The Philippines, the American southwest, the halls of the Supreme Court: all were locations integral to the formation of a concept central to the legal, social, and cultural ideals of the United States, religious freedom. Yet this history of religious freedom was not one about liberation or equality; it was equally one about empire, race, and American power at home and abroad.

In her recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, historian of American religion Tisa Wenger tracks the evolution of religious freedom, a notion at the center of American empire and law. She also fits this history into a larger scholarly interest in understanding the ways in which law plays out on the ground, as it’s used by administrators, marginalized communities, social scientists, and others. Cosmologics spoke with Wenger about her recent work, the everyday history of law, and the intersections of empire and religious freedom.

Lewis West for Cosmologics

Cosmologics: How did you get to the 1920s Pueblo Indian dance controversy as the topic for your first book ? When we’re thinking about religion and law, what does that site help us do?

Tisa Wenger: I think that’s an interesting story, and it also has to do with science, in a way. One story about science and religion is about how they tend to be opposed discursively and politically to each other, and how they came to be that. But another way to think about science and religion is as imperial models of classification. When I was casting about for a dissertation topic, I was thinking simultaneously about two different historiographies, one being missions, religion, and colonialism, and the other being this new area of research on the cultural history of the study of religion. I wanted to put those two things together in some way. One of my grad student peers said, “why don’t you do a comparative study of how anthropologists and missionaries talked about Native American religion?”

Of course, that’s way too big of a thing. I needed to situate it in a particular place and group of people. I hit upon the Pueblo Indians in the course of that searching: they were one group in which anthropologists had been especially interested, and there was some interesting missionary stuff going on, too. I started with the moment I found most interesting—the dance controversy—and found I could do everything I wanted to do with that episode. It soon became about more than just anthropologists and missionaries: this was a tale about government agents, the Pueblos themselves, and how all of these different groups conceptualized Pueblo tradition and religion. And then it started to be about religious freedom.

Why this is a particularly revealing site for thinking about religion and law—like I said, it came to be about religious freedom and religion and law rather late in the game. But I do think the southwest is a particularly interesting site in which to think about these problems, primarily because of its layered colonial history. There were very diverse indigenous traditions to begin with, and then there was the history of Spanish colonialism, which introduced its own legal structures. These were structures not just in terms of law, but in terms of governmentality and administration as well. The region then became part of the United States, after the Spanish-American War, and that added to its chronology of colonization and gave it a very different flavor compared to legal developments nationally.

Cosmologics: How does that end up becoming particularly evident?

Tisa Wenger: The easiest example is this issue of religious freedom. Under Spanish rule it was not advantageous for the Pueblos to conceptualize their traditional practices as religious, because to conceptualize them as religious in the context of Catholic establishment would mean to understand them as false religion and heathenism.

This changed, eventually, under American rule. The southwest, and the Pueblo Indians in particular, didn’t become American—under the control of the settler colonial US government and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) governmentality—until the beginning of the twentieth century. The US attempted to establish control in the period after the Civil War: before that, after the end of the Spanish-American War, the US claimed the territory but didn’t effectively control it. They could send the military to suppress particular groups, but they weren’t actively exercising control over what happened internally within these communities.

There were tactics of surveillance and control as part of federal Indian administration, but because the Pueblos had been colonized by Spain under such a different model, things played out very differently there and the response was somewhat different than elsewhere. So, when the BIA decided they were going to crack down on so-called pagan dances in the 1920s, there was some cultural momentum among white artists and anthropologists, whom I call modernists, toward romanticizing indigenous traditions that got drawn into the story. They wanted to talk about these traditions as religion and to call upon the First Amendment in a new way. Given this new cultural and legal context, there was a practical motivation for the Pueblos to re-conceptualize their traditions as religion.

Cosmologics: You talk about the “Protestant establishment” in the BIA—is there a parallel in terms of scientific actors? Are they likewise institutionalized? There’s the Bureau of Ethnology, for example—are they involved in these administrative, legal, and cultural shifts?

Tisa Wenger: They were involved, and this is exactly what I was referring to in talking about classification. They Bureau of Ethnology was started—Sarah Dees recently finished her dissertation at Indiana on this very topic—to support the mapping of Native American religion as a tactic of settler colonial control. It was established to study indigenous cultures, broadly speaking, in order to control them, and in order to produce more effective government policy.


Law is not just about what legal experts say it is, it’s also about how people and communities on the ground are understanding and invoking and using the law. Law is always a flexible tool.


But by the 1920s, social evolutionary theory, which placed all religions in an evolutionary hierarchy, was being challenged by Franz Boas and the Boasian school of anthropology. Their work was more of a romanticization of indigenous cultures, an attempt to diagnose cultural personalities through this holistic vision of what a primitive culture was. They were not interested in assimilation or Christian Indians; those didn’t seem authentic to them. That’s another way that religion and science connect—you can see anthropologists trying to map religion scientifically.

Cosmologics: Moving backward—you mentioned how American Indian communities used this legal atmosphere to their own advantage or negotiated these shifting norms and regulatory practices.

Tisa Wenger: They certainly did. I found that Native American leaders were extremely resourceful in finding all kinds of strategies to maintain cultural and religious practices and traditions under a very hostile administration and government. In many ways, arguments for religious freedom fit into a larger frame of citizen’s rights for Indians. That said, sometimes native people would claim the right to religious freedom on the basis of human rights—“everyone is owed this,” rather than, “we’re citizens, etc.”

In the case of the Pueblos, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Spain actually guaranteed religious freedom to all residents of the territory, regardless. They appealed to that treaty specifically, because Native Americans across the board were not citizens until 1924; some had gained citizenship, but it was such a contested question. But native people, broadly speaking, claimed the Bill of Rights, and when they became citizens they often told their agents, “you no longer have any right to tell us what to do, because we’re not wards any more, we’re citizens.” Of course, then there was a Supreme Court case that said Indians are still wards of the state even though they’re citizens. But they still used it!

This is one of the trends among legal historians—to look at how law gets mobilized and invoked on the poplar level. Law is not just about what legal experts say it is, it’s also about how people and communities on the ground are understanding and invoking and using the law. Law is always a flexible tool. In court rooms, you see people arguing about what the law means, but that also happens in particular controversies and moments that don’t necessarily make it to the courts. The controversy I wrote about never made it into any courtroom, but people were still debating what religious freedom meant and how it should apply. Some people thought about taking it to the courts, but it never made it there.

Cosmologics: Do these strategies have a history after your book ends? Or are they dropped? Does it make it to the court later?

Tisa Wenger: Yes. In thinking about legal history, Native American religious freedom fits into a much bigger story about First Amendment law. The Supreme Court starts to hear far more First Amendment cases after the amendment’s incorporation: the Fourteenth Amendment, in which the states are required to honor all the rights guaranteed to US citizens, wasn’t specifically applied to most of the Bill of Rights until after WWII. So, there are these cases, starting in the 40s and 50s, in which the Supreme Court becomes in a meaningful way an adjudicator of religious freedom cases around the country.

By that time, the federal government was no longer directly suppressing indigenous religious practice. Not in an overt “we’re gonna outlaw native dances” way, at least. Of course, peyote religion, because of the drug issue, becomes a big thing for the courts. Again, what counts as religion and how do we weigh different public interests? That’s how the courts see it. And then the sacred land cases are the big thing: there’s a whole series of sacred land cases.

Those are examples of how native people are invoking the legal landscape. There’s still a tension, however, between this and wanting to resist, at least in certain times and places, or not accept the legitimacy of US rule in the first place. It’s an anticolonial move: “US laws shouldn’t apply to us, we are citizens of our own nations.” Versus a strategy that argues for legal rights based on the US Constitution: “These rights apply to us, so you can’t do this and that to us.” Those arguments accept the legitimacy of the constitutional framework to begin with. You can totally understand how people might make both of those arguments at the same time, or emphasize one or the other.

Cosmologics: Moving on to your current project, you said there were some direct links. What took you from there to international empire?

Tisa Wenger: Well, first of all, the southwest is US empire.

Cosmologics: And international.

Tisa Wenger: International in the early history. I do think about these histories as very continuous. In the originary moments of the United States as an independent nation, it’s breaking free from the British empire and at the same time, very self-consciously embarking on its own imperial project of expansion westward across the continent. But this new book: I felt like I developed a pretty rich set of theoretical questions around religious freedom in the first book, ones I wanted to think about on a broader historical stage. I think the book that I’ve ended up writing really does do that, in maybe a little different shape than I initially thought it would. It takes some of the questions from We Have a Religion and formulates them in relation to different groups of people, while also theorizing in a different and more explicit way the relationship between race, religion, and empire.

Cosmologics: Could you give an example of how these theoretical questions play out in other contexts?

Tisa Wenger: I start in the Philippines, with the Spanish-American War and US conquest. That’s obviously a really important moment in the history of US empire, which is one reason to start there. But actually, the main reason that I start there is that when I was doing my initial research for the book, I asked, “who’s talking about religious freedom in all of American history? Where does it show up?” I did these crazy, broad searches online. Digital humanities, I guess, but not in a very systematic or sophisticated way.

Much to my surprise, I found the Philippines showing up a lot at the turn of the century. Why are they talking about religious freedom in the Philippines, and how come that doesn’t show up in our histories of religious freedom? (Of course, now there’s the new book by Anna Su, which does talk about that history. That’s the first book that really puts the theme of religious liberty and the Philippines together.)


As soon as the US decides to claim the Philippines—even before, really—Americans start to see parallels between different racialized, non-white colonial subjects.


The more I started digging in the Philippines, the more fascinating I found it. There were, interestingly, both parallels and historical connections with the Native American story. The Pueblos and other native groups had been colonized by Spain and then by the United States, just as the Philippines was colonized first by Spain and then by the United States.

In the Philippines, there are periodic rebellions for independence, and there’s a war for independence that starts in 1896. Then the Spanish-American War arrives, and the US initially says, “oh, we’re going to help you gain your independence.” They then make a treaty in which Spain signs the Philippines over to the US. “Now we’re your imperial overlords.” And the Republic of the Philippines replies, “what? No, we’re independent. We already claimed that. You were supposed to be helping our fight for independence!” So, the Filipinos turn their war for independence against the United States. It’s a very different history, but in terms of how the US legal framework was imposed on top of one that had this layer of Spanish colonization, there are some similarities with the southwestern context.

Another point of connection has to do with US administrators. As soon as the US decides to claim the Philippines—even before, really—Americans start to see parallels between different racialized, non-white colonial subjects. They need a model of administering colonial affairs: they look at what the British are doing in the region, what other colonial powers are doing, what Spain did, but also at what the US already had in place, the administration of Indian affairs. The Filipinos were talked about as savages, they were compared to native people, and the model of administering them was formulated in the same way.

In the Philippines, there was also this different kind of mapping of people groups that the colonial administrators carried out, whereby those who had already been Christianized were seen as more civilized, and those who were non-Christian were treated after the model of Indian administration. There’s the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes that’s created in the Philippines, and the guy who’s appointed to head it is an anthropologist who had done his dissertation on California Indians.

The first thing he did when he was appointed to the position of director of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes in the Philippines was to go take a tour of Indian reservations in the United States. He asks, “what’s working and what isn’t? What should we apply in the Philippines?” There are also a lot of military personal who went back and forth; that is, people who fought in the Spanish-American War gained initial military experience in the Civil War, but also in the Indian Wars that followed. These people served in the military and made parallels between Native Americans and Filipinos and between the Indian Wars and the wars in the Philippines.

So, the first chapter is about the American debates over colonizing the Philippines and the second chapter moves into the Philippines and looks at how Filipinos, Moros, and US colonial administrators in the first years of American rule are invoking religious freedom. How does it work in that context? What does it do for those people? The rest of the book comes back to the US.

I go through several moments in the history of religious freedom in the United States, one of which is about how people are discussing the concept in African American communities. That chapter began because I realized that I did not find many black voices in my initial exploration of who’s talking about religious freedom. Is that because black people weren’t talking about religious freedom? Why did they not show up in my sources? Freedom in African American history is a central theme, but maybe not religious freedom as such. Why would that be? Maybe there are obvious reasons—the terms of subjugation are so insistently racial. And when African American religious history gets narrated, the church is portrayed as the one place that black people did have a degree of freedom, where independent black institutions did exist and did flourish. Maybe religious freedom wasn’t the most urgent need or node.


But that’s not the only way that religious freedom has been used. It’s also used and invoked by all kinds of racial and religious minorities and subjects of empire who seek to use the tools of empire, such as religious freedom.


But once I started looking, I found lots of cases where black people were talking about religious freedom. What does it mean for them? How does it work for them, or not work for them? The first part of the chapter looks at traditional black churches, AME and Baptist churches, and the way that they celebrated their founders. Richard Allen is celebrated in all of these AME sermons because he made it possible for black people to have their own independent church—he’s depicted as a pioneer of religious freedom. That in turn becomes a way of positioning African Americans as “modern” and “civilized” in the eyes of the state, or of a white society. That’s an argument that I also make in relation to Filipinos and Native Americans. This happens because religious freedom enters into discourses of modernity and becomes part of how modernity is defined. I use Talal Asad to talk about this. In his formulation, a “modern” people is a secular people, and religious freedom is part of what establishes a people or a state as being “modern” and “free.”

Cosmologics: It fits into a certain modern idea of what the ideal subject is.

Tisa Wenger: Yes, so colonial discourse always suggests that colonized peoples don’t have religious freedom, and that we have to teach them that as part of the civilizing process.

Cosmologics: Still today.

Tisa Wenger: Exactly. That’s a big part of what happens in the Philippines. In fact, Filipinos seized on that and positioned themselves as equally modern and equally free, as a kind of anticolonial move. I see this final chapter on African American history similarly: in a context where African Americans were insistently seen as racially primitive and not a fully modern people, their celebrations of the accomplishments of the founders of their churches—“we are pioneers of religious freedom”—are one of the things they do to establish themselves as modern subjects. They’re representing themselves to larger society via the notion of religious freedom and thereby making a case for black equality and black freedom.

I then look at black new religious movements in the early twentieth century, starting with Marcus Garvey and UNIA. I do find Garvey and Garvey’s followers talking about religious freedom, and how it works for them, and that becomes a way of thinking about African Americans as part of a global anticolonial context in which empire is involved in creating race, religion, and religious freedom. I don’t go beyond WWII.

Cosmologics: That’s the boundary marker. Speaking of things beyond WWII. What do you want to say to people working in religion and law, and also, thinking more broadly, how does thinking about these questions help us with notions of race, empire, and religion present beyond the university?

Tisa Wenger: There is this whole recent scholarship about—and anxiety and controversy about—how religious freedom functions domestically, and the shifting meanings of religious freedom in American law. And then there’s this other, fairly separate set of conversations about religion and secularism, religion and US foreign policy, and the critiques of religious freedom in US foreign policy and international law, by people like Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Saba Mahmood. My project does something different from either of those, but in some ways it provides a long history for them.

What I’m doing that’s different is that I situate racial formations in an imperial context, and examine the way religious freedom works for Jews, American Indians, and African Americans. But what is directly connected to some of what these other scholars have been doing is, put in a very simplistic way, the suggestion that, gosh, religious freedom doesn’t mean one thing. It’s always been a deeply contested category that could be used for or by almost anybody to claim almost anything. That’s not new, but I think it’s a point that still needs to be made.

One of the most powerful ways that religious freedom has worked historically is as a tool for US empire and white supremacy. That is not new: it is still happening now, and though I don’t trace that story forward, I think readers can do that, and there is scholarship that does as well. But this process has been happening for a much longer time; there’s a much longer and deeper history to this concept and its operation.

But that’s not the only way that religious freedom has been used. It’s also used and invoked by all kinds of racial and religious minorities and subjects of empire who seek to use the tools of empire, such as religious freedom. It might be counterintuitive or subversive to speak of religious freedom as a tool of empire, but that’s clearly its role. In the Philippines, it very clearly is operating as a tool of empire, and in my chapter on Native Americans, it operates both as a tool of empire and as a tool of resistance to empire. In Audre Lorde’s very famous metaphor, one uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but there are sometimes ways in which that can be very fraught for the people who attempt to use those tools.

Tisa Wenger is a historian of American religion with research and teaching interests in the discursive politics of religious freedom, religion in the American West, Native American religious history, and formations of race, religion, and the secular in US history. Her forthcoming book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) argues that American religious freedom cannot be separated from the politics of race and empire.

Lewis West is co-editor of Cosmologics and a doctoral student at Yale.


Image from Flickr via Andy Smith


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