Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal

Photo of the cover of the book titled "Religious Freedom"

Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history

(The University of North Carolina Press)

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 book. Instead, American ideas about religious freedom were continually reinvented through national discourse — Wenger calls it “religious freedom talk” — that cannot be separated from the evolving politics of race and empire. 

More often than not, Wenger maintains, 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, she claims. In so doing they posed 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.

Tisa Wenger will discuss her book at The Yale Bookstore on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

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