American Religious Freedom: Pride and Prejudice

Tisa Wenger

Many Americans take great pride in religious freedom as a pivotal feature of the nation’s founding experiment, and a signal contribution to global practices of democracy. However, any amount of historical investigation reveals that this freedom has always had its limits, and Americans have always disagreed about its implications in practice.

I am currently at work on a cultural history that will chart the shifting meanings of American religious freedom, attending to the many kinds of cultural and political work it has performed. Among the most unsavory and least understood aspects of this history is the relationship of religious freedom to formations of race and racism. In many times and places, I have found, public discourses of religious freedom have worked subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) to reinforce cultural hierarchies of racial privilege and prejudice.

Christians and Heathens

This pattern is evident from the very beginnings of American history. In the colonial period, the development of slavery as a race-based institution drew on newly articulated Enlightenment ideologies of religious freedom. Early modern European cultural and legal norms used the Bible to define the limits of slavery, holding that the “heathen” could legitimately be enslaved while Christians could not. Many planters refused to permit the evangelization of their slaves precisely on these grounds. Some slaves did convert to Christianity, however, and at least a few successfully sued for their release on these grounds.1

For the slave-owning society, new conceptions of “religion” provided a way to eliminate that legal means of escape. Distinguishing between the categories of race and religion enabled the slave’s racial identity, rather than his or her “heathenism,” to become the undisputed basis for bondage. Meanwhile, sharply separating the “religious” from the “civil” made it conceivable for slaves to be granted freedom in the former sphere without jeopardizing their enslavement in the latter.

All of this is very clear in the “Fundamental Constitution” for the colony of Carolina, drafted in 1669 by none other than John Locke, the early Enlightenment’s leading theorist of religious liberty. This governing document benevolently granted slaves the right to choose their own church, while specifying that this freedom was not to infringe on their masters’ authority over them in other respects:

“Since charity obliges us to wish well to the souls of men, and religion ought to alter nothing in any man’s civil estate or right, it shall be lawful for slaves, as well as others, to enter themselves, and be of what church or profession any of them shall think best, and therefore, be as fully members as any freeman. But yet no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him, but be in all things in the same state and condition he was in before.”2

This phrasing reveals how Locke’s newly theorized separation between the religious and the civil – and the religious freedom made conceivable by that separation – worked to solidify an increasingly race-based system of slavery.

After the American Revolution and throughout the antebellum period, white Americans’ articulations of religious freedom frequently operated to bolster the system of slavery. This was the case despite the anti-slavery message famously preached by many black and white Methodists, Baptists, and Quakers at the time. In 1790 the General Committee of Virginia Baptists passed a resolution, proposed by anti-slavery minister John Leland, calling on church members to “make use of every legal measure to extirpate the horrid evil [of slavery] from the land.” But the Baptists’ radical insistence on absolute “freedom of conscience” for congregations and individuals meant that no such statement could serve as more than a recommendation. In repudiating the resolution, many Baptists insisted that the propriety of slaveholding could only be decided between God and each individual.3

“Conscientious” Objections

Thus the free-church insistence on the right to interpret religious teachings for oneself enabled the claim that slaveholding was a matter of private conscience, not something that should be dictated by authorities of any kind.

As debates over slavery intensified in the midnineteenth century, the system’s advocates would more and more insistently assert slaveholders’ rights on the grounds that the “peculiar institution” was part of (white) southerners’ conscientious practice of Christianity. Apologists protested that under the Constitution northern abolitionists had no right to impose their own religious strictures on others. A group of South Carolinians advocating secession explained in 1861, “We detest Abolitionism because it trespasses upon our rights of conscience. It does not allow us to judge for ourselves the morality of slaveholding.”4

Up until the Civil War many northern whites, both Protestant and Catholic, rejected abolitionist efforts on the same grounds. In the powerful logic of pro-slavery apologetics, therefore, the principles of property rights and religious freedom worked together to silence moral and religious critiques of slavery.

Of course, African Americans and other groups marked as racial minorities could and did rearticulate the idea of religious freedom in support of their broader struggles for freedom. But precisely because the discrimination against them was framed in overwhelmingly racial ways, African Americans (especially those who identified as Christians) only occasionally found this a useful tool. This dynamic would be somewhat different for the variety of new religious movements that emerged in African- American communities in the twentieth century. Some of these groups quite deliberately worked to redefine their difference in ethno-religious rather than racial terms, and appealed to the principle of religious freedom as part of that effort.5

The Jewish Example

Far more than these African-American new religious movements, American Jewish articulations of religious freedom largely succeeded in defining Judaism as a primarily religious (rather than racial or national) identity within the American cultural landscape.

“The Israelites will think themselves happy to live under a government where all Religious societies are on an Equal footing,” wrote the German-Jewish immigrant Jonas Phillips to the national Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Phillips’ reference to the “Israelites” suggests the ongoing reality of other ways of defining Jewish peoplehood in the U.S. and around the world. European patterns of segregating Jews into ghettos, and assigning particular restrictions or rights to them as a group, continued to construct Judaism in ways that did not separate out categories of race, nation, and religion. But in the U.S., the logic and the promise of religious freedom encouraged Jews to present their identity in specifically religious terms. Jewish protests against the many legal manifestations of Christian privilege, such as Sunday laws and Bible-reading in the public schools, used the concept of religious freedom to call for equality in religious terms.

There were trade-offs, of course, that troubled many Orthodox Jewish leaders. As they gained legitimacy as a religious minority in the U.S., Jews (like many others) necessarily adopted the voluntary and denominational models forged by Protestants for what counted as religion in America. But for most, these pressures seemed far preferable to the extreme forms of marginalization and violence they faced in Europe – or to the status of those American minorities that were defined primarily in racial terms. Their religious freedom claims worked against competing images of Jews as racially other, reinforcing Jewish claims to the status of whiteness in America.6

Meanwhile, dominant articulations of religious freedom continued to bolster racialized systems of oppression against African Americans in the twentieth century. In the 1940s and 1950s, early civil rights activists seeking to desegregate residential neighborhoods were met with claims that God had created the races separate, and that forced desegregation would violate the religious (and other) freedoms of those who believed in upholding that design.

Significantly, the early Cold War celebration of America’s religious freedoms clearly served to deflect public attention from the problem of racism. In the early 1940s the newly created Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (BJC) – initially founded to lobby on behalf of persecuted Baptists in Romania and the Soviet Union – reluctantly agreed to include representatives from the major black Baptist church bodies. But white leaders rejected the black delegates’ request that the BJC address problems of racial discrimination in the U.S. They explained that this would detract from the organization’s primary focus on religious freedom, and that it would be likely to alienate white Southern Baptist constituencies. The BJC was not willing to allow black Baptists a voice in shaping its agenda, and for this reason the latter generally stayed away from its meetings in subsequent years.7

Privileging the Privileged?

What can we learn from this history about contemporary America’s cultural and racial politics of religious freedom? It should be recognized that religious groups of multiple racial and confessional identities are working hard at tackling racial injustice, sometimes in profound ways. But I do find it disturbing that several of the nation’s largest church bodies have recently headlined questions of sexuality and reproduction as the only ethical concerns that seem to merit the label “religious.” For many Christian leaders, meanwhile, issues such as mass incarceration and immigration reform are categorized only as racial, economic, or political problems – but not as intrinsically religious problems as well. In some ways this replicates Locke’s division in 1669 between “religious” and “civil” concerns, a distinction that (whatever its benefits in other respects) was used to shape systems of racial injustice in his day and beyond.

The religious freedoms asserted today, in my analysis, overwhelmingly function to privilege the already privileged, to make life more difficult for the poor and disenfranchised, and to detract the attention of our religious communities from the overwhelming racial and economic injustices of our society. In all these ways, contemporary invocations of religious freedom have moved too many American Christians away from any sustained attention to “the least of these.”

The knowledge that religious freedom is not a simple or self-evident concept calls for both a sense of humility and a critical hermeneutics of suspicion. This principle has been important to many religious minorities, including those who reject any conventional religious belief, both in the U.S. and around the world. But we should not hold any invocation of this freedom so sacrosanct that it blinds us to injustice, whether defined in racial or any other terms. I would like to see America’s religious communities invest their energies in a far broader struggle for freedom and justice that includes us all.

Tisa Wenger, assistant professor of American religious history at YDS, is the author of We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (North Carolina, 2009).



1 Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), pp. 23–28.

2 John Locke, “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,” March 1, 1669, available online through The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, Italics added for emphasis.

3 Thomas S Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010), p. 157.

4 James C. Furman et al., “To the Citizens of Greenville District,” 1861, Correspondence of Rev. Franklin Wilson, Box 3, MSS 833, Wilson Papers, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

5 Sylvester A Johnson, “The Rise of Black Ethnics: The Ethnic Turn in African American Religions, 1916-1945,” Religion and American Culture 20, no. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 125–163.

6 Quote from Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (Yale, 2004), pp. 37–39; see also Naomi Wiener Cohen, Jews in Christian America: The Pursuit of Religious Equality, Studies in Jewish History (Oxford, 1992); Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, 2006).

7 Joint Conference Committee on Public Relations Representing the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention, “Records of Meeting,” April 27, 1943, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Minutes, 1938-1979, AR 378, Box 1:1, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, TN.