In Conversation

The cultural history of religious freedom and parallels to today

A photo of Professor Tisa Wenger and the cover of her book "Religious Freedom."

In early December, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear a case about a bake shop owner’s refusal to create a cake for a same-sex couple because making it was against his religious convictions as a conservative Christian.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case pits the cake shop owner’s belief that he has the right to deny service to the couple based on his rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion against claims by the couple that the baker was discriminating against them based on their sexual orientation.

This case, says Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history, is rooted in the history that she details in her new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” The book offers a cultural history of religious freedom, showing how American ideas about this freedom were continually reinvented through national discourse. Wenger argues that although Americans have defined and invoked religious freedom in many different ways, its dominant forms have more often than not served the interests of the majority white Christian population. 

An implicit message — and perhaps the biggest take-home of the book, according to Wenger — is that religious freedom “should not be turned into a trump card. Any ideal needs to be balanced against other goods. If we give this freedom too much power, then it too can be used in oppressive ways.”

The Yale scholar recently spoke with YaleNews about why studying these topics enhances a Yale student’s education, how she broaches difficult subjects with her students, and how the Masterpiece Cake Shop case is “eerily parallel” to a debate over racial discrimination that took place in the late 1940s.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.


What was the impetus for writing your new book?

It grew out of some questions that I had from my first book on Native Americans and religious freedom — “We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom.” That book looked at the history of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and argued that the Pueblos started to represent their traditions as religion — which was not an indigenous category for them — in order to defend against U.S. government policies that forcibly suppressed those traditions.

When I finished that book, I thought: What would happen if I extended this set of questions on a much broader scale? I asked how cultural discourses of religious freedom have operated historically, who has invoked the idea of religious freedom, and what kinds of cultural and political work it has done for them. How has this freedom worked for or against various groups of people? How has it shaped what Americans categorize as religion, how they think about what religion is and isn’t? Because religious freedom has so much prominence as an American ideal, I argue that it has helped shape the communal practices, traditions, and identities that we think of as religious. This is a very untraditional history of religious freedom. It is a history that people can connect to the current politics of religious freedom in a variety of ways, although the book does not make those connections directly.


What particular aspects of your book have a direct correlation to the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case?

I think we can understand this case in light of the history that I develop in the chapter on African Americans and religious freedom, which begins with a section on white supremacy in the early 20th century. In the 19th century, before the Civil War, pro-slavery Christians had argued that slavery was biblical and part of God’s plan for a well-ordered Christian society. This was the religion of the South, they argued, and abolitionists who wanted to abolish slavery by law were violating the freedom of religion. That whole process actually helped congeal pro-slavery theology because this argument for religious freedom made that aspect of the tradition appear more central. They were defending slavery as a matter of religion, so it must be part of their religion.

In much the same way, the segregationist theology that developed after the Civil War viewed racial segregation as a part of God’s plan. Many white Christians believed that God created the races as separate, with different capacities, and unequal as part of a social hierarchy that is, according to that theology, depicted, endorsed, and enshrined in the Bible. This was a hierarchical, patriarchal, racist reading of the Bible.

In 1948, at the cusp of the civil rights movement, President Truman proposed the Fair Employment Practices Act against discrimination in employment and hiring. The law was eventually passed. But one of the arguments made by its opponents was that forcing private businesses to hire people of color essentially would violate their freedom of religion, because they sincerely believed that God did not intend the races to mix. This law, they said, would force them to violate their religious convictions. Here is another place where Americans used religious freedom to defend discrimination and a system of social inequality.

That instance is really eerily parallel to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and is using very similar logic. But it also shows how cultural norms and standards can change, and how notions of religious freedom change with them. When racial segregation and discrimination became illegal, and cultural norms changed to make them socially unacceptable (at least in most circles), then we no longer heard religious freedom being invoked in their defense. The religion of white supremacy did not go away — unfortunately we see far too much evidence of that today — but when the majority of Americans agreed that racial discrimination was wrong, they also rejected the idea that religious freedom could provide a cover for it.  


How does learning about these topics enhance a Yale student’s education?

Understanding American history in much more complex ways is important for anyone. As a teacher, one of my goals is to help students see how historical narratives are operating all around us and not take them for granted. I want them to be able to critique those historical narratives. When they see history being used to support white supremacy, American exceptionalism, or American imperialism, then I want them to have some tools to critique these narratives and articulate alternatives that are grounded in more inclusive historical narratives and more responsible historical scholarship.


How are these topics applicable to your students in their present-day lives?

My students immediately make the history that we study relevant to themselves. Sometimes I have to push them back and say: Let’s sit with the history for a while and not jump immediately to the present. I do this because I want them to understand the context of the particular aspect of history we are studying. What is happening in that moment? How were the historical actors that we are studying driven and shaped by the forces around them?

The idea of religious freedom in the United States has always had a great deal of cultural power and because of that it appeals to different people for many different purposes and has often been very contested. Today, it has these particular associations with opposition to gay marriage, and with opposition to one’s reproductive rights. But these are very specific and contemporary associations. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, religious freedom was more likely to be invoked to defend a pro-choice position—on behalf of the individual conscience, in a morally complex issue, and against the continued legal imposition of any specific religious standard — rather than on the pro-life side. To make sense of the contemporary politics, I think it’s important to see how people have used this ideal in so many different ways historically.


How do you broach difficult topics, such as racism, with your students?

I have to remember how painful and jarring and even violent the impact of historical texts can be. I’ve become accustomed to reading difficult texts, but I’ve had students become really upset by reading what I’ve assigned them, for example, as a way to to understand the historical pro-slavery arguments. The students know that I am not endorsing these arguments, but at the same time if that is the reading for the week, that can be very upsetting. I have a responsibility in teaching and presenting this material to explain up front why we are reading this, to put it in context, and to not assume that everybody has the whole context that I have for reading it.

While I am completely comfortable naming racism in the past I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to simply say, “Oh, they were racists.” How did that make sense to them? How did this emerge as a world view? And how does it fit into other systems? These kinds of cultural systems and networks and patterns are not about demonizing an individual or a group of people in the past. Most historical actors in the past believed themselves to be acting in the interest of good. Studying these topics can provide useful perspectives on the present in that sense. I remind my students that we are all so wrapped up in our contemporary politics it is easy to demonize the other side, but that it is important to remember that we are all shaped by our own context and our own histories, just like the people we are studying.

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