Wenger, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal”

A new book about religious freedom from a distinctively deconstructionist, left CLS Wengerperspective. The book presents religious freedom as an American device for systematic privileging of white Christians and suppression of others (chapter 1 is titled, “Making the Imperial Subject”). In conversation, if not of a piece, with other scholarship today (in religious studies and elsewhere) that aims to debunk religious freedom as a category. It is interesting to see these kinds of accounts continue to flourish in the literature, just as right critical scholarship on this subject begins to flower as well. The publisher is UNC Press. The description is below.

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

More often than not, Wenger demonstrates, 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. In so doing they posed sharp 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.

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