Yale professor lectures on religious freedoms
Dr. Wenger broke down the ideology behind religious freedom in an American context. Photo Courtesy of CSPAN
The Department of Religion’s annual Critical Spiritualities Event featured a discussion with Yale University professor Tisa Wenger on her new book about the concept of religious freedom and its impact on ideas that shape American culture. “A Conversation with Dr. Tisa Wenger,” took place on Wednesday, March 28 at 6 p.m. on the 10th floor of the Axinn Library. It was presented in conjunction with the Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs and it was co-sponsored by the Hofstra University Honors College (HUHC), the Hofstra Cultural Center, the Department of History, the Department of Political Science and the Jewish Studies Program.
“As a historian, most things that we debate now have really long and complicated histories that don’t usually get understood. For people to look at that longer history and realize that religious freedom was used to justify slavery, Jim Crow, racial segregation … what does that tell us about how religious freedom can be used?” Wenger said. “It was used to justify some really nasty imperial conquests and empire building and violence. Does religious freedom always get to have the last word?”
The event was a question-and-answer format with Julie Byrne, a religion professor and the Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, chair in Catholic Studies, interviewing Wenger, an associate professor of American religious history at the Yale Divinity School, about her new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal” (2017).
Wenger stated that the inspiration for the book came from questions raised during research for her 2009 book, “We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom,” specifically finding interest in “religion’s importance in defining American ideals.”
Chair of the Department of Religion John P. Teehan thought that Wenger’s book was in line with the department’s mission to “promote critical and informed understanding of religion on campus and as part of a larger community, [fostering] responsible citizens nationally and globally.” Grete Kraus, a junior psychology major, similarly chose to attend the interview because “[Religion] can be an important aspect of many people’s lives.”
Wenger’s book is less about the concept of religious freedom itself than what she called “religious freedom talk.” This is the discourse surrounding religious liberty, as well as how this discussion connected to other topics throughout American history, like race, imperialism, capitalism, manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. Rachael Ferro, a senior religion major, was “happy to have stuff like this … especially to make sure that college students don’t feel ashamed of their [religious] freedom … and [to] make it practical to everyday life.”
Manni Doan, a sophomore mathematical business economics major, said, “I wanted to go to this [event] simply because religious freedom is a hot topic.” Doan explained that Wenger incorporated additional topical issues into the discussion including immigration. She addressed this link when she mentioned a current lawsuit against the Trump administration to stop the president’s refugee ban originating from the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia in Washington State. The suit claims that the ban violates their religious freedom by preventing the church from practicing in part of its faith by welcoming strangers in need.
Freshman forensic science major Christine Hothi echoed Dr. Wenger’s sentiment about the significance of discussions of religious freedom, especially for college students. “This age is when we become more able to talk and speak and be more open about [religion] instead of being shy. Our voices are probably the strongest at this point.”
Dr. Wenger’s argument is that liberty in religion plays many different roles across cultures. She said, “From my conversation today, I hope that [students] take away the basic point that religious freedom has been used in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people and it means different things at different times.”