Religious freedom and colonialism

The latest Religious Studies Podcast is a very interesting interview with Tisa Wenger, author of a new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” (If you’re like me and prefer reading to listening, there’s also a full transcript to read.) In the interview, Wenger explains how Native American people redefined what they did as religion in order to use U.S. guarantees of religious freedom to protect indigenous traditions:

“[In the United States] you see U.S. government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimizing indigenous traditions by categorizing them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan. And indigenous people, who in their own languages and ways of structuring — they had their own ways of structuring their societies — but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they [Native Americans] start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorization of themselves as heathen, savage, pagan, etc. So this is why I title my first book ‘We Have a Religion’: this was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying, ‘We also have a religion … And you can’t ban it, because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.'”

Wenger also touches briefly on how something similar happened in British India, as Hinduism came to be defined as a religion:

“The construction of Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ is happening in conjunction with [British] colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British, for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the interaction between the concept of religious freedom on the one hand, and religion on the other hand. I’m one of those who doesn’t see religion as a thing that can be easily defined; instead, I’m one of those who sees religion as a social construction with definitions that vary over time. Wenger’s research helps me better understand how a colonial power like the United States used religion in varying ways to help dominate Native American peoples; and, conversely, how Native Americans in turn used religion to maintain their own cultural autonomy.

Clearly, Wenger’s work also looks at the interactions between race and religion. In a response to the interview with Wenger, “The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness,” Alexander Rocklin examines the way Afro-Caribbean religions have been stigmatized, and defined as not being religions so that religious freedom does not apply to them (in much the same way that certain Native American religions have been defined as not being religions so that they can be outlawed). Rocklin writes:

“The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion.”

The link between the category of religion and colonialism is well known, but what’s new here is the detail these two scholars offer about specific religious traditions and their battle for religious freedom with colonial powers. Fascinating reading.

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