Beyond a Politics of Nostalgia: Religious Freedom and the Ends of Democracy

By Corey D. B. Walker

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How do we narrate religious freedom in the United States?

How do we narrate religious freedom in the United States? In her recent book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal,” Yale University scholar Tisa Wenger writes:

Americans have long championed the freedom of religion as a defining national ideal. Since the time of the Revolution, pundits and politicians have celebrated this freedom as a pioneering achievement, a signal contribution to the larger causes of liberty and democracy around the world.

Wenger highlights the centrality of religious freedom to the self-understanding and narrative of the nation. In the standard narrative, religious freedom is not only constitutive of the nation, but is also part and parcel of the global projection of a distinctively American understanding of liberty and democracy. Indeed, America uniquely instantiates liberty and democracy because of its unequivocal embrace of religious freedom.

But does such a narrative — the narrative — fully capture the range of meanings of religious freedom? What happens when we begin to think of religious freedom from the underside of democracy?

Two decades ago at the third Parliament of World Religions in Capetown, South Africa, a group of Native American leaders shared “the seldom-heard Indian side of the story about America’s much-vaunted religious freedom.” In a session titled, “America’s Shadow Struggle,” these leaders shared alternative experiences and understandings of religious freedom beyond the legitimate discourse of religious freedom. By reframing the discourse of religious freedom to focus on their extensive history and experience, these leaders effectively demonstrate how the dominant discourse of religious freedom fails to fully capture the experiences of a pluralistic polity.

These Native leaders remind us that our commonplace understanding of religious freedom is insufficient in light of America’s complex and contested history. Indeed, the ways in which we conceive of religious freedom are organically linked to how we understand what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be a democracy and, ultimately, what it means to be human.

The example of these Native leaders more than two decades ago reminds us that indigenous as well as enslaved and other marginalized people, cultures, histories and ideas often frustrate and disrupt any nice and neat understandings of religious freedom. Whether we begin with the “golden age” of the founding of religious freedom in the time of the early republic or engage the vigorous contemporary invocations of the necessity of fighting for a more robust religious freedom, the question of how we narrate and who we include in our narration of this concept is vital for understanding how we mobilize a range of social, cultural and political ideas for our society and world.

Religious freedom in America is more than a series of binary opposites — religious and secular, theism and atheism, tradition and innovation. It also does not fit a simplistic either/or framework.

To truly understand religious freedom in our pluralistic democracy requires broader perspectives and deeper understandings which result from a plurality of historical and conceptual models. By examining new sources and histories — such as how the discourse of religious freedom informed the political and legal strategies of the modern civil rights movement, as well as how it was deployed to maintain cultures of racial segregation — religious freedom will come to mean much more than what is captured and contained by the conventional categories that have authorized, governed and policed institutionally and juridically limited notions of religious freedom.

In a moment when religious language saturates our political discourse, a more critical understanding of how and in what ways religious freedom informs democratic politics is not just about politics but about life itself. Thus, we face the urgent task of broadening rather than narrowing our understanding of religious freedom. Such a task is foundational to the future of American democracy itself.

Our current battles over religious freedom are not just about a politics of God, gods or no God. They are about the norms and rules that will authorize and govern our social and political lives. We need to formulate and embrace an understanding of religious freedom that moves from conceptual closure to democratic openness in ways that are not narrowly tailored, preconfigured ends. In this manner, the discourse of religious freedom will give voice to a new expression of democracy for an ever-widening circle of “we the people.”

Corey D. B. Walker is visiting professor at the University of Richmond and Freedom Forum Institute senior fellow for religious freedom at the Religious Freedom Center.

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