American history is littered with the successes and failures of legal arguments for religious freedom. We see these cases in US courts today, from cake bakers who assert that discrimination on the basis of sexuality is a matter of their own religious exercise to Native Hawaiian claims of protected religious exercise to prevent the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the mountain Mauna Kea. Tisa Wenger tells us a longer history, from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, about insiders and outsiders, about race and religion, about empire and domestic policy that is above all a story about how religious freedom talk is always entangled in social and political projects. Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal has much to recommend it. Despite drawing on a variety of sources from almost a century and with a global reach, Wenger’s story never floats away into abstraction. It has compelling characters, such as Archbishop Aglipay, who founded the Philippine Independent Church; Sultan Kiram II, who led the Muslim Moros; the founding prophet of the pan-Indian Shaker Church, John Slocum; and Father Divine of the racially integrated Peace Mission Movement. These men and others like them remind readers that although religious freedom may be an “American ideal,” it is nevertheless a concept that is worked out—and wielded—on the bodies and lives of actual people. One of the ways Wenger does this is through her methodological commitment to her own claim: if religious freedom talk is always taking place in the context of a larger political, racial, or national project, then to understand religious freedom, we must pay close attention to the details of these projects. The first chapter contextualizes religious freedom in terms of American imperialism during the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War; the second chapter focuses on how religious freedom talk could cut both ways in the Philippines as it came under American rule. These first two chapters show how these American racial-religious formations took place in the crucible of empire. The next three take place largely on (appropriated) American soil. The third chapter shows how Native Americans adapted their practices to fit under Protestant rubrics of religion in order to argue for their legal protection (often unsuccessfully); the fourth chapter shows American Jews’ discussion of race, religion, and nation as many sought to tip the balance toward more religious definitions of Jewishness, and the final chapter shows how religious freedom talk played only a supporting role in African American arguments for rights and justice. It can be difficult to organize a story whose main point is that the idea of religious freedom has been used in different ways by different people toward different ends, and yet Wenger’s examples build on one another to provide a complex and variegated landscape rather than a mere catalog of historical possibilities. If there is no such thing as “religious freedom” in a cultural vacuum, as Wenger’s examples demonstrate, then carefully attending to these cultural moments is essential. A second and related contribution is the book’s consistent refusal to disaggregate race and religion. In the Philippines, racial otherness meant that Christianity would be a good civilizing influence—but it also meant that even Filipino priests should not be in positions of power. Native Americans’ racial otherness meant that even things that looked like Christianity, such as Shaker meetings that included invocations of God and Jesus Christ, did not qualify their practices as religious in the eyes of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other white onlookers. American Jews slid among racial, religious, and national terms of self-definition according not only to communal conversations but also American currents of racism and acceptance. The New Testament’s assertion that in Jesus, “there is no Jew nor Greek” claims to do this disaggregating work, separating race from religion. But, as Wenger shows, many Indian Christians and Black Christians might well point out that such a sentiment did not structure the world they lived in. “Is it race, or is it religion?” is, at its root, a white Christian question. Wenger’s story about religious freedom is overwhelmingly a story about men; only two women appear in the index, and a few others appear as examples. On the one hand, it is unsurprising that a story that takes place in wars, courts, and governments and among clergy should have men as major figures. On the other hand, women and gender matter crucially for our understanding of race and empire—Wenger’s two most prominent themes apart from religion. For example, in the chapter about American Jews’ use of religious freedom talk, more than forty men are mentioned by name, but not a single woman is. The chapter uses Zionism to provide a picture of American Jewish negotiations of race and religion. Yet if we want to understand the complicated web of racial, national, and religious conceptions of Jewishness through the lens of American Zionism, as Wenger does, it is surprising to do it without thinking about Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. In the interwar period, and since, Hadassah has been, in the words of historian Deborah Dash Moore, “the most popular American Jewish organization” (“Hadassah in the United States,” Jewish Women’s Archive). It would be difficult to overstate Hadassah’s reach and influence in philanthropic and propagandistic matters, and it also mattered to American Jewish politics and public opinion. During World War I, for example, Louis Brandeis told Hadassah leader Henrietta Szold that she must resign from a pacifist organization because she was too prominent a Zionist. He feared that her public pacifism would harm the Zionist cause. To miss out on the ways that Hadassah talked about Jewishness, religion, and empire is to tell only part of the American Jewish story. But it is also crucial to see that the thrust of this criticism is not primarily toward Wenger’s work, but rather toward the existing scholarship on which she has to rely. Tackling a sprawling subject like American religious freedom talk means that one is beholden to secondary literature; no one is simultaneously an expert on American imperialism in each of the Philippine islands, a wide variety of Native American tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, American Jewish history, and African American religious history. If the scholarly literature in these subfields pays less attention to women or sidelines them into their own separate books and articles—and this is true of each of these fields, though to varying degrees—then how could we expect any better of scholarly projects that must rely on these literatures? The call for better attention to gender and women should not detract from the remarkable successes of the book: its sustained commitment to seeing race, religion, and empire as essential—and essentially intertwined—categories in American history marks it as among the most interesting and most urgent works in American religion today. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2018
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