much as continuous with the chapter on the Philippines, and it was an interesting set of comparisons to make because obviously the two contexts are very different, but it’s important for me to stress that Native Americans are a colonized people, and still a colonized people, or colonized peoples. Many Native nations who are still fighting for sovereignty as nations and recognition as nations within the United States, but over the course of the nineteenth century the United States was expanding and taking over land.

    So disputes over land in a different way than we talked about in the Philippines, but disputes over land are absolutely kind of foundational to any of this religious history or religious freedom history.


    HODGES: And because Native Americans started adopting the rhetoric of religious freedom to defend their own practices, this challenged America’s definition of what even counted as religious. Talk about that.

    WENGER: So that’s a really important part of what I’m doing in this work. American officials talk about Native traditions as savage, heathen—

    HODGES: Pagan.

    WENGER: Pagan. Also as superstitious, fraudulent, tyrannical, kind of holding back Native people from progress and from modernizing because they saw Christianity as a modernizing force and as a source of spiritual liberty.

    HODGES: And human uplift. To match their vision of what uplift meant.

    WENGER: Right. So they encouraged Christian missions and worked closely with missionaries in an effort to civilize, assimilate the Native people and often talked about that as an advancement for Native freedom and even for Native religious freedom. Like if Native people were being held back or enslaved, was the rhetoric that was sometimes used, by their own traditions and by their own tribal leaders, then bringing Christianity was seen to not only civilize them but to free them.

    HODGES: To have “real” religion.

    WENGER: Kind of in the same way we talked about in the Philippine context where Protestants said Protestantism is going to liberate these people who have been enslaved by Catholicism. For Native Americans there were also Native Catholics of course for a long time before the United States moved into some of these areas that had been colonized by Spain and France, but both Catholicism and Native traditions were seen by Protestant authorities and Protestant missionaries as enslaving people. So that’s where religious freedom becomes a kind of tool for a real Protestant intolerance—

    HODGES: Instead of religious freedom in its terms of recognizing oh that’s their religion so we shouldn’t impose on that.

    WENGER: So Native traditions were literally criminalized. People were put in prison and fined for practicing Native traditions.

    HODGES: Dance certain dances, that sort of—

    WENGER: Yeah, that’s right. People called medicine men could be fined and imprisoned by U.S. authorities. This is in the late nineteenth century, starting in the 1880s up through the 1930s those policies were in place, and enforced inconsistently unevenly but sometimes absolutely enforced and people were imprisoned for practicing those traditions.

    So Native people said no, these are our religions. We have the right to practice them. So I found really in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are most of my primary sources, although I used other kinds of sources as well, but letters and petitions from tribal leaders demanding religious freedom against those policies and insisting against the derogatory, demeaning characterizations and criminalization of their traditions insisting that they deserved religious freedom as well.


    HODGES: So what’s a specific way then that America’s definition of religion had ended up shifting as a result of Native Americans pushing back?

    WENGER: Right. I do think the government was eventually forced to concede. Native people eventually gained some white, non-Indian allies in that effort who started to say well yes, these are religions, and they deserve religious freedom, and some government officials became sympathetic to a degree and said Native traditions also must be granted religious freedom. But at the same time there were limits to that and authorities always had this sort of understanding in mind of what religion is that was set by a Christian model. So worship that happens in church. This is what religion looks like, this is what religion does.

    So Native traditions that didn’t look anything like that it was harder for officials to see them as religion. So even when they in principle said Native people have religion and they deserve religious freedom, when Native practices didn’t look anything like Christianity they had a harder time recognizing them as religion and acknowledging their validity as such.

    So that exerted a kind of pressure on Native people to make their traditions look more like Christianity, or even to adopt or become Christian, to adopt Christianity. Of course they had other reasons to adopt Christianity too, and there are many Native Christians today and for the past centuries, but Native traditions there’s a kind of disciplinary pressure exerted by the need to appeal for religious freedom to make their traditions look more like what the authorities expected religion to look like. So I see that happening in many cases across Native American history.

    HODGES: So what you’re arguing basically is that people that begin arguing and defending their own practices in the name of religious freedom often will have their practices transformed or changed by that argument. If you start arguing for religious freedom your tradition itself can change in order to prove that it is deserving of that liberty.

    WENGER: Correct. Yes. Because who are the authorities you’re arguing to? What do they think counts as religion?

    HODGES: Yeah. So it challenges the definition of religion that America had and white Europeans and Protestants, but at then at the same time it also challenges the life ways of the people who start arguing for their own religious freedom too. It’s kind of changing on all… this is where the book shows this is a complicated issue. This is a complex issue.

    WENGER: That’s right.

    HODGES: This is why you talk about it as a cautionary tale, because as soon as you start talking about religious freedom your definition of religion can change, or your religion can change.

    WENGER: That’s right.


    HODGES: That’s Tisa Wenger. We’re talking about her book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.

    Your next chapter talks about Jewish identity. It might be strange today for some listeners to hear that Jewish Americans had to work hard to be seen as Jewish and American to fit in. So take us back to that time, what it was like to be a Jew in nineteenth century America and where religious freedom comes into play.

    WENGER: Well I would say first of all that this is, like most history, not a linear tale. So this changes for different Jews in America at different times and places.

    HODGES: For example Jews who were raised here versus immigrant Jews.

    WENGER: Right. And Jews whose families immigrated from Germany much earlier were much more assimilated and accepted in the society kind of in the mid-nineteenth century.

    In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when many more Jewish immigrants started coming from Eastern Europe and were seen as really a troublesome immigrant population, they were… and globally really there was a perception of Jews as not being just a religious group but a nation and a separate race. That accelerated in the early twentieth century, the racialization of Jews and a kind of anti-Semitism. But categories of race were quite different at that time than they are today for the most part.

    So Jews themselves often talked about the Hebrew race and took pride in being of the Hebrew race, so race was not only a kind of anti-Semitic thing, but people understood race was a maybe more complicated structure than we generally think about it today. But most people thought of Jews as being a racial group, and there was racial discrimination against Jews. There were kind of quota set from Jewish admission to Jewish universities. Jews were barred from country clubs, from buying houses in certain neighborhoods. So there was a lot of racial discrimination against Jews and in groups like the Ku Klux Klan that accelerated in the 1920s with a kind of revival of the KKK.

    There was a lot of anti-Semitism that we also to some degree see returning right now.


    HODGES: Yes. That is why some people have been surprised is these things have been actually simmering out of earshot of a lot of people, so then you see people like the rally at Charleston where they were saying “Jews will not replace us.”

    WENGER: Yeah, in Charlottesville.

    HODGES: Yes, Charlottesville, pardon me. Some people see that and are shocked that kind of anti-Semitism still exists, but it’s a remnant of something that existed this far back and didn’t actually go away.

    WENGER: That’s right. It never went away. It kind of went underground and then it has resurfaced in a really alarming way recently, but my chapter is talking about that context in the early twentieth century and how Jews were racialized.

    And as I said, Jews themselves sometimes talked about themselves as a race and as a nation, but they also always used and claimed and took great pride in the concept of religious freedom and there’s something that in American Jewish historiography talks about American Jewish exceptionalism, so the way that Jews in America always saw America as a kind of exceptional place, a place that was exceptionally welcoming and where Jews could really be at home and be full citizens of the United States in a way that they couldn’t in Europe.


    HODGES: They had this great principle of religious freedom that would allow them to worship and have a synagogue.

    WENGER: Exactly. Jews really became very patriotic Americans for that reason and saw America as a new homeland that made Jewish life and Jewish flourishing possible. Of course there was some truth to that in Jewish experience, but historians have tried to cast some shadow on that story of American exceptionalism to say well, first of all, Europe gets flattened out and caricatured as always everywhere harshly anti-Semitic in a way that needs to be reexamined, that there were also spaces for Jewish flourishing there, and that the United States was not as unambiguously free.

    HODGES: It’s almost like that story that America provided this great opportunity for Jews came to be told in part because Jews actually needed it to be true.

    WENGER: Needed it to be true and in telling it they were attempting to call America to account, call America to live up to its best principles and its best self.

    HODGES: And to see them as worthy of this principle of religious freedom, and maybe even exemplary of how great—

    WENGER: Exactly. So Jews were very committed to religious freedom, and of course not only for these kinds of big picture rhetorical purposes, but also for very specific concrete on the ground reasons of defending Jewish practice, kosher practices, a way to resist practices of bible reading and Christian prayer in public schools and its observation of Christian holidays, a kind of dominant Christianity that was taken for granted from most of society as a good thing and Jews for the most part said, “We’re not opposed to Christians practicing Christianity, but when our children in these schools are required to participate in these Christian acts of worship and this is supposed to be a public school, that’s a violation of our religious freedom.”

    So there were all of these reasons for Jews to treasure and prize and claim and invoke the principle of religious freedom, but then I move on in the chapter from that recognition to think about some of the other consequences of that focus for them.


    HODGES: Yeah. So Jews invoke this principle of religious freedom successfully in some ways and came to be seen more as a mainstream American and less racialized, more white for example, and you talk about some of the reasons and some of the “successes” that came as a result of that, but your next chapter about African Americans shows that the principle of religious freedom didn’t provide black Americans with that same sort of ladder to acceptance that they could climb, and that African American invocations of religious freedom really only provided what you call “limited relief.”

    WENGER: That’s right. This chapter is the one that really hammers home most strongly what I call the racial limits of religious freedom because… and of course your listeners might immediately say but African Americans aren’t a religious group, why would there be a chapter on African Americans in a book on religious freedom? And of course they’re not. African Americans have always practiced many different religious traditions and aren’t identified primarily in religious terms, but I look in this chapter at how lots of different African Americans who claim lots of different religious identities also invoke this idea and take pride in this idea the same way that other Americans do, but how it often did not work for them.

    I start out by looking at maybe what we could call the historic black churches, the Independent African American denominations like especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the black Baptist churches, who narrated their histories and their founding as a movement for religious freedom. So for them this is a way to claim pride in their heritage and to claim, for example, in the AME church the founder Richard Allen as a towering pioneer of religious freedom and they wanted him to be recognized as such.

    So kind of as for American Jews this is a way for them to place themselves in the American narrative, and also to resist frankly racist limits on their religious lives and on the independence and autonomy of black churches, which were so important to black communities.

    So religious freedom organizing was very important to them, but those arguments only went so far in a kind of Jim Crow segregationist context, those racial segregation laws always seemed to trump African American religious freedom arguments. Then the second part of the chapter is about what you might call new religious movements, African American religious movements in the early twentieth century—


    HODGES: Let’s talk about one of those groups. The Moorish Science Temple in particular is a group that you spend some time on in that chapter.

    WENGER: Yeah, that’s right. They appeal to African Americans kind of in the urban North, what we call the Great Migration period of African American history where many African Americans are looking for new religious community, new sources of meaning, new ways to understand themselves—

    HODGES: A lot of them are leaving the South to go north. I think there might be better opportunities up there.

    WENGER: Better opportunities and fleeing racial violence of the South too. Looking for new jobs, new employment, and finding sometimes northern cities being also quite racist.

    Nonetheless making new lives for themselves there, and the Moorish Science Temple is one of those groups that appealed to quite a few African Americans in that context in part by giving them a new source of pride and a new source of identity in saying, “You are not negroes and all these derogatory labels that get applied to you. You really are Moors. You need to reclaim this ancient identity and this ancient Islamic identity, and know who you really are.”

    HODGES: Your history was stolen through slavery.

    WENGER: Your history was stolen and you shouldn’t be defined by a racist regime that erases your real history and your real identity, and by reclaiming this real history and this real identity then you can be freed.

    HODGES: So religious freedom should make plenty of room for them to do that, one would assume.

    WENGER: And that’s what they claimed. They pointed to the U.S. Constitution and to the first amendment and said, “We have the right as a people to practice our own religion.”

    On the one hand nobody was directly saying no you don’t, but on the other hand they were really demeaned and ridiculed in the press as a cult.

    HODGES: An extremist, violent cult.

    WENGER: An extremist, violent group. The way that we see the kind of militarization of policing today, I see some precursors to that in the way that predominately black urban neighborhoods were treated as early as the 1920s and 1930s where in Chicago and Detroit, for example, police brought in these large numbers of police officers to investigate the Moorish Science Temple, for example, when there were rumors of leadership crisis or whatever. It’s like disputes that happen within that group are somehow seen as a threat to the peace and order and security of the whole city rather than just being treated as a succession crisis within the Moorish Science Temple.

    So their appeals for religious freedom really were ridiculed because they weren’t taken seriously as a religious group; they were seen as a cult, as a confidence man, the leaders, and then Nation of Islam takes off and is founded somewhat later than the Moorish Science Temple but are treated very much the same way.

    HODGES: They’re trying to establish a school and they can’t get government support to do that, and stuff, whereas a Catholic school the government’s not going to have a problem helping them, that’s the kind of discrimination they’re facing.

    WENGER: Exactly. Yes.


    HODGES: And sometimes police harassment and oversight.

    Is it safe to say that one of the main differences between the Jewish American of being more integrated and the black American experience in the case of people like the Nation of Islam or others, the skin color did really play a role in limiting the religious freedom that was available.

    WENGER: Yes, because I think although in the early twentieth century as I was saying there was a more complex understanding of race and more of a racial hierarchy than just a racial binary, nonetheless a kind of black/white racial binary has existed more or less through much of American history and became stronger over the course of the twentieth century so that where you had in the early twentieth century for better or worse a kind of gradation of races, kind of the argument that I made in the chapter about Jews is that religious freedom by positioning Jewish identity as religious was one way that Jews kind of moved into whiteness in American life primarily, or for the most part.

    But that movement of different European groups, not only the Jews into whiteness by the middle of the twentieth century, had the effect of hardening this black/white racial binary, leaving African Americans and maybe also Native people more firmly at the bottom of that binary, even more firmly at the bottom.

    So when African Americans are trying to then redefine their own identities and say we’re a religious people, we are Muslims, we are not Negroes, and they weren’t in doing so trying to deny their blackness they were just trying to redefine it and give it a kind of religious meaning as well as just a racial meaning. The larger society said nope. They refused to accept those religious claims. They ridiculed those religious claims, and in some cases criminalized those religious claims rather than accepting and celebrating and allowing those religious identities to flourish alongside others.


    HODGES: That’s Tisa Wenger. She’s associate professor of American religious history at Yale University. She wrote the book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.

    Tisa, Oscar Strauss was an American Jewish historian and a diplomat that you talk about in one of your chapters. As a historian and a diplomat he saw those two roles as inseparable, and in the face of World War I and II you say that Strauss considered the history that he studied, immediately relevant to the most pressing challenges of the contemporary world. So as a historian and a diplomat he’s blending these roles. What do you think about people who blend those roles of historian and public advocate?

    WENGER: I can’t resist correcting your chronology because Strauss was really in an earlier period. He was no longer living during World War II, but his son William Roger Strauss was an active Jewish civic leader in the 1930s and also wrote books about religious freedom. Interestingly, Oscar Strauss names him Roger Williams after the famous Rhode Island pioneer for religious freedom.

    But yes, the role of a historian, Oscar Strauss founded the American Jewish Historical Society, was its first president, and wrote as a kind of amateur historian many books about the history of American religious freedom in the 1880s, 1890s, and so what do historians have to say about public policy? I think it depends on the historian. But all of us as historians, I think the questions that we ask are inevitably shaped by our contemporary, our current world. Some of us are more focused on speaking to the contemporary moment than others, but I think all of us have our questions and areas of interest shaped by our own, not only our own life stories, but about the political and cultural debates that are happening around us.

    So my concerns about religious freedom as, I mean I argue in the book, I haven’t said this directly in this interview so far, but I do argue that religious freedom in its dominant formulation has as often as not been a tool for white Christian nationalism and kind of a white Christian supremacy that I find really problematic. So while I affirm the idea of religious freedom, it’s really complicated.

    That’s the kind of take home message of the book. Whose religious freedom? What does religious freedom? And if you define it in a certain way who are you excluding and who are you privileging? So I think while the book is not about the contemporary scene, it shows in a really textured historical way how tricky those questions can be in a way that I hope can inform contemporary conversations and the way that readers think about the debates over religious freedom that are swirling around us now.


    HODGES: That right there is the essence of the cautionary tale that we began with, the idea that religious freedom as an ideal can have negative side effects. What do you think then modern religious leaders and political figures might benefit from reading a history like this? What kind of changes might they make if they take into account the histories that you tell?

    WENGER: Well, I’m sure many people will disagree with me on this.

    HODGES: That’s a good way to start out.

    WENGER: We were talking briefly before the podcast about the role of a public intellectual and my own hesitance to speak about current events, not because I don’t care about them but because I find it difficult to encapsulate sound bytes.

    HODGES: Put something in like a Pinterest graphic or something.

    WENGER: Exactly. I think that when I, again I’m not a legal scholar and I don’t have a clearly worked out position on what kind of legal frameworks of religious should be, but what I have come to on this is that it’s important to interrogate how religious freedom is working in the public discourse and the public sphere. Whose religious freedom?

    If every time someone says religious freedom we just say oh yes, of course, and grant that, then we’re not interrogating who is being privileged in the particular case of religious freedom that’s being advanced. I think sometimes religious freedom in our contemporary discourse gets limited to a very particular set of conservative Christian concerns that get too much air play and too much privilege, where we need to scale back the privilege that those particular claims back over and against other people’s freedoms.

    Sometimes other people’s religious freedoms. In my estimation it both needs to be pulled back in that way, and also broadened to encompass the claims and practices and identities of lots of other people. I think religious freedom at its best is oriented most towards minority groups because those are the people whose freedoms are most likely to actually be infringed.


    HODGES: So even though it’s a cautionary tale, then what is your final best case for why you say religious freedom is an important principle that we do need to care about and we do need to protect, given the negative side effects that can happen? What’s the case for it?

    WENGER: I think the case for it is that lots of people care deeply about identities that claim as religious. Historically and in the present, religious freedom allows them to defend those claims and defend those identities in a way that I think no other legal principle does. There are some scholars today who are very skeptical of religious freedom at all because of its problems and the kind of impossibility of defining it definitively or defining it in an inclusive enough way.

    HODGES: A way that doesn’t privilege one religion over another.

    WENGER: That’s right. I think those concerns are real. I kind of document exhaustively some of them in the book. Nonetheless, I see it as a valuable ideal that for minority groups remains an important tool. I just want everybody to be more cognoscente of its limits and its complexities so that we think carefully about what we’re advancing in its name.

    HODGES: That’s Tisa Wenger. She’s associate professor of American religious history at Yale University. She visited Brigham Young University here to talk about her book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. People will be able to listen to the lecture that Tisa gave. We’ll have a video up on the website before this episode is published. So you can go right now and listen to that, where Tisa, you talk about Latter-day Saint history as well as part of the story. I really encourage people to check that out.

    WENGER: Thank you. Yes I did. It was a bit of an experimental talk, as I say at the beginning of that talk, because I was doing a kind of mash-up and then a thought experiment about if I had talked about Latter-day Saints in this book, what would that have looked like.

    HODGES: It was a unique book talk. Spencer Fluhman, our director, pointed this out, that a lot of people have a book talk that they give on the circuit, they go around and—

    WENGER: And I have several versions of that, and I didn’t give it. I wrote a different talk for this visit, which was kind of fun but a little scary.

    HODGES: I hope people check that out. It’s interesting to see how Latter-day Saint history weaves in and out of these complexities.

    Tisa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

    WENGER: Thank you. It’s been a fun conversation.