Tisa Wenger: historian of American religious freedom

By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections magazine

Religion historian Tisa Wenger is crisscrossing the country in search of something that has inspired, divided, or confounded Americans since the nation’s beginnings—the meaning of religious freedom.

WengerDigging through archives from Connecticut to California, she is piecing together a long and contentious story of how religious freedom has been defined across the twentieth century—who does the defining and who gets left out. As she is discovering, the history of the shifting definitions of religious freedom reflects larger conflicts about national identity, values and power. An American history of religious liberty is a kind of history of America itself.

"Most books on religious freedom focus on the debates of the Founding Fathers, or on the series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in this area since the mid-20th century," says Wenger, YDS assistant professor of American religious history since 2009.

"What I’m trying to do in my book project is a much broader cultural history about who is invoking religious freedom, who controls the definition in public discourse and for what purposes."

A dramatic example emerges from the changes in the political landscape of the last half-century. The most sustained conflicts over the meaning of religious liberty in prior generations had been waged between Protestants and Catholics. (Protestants used the religious freedom ideal to combat government funding of Catholic schools; Catholics used it to resist the dominance of Protestant public prayers and piety.) But since the 1960s, that old Protestant-Catholic conflict has subsided—only to be replaced by a new definition that sees religious liberty as a struggle between conservatives and liberals.

"The shift I’ve seen in the late 20th century comes with the rise of the religious right," she says. "These groups seized control of the definition of religious freedom in public discourse in order to oppose the midcentury coalition of civil libertarians, mainline Protestants and Jews who focused on church-state separation. That coalition supposed that church-state separation was the way to ensure religious freedom in a pluralistic society. But now their definition was being challenged by the religious right, which considered the separation of church and state a barrier to religious freedom, and pushed for official school prayer and other public expressions of Christianity on religious freedom grounds. These remain the most important lines of contention in the ongoing cultural struggle over the meaning of religious freedom."

Much of her research was conducted during a sabbatical this past academic year. Her interest in this topic grows out of earlier work on the politics of religious freedom in Native American history. Her previous book, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom, examines the struggle of Native American people to win constitutional protection for their religious ceremonies. Until that time, the prevailing Christian definition of religion had excluded the idea that ritual dance, peyote, or the land itself could be categorized as sacred. The Pueblo challenge helped broaden American definitions of religious freedom to include indigenous dances. But Native Americans have continued to struggle with prevailing conceptions of religion and religious freedom that are not able to adequately encompass their traditions.

Wenger’s alertness to the dynamics of public definitions of religious faith—the way culture and power politics reshape or replenish those definitions—goes back to childhood. The daughter of Mennonite missionaries, she was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa and spent ages 5 to 11 in Swaziland near South Africa, when the latter was still languishing under racial apartheid.

In the missionary field, she witnessed first-hand the interplay between missionary Christianity, indigenized Christianity, and indigenous African traditions—how they shape one another but also so often speak past one other. As for apartheid, which her Mennonite parents opposed, she could see how the South African white minority used religion and scripture to buttress their claims of racial superiority.

When she later moved to the U.S. (B.A. at Eastern Mennonite University, M.A. at Claremont Graduate University, Ph.D. at Princeton), she noticed how religion was exploited here in political discourse. Studying American religion, she found a history rife with battles over the meaning of religious liberty—struggles that have always involved the lines people draw around what counts as religion in the first place.

The ideal of American freedom contains an unresolved paradox: the majority always want their concept of religion and its religious practices validated on religious freedom grounds, even if that abridges the freedom of minorities to worship without fear of suppression by the majority.

Often these debates have had racial implications. For instance, before the Civil War, Southerners accused the North of imposing its religious morality on the South, violating the religious liberty of slaveholders. Many Southerners defended slavery as biblical—therefore, it was a matter of religious freedom to maintain slavery. In this way the value of religious freedom, selectively applied, reinforced the privileges of whiteness. Dismissing the slaves’ own demands for freedom, Southerners posited that because enslavement had introduced the "spiritual freedom" of Christianity to the slaves it had actually given them the most important liberty of all. Some of the same rhetoric, Wenger says, was adopted to defend segregation during the civil rights period a century later.

"I am looking at the way people are negotiating what they mean by religious freedom," she says. "It gets used by both sides—the politics of the categorizing of religion, how people make distinctions between what’s religion and what’s not, how the cultural rhetoric of religion changes over time, how it is defended and why it matters."

In the 1970s, some of the debate over religious liberty shifted to the issue of new religious movements, often called cults. Did cults have the right to religious freedom—were they legitimately religious groups—or did they violate the freedom of individuals by holding sway over them in a sinister process of mind control and brainwashing? The controversy over deprogramming (the effort to dissolve a person’s loyalty to a strict religious group by re-instructing them in their previous values) was similarly tinged by a religious-liberty argument: did deprogramming help a person re-enter into personal freedom, or was it a violation of one’s freedom?

The 1978 mass suicide of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple marked a watershed, Wenger suggests. In previous years, Jones and his work had been defended by civil libertarians on grounds of religious liberty. After the Jonestown catastrophe in Guyana, civil libertarians grew wary, asking whether they should be more selective in advocating for "freedom" for groups that may prove undesirable, Wenger says.

That reticence on the left helped create an opening for the Moral Majority and others on the newly emerging religious right to recast the public definition of religious liberty for their own projects.

Wenger is now sifting through her voluminous research, though she knows the debate will never rest: definitions of American religious freedom will always be up for grabs.

"It is easy to be in favor of religious freedom, but it is not so easy to know what religious freedom means in practice, and Christians have taken positions on all sides of these controversies," she has written.

"Why have so many Christians believed that Christianity should be given a privileged position in American life, and what conception of religious freedom supports that stance? What alternative theologies of religious freedom have American Christians articulated? What biases have been built into America’s cultural and legal frameworks of religious freedom, and how might we reconfigure this ideal in the interests of justice and equality for all? Under what circumstances does religious freedom come into conflict with other values, and when should religious freedom be limited? All of these are urgent questions for theological reflection …"

Date Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2012 - 2:46pm