Tisa Wenger


University of North Carolina Press  HARDCOVER ISBN: 978-1-4696-3462-3 Published: October 2017

University of North Carolina Press

HARDCOVER ISBN: 978-1-4696-3462-3
Published: October 2017

Religious freedom is so often presented as a timeless American ideal and an inalienable right, appearing fully formed at the founding of the United States. That is simply not so, Tisa Wenger contends in this sweeping and brilliantly argued book. Instead, American ideas about religious freedom were continually reinvented through a vibrant national discourse--Wenger calls it “religious freedom talk”--that cannot possibly be separated from the evolving politics of race and empire.

More often than not, Wenger demonstrates, religious freedom talk worked to privilege the dominant white Christian population. At the same time, a diverse array of minority groups at home and colonized people abroad invoked and reinterpreted this ideal to defend themselves and their ways of life. In so doing they posed sharp challenges to the racial and religious exclusions of American life. People of almost every religious stripe have argued, debated, negotiated, and brought into being an ideal called American religious freedom, subtly transforming their own identities and traditions in the process. In a post-9/11 world, Wenger reflects, public attention to religious freedom and its implications is as consequential as it has ever been. 

You can find a link to the book here.


Rachel Gordan, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Wenger asks: What are Americans really talking about when they talk about religious freedom? In part, they are invoking one of the United States’s ‘signal contributions to the larger causes of liberty and democracy around the world.’ Equally relevant is the inverse of that question: What are Americans not talking about when we talk about religious freedom? That is, what concerns and issues are typically masked by religious freedom discourse? Race and empire—terms that do not harmonize quite as well with the American Dream—are often just below the surface of national conversations about religious freedom, Wenger finds.”

Sarah Barringer Gordon, Jotwell: The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)

“A breakthrough study that . . . disturbs comfortable myths . . . [Wenger’s] insights are highly relevant to an age in which religious freedom is once again claimed to support exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently pending in the Supreme Court.””

Sarah Imhoff, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Its sustained commitment to seeing race, religion, and empire as essential—and essentially intertwined—categories in American history marks it as among the most interesting and most urgent works in American religion today.”



University of North Carolina Press  PAPERBACK ISBN: 978-0-8078-5935-3 Published: May 2009

University of North Carolina Press

PAPERBACK ISBN: 978-0-8078-5935-3
Published: May 2009

For Native Americans, religious freedom has been an elusive goal. From nineteenth-century bans on indigenous ceremonial practices to twenty-first-century legal battles over sacred lands, peyote use, and hunting practices, the U.S. government has often acted as if Indian traditions were somehow not truly religious and therefore not eligible for the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. In this book, Tisa Wenger shows that cultural notions about what constitutes "religion" are crucial to public debates over religious freedom.

In the 1920s, Pueblo Indian leaders in New Mexico and a sympathetic coalition of non-Indian reformers successfully challenged government and missionary attempts to suppress Indian dances by convincing a skeptical public that these ceremonies counted as religion. This struggle for religious freedom forced the Pueblos to employ Euro-American notions of religion, a conceptual shift with complex consequences within Pueblo life. Long after the dance controversy, Wenger demonstrates, dominant concepts of religion and religious freedom have continued to marginalize indigenous traditions within the United States.

Published in association with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas

You can find a link to the book here:


American Historical Review

"Groundbreaking and important. . . . A seminal study of American Indian affairs in the early twentieth century recommended for all libraries and academic programs in which modern Native American and indigenous religious issues are discussed."

The American Indian Quarterly

"The reader is provided with an overview of various perspectives . . . which Wenger shares from her extensive research in archives across the nation. . . . [Wenger's] analysis offers Indigenous scholars a vehicle for navigating the confluence between 'documented' history and narratives of oral tradition."

Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies

"While [Wenger's] rich history of the intersection of Pueblo customs and American law will doubtless be useful for those within American Indian studies, her historically routed mediations on the category of religion makes this book essential reading for everyone who studies American religions, and arguably many others in religious studies as well. Wenger's meticulously researched and theoretically sophisticated work is exceptional in any number of ways. . . . So often, books engage well with either theoretical ideas or with detailed historical work. Wenger is able to do both."