Pluralism, Native Americans, and American Religious History

Tisa Wenger, Yale Divinity School

Today’s post comes from Tisa Wenger, an Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Yale Divinity School. Wenger is widely known for her work on the cultural and legal debates surrounding Native American social practices, specifically the ways that the federal government, the American public, and Native Americans themselves determined whether or not these practices were “religious.” Her current project looks at religious freedom debates in modern America more broadly, but with a continued focus on the implicit definitions of “religion” embedded in each controversy. Her work fits perfectly with many of the concerns of the Scholl Center’s “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America” program, and we were lucky that Wenger agreed to lead one of the program’s morning seminars. Here, Wenger reflects on her week at the Newberry.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been six weeks since my week at the Newberry, where I was privileged to lead one of the sessions for the Scholl Center’s “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America” program. One highlight of the week for me was Martin Marty’s public lecture on the topic. It was a real privilege to hear his reflections, and I found myself very much in awe of his perspective as a leading scholar and public intellectual whose work has informed some of the key debates around religion in the U.S. over the last half-century. There just aren’t that many historians around these days who can start a sentence with: “When I was at the Second Vatican Council in Rome…”!

Participants in the program were community college professors from around the country, who applied as teams to support their own curriculum development and research on some dimension of religious pluralism in America. It was a lively group with interests ranging from early Unitarian history to the study of Native American religions and contemporary Islam. All of them were doing research in the Newberry’s collections in conjunction with the seminar sessions. The energy of the group was palpable and inspiring: one woman told me at the beginning of my morning with the group that she had been so excited by the readings that she had stayed up all night thinking, reformulating her topic based on the new insights she had already gained. The entire group was so full of enthusiasm and questions that I could hardly make it through the outline I’d prepared. And while I’d wondered how they would make sense of the diversity of topics and approaches on the program—history, religious studies, law—they proved completely up to the task.

My piece of the seminar focused on historical (and some contemporary) barriers to “religious freedom” for Native Americans as a critical challenge to the conversation on religious pluralism. What I hope they got from the session was the sense that the ideals of religious freedom and pluralism, however laudable they might be, are already built on culturally and historically specific conceptions of what counts as “religion.” And that this can make a very real difference for how we (both scholars and the larger culture) narrate our histories and understand our differences—and for that matter in what any of us pay attention to under the heading of “religious pluralism.”

More immediately for my session, dominant American ideas about what counts as “religion” have clearly worked to the detriment of Native American land claims, and served in many ways to invalidate Native American ways of life. During the few hours we had together, I was a bit surprised at how many of the questions focused on the basic outlines of Native American history. Some participants seemed a bit abashed and apologetic about this, and at one point the conversation turned to the general lack of knowledge in this area within the U.S. population. Several people talked about how important this material is—this is a history that provides unsettling insights into all of the “American” experience, and continues to have tragic repercussions for many Native Americans today—and indeed these unpleasant realities may be precisely why most Americans are unfamiliar with the story. I’ve been branching out in my own research lately, thinking and writing about how the idea of “religious freedom” has operated across nineteenth and twentieth-century America. So, for me the session served as one more reminder about the value of scholarship and teaching in Native American studies. Kudos to the Newberry for facilitating this program, and for its much broader support for Native American studies as well as the study of American religion over the years.

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