By Tisa Wenger
This academic year I’ve been enjoying the enormous privilege of a sabbatical, and I’ve been hard at work on the research for a book that I’m describing as a cultural history of religious freedom discourse in the twentieth-century United States. In other words I am interested in anybody, anywhere in the country, who was invoking the ideal of religious freedom. The goal is to explore the changing meanings of "religious freedom" across the century, and the cultural and political work that this ideal has performed.
This is anything but a small topic, and at various times I’ve felt overwhelmed at the scope of the research involved. When I spent a week at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and described my project to an archivist there, he looked at me like I was quite possibly insane, and said, “Just about everything in our collections would be relevant to you.” Well, yes. One of my methods for locating relevant primary sources was to do keyword searches in Archive Grid and Archive Finder for phrases like “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” and just see what turned up. After almost a week of this I had around forty piles of printed-out finding aids organized by state, and I planned research trips based on which piles were a) the biggest, and b) would provide me with materials representing a wide diversity of religious groups, political perspectives, and geographic regions. To the dismay of my family, who had the crazy idea that they might see more of me than usual during my sabbatical, I’ve ended up doing research this year at archives in Indiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, Tennessee, and of course (since I live here) Connecticut.
Now I admit that this is not exactly a “religion in the American west” topic. But since I’m the person writing this book, westerners and the west will be well represented in it. And since my trip to California was just at the end of May, I thought I’d share with you just a few of my reflections on the sources I managed to gather in a day at the Hoover Institution (Stanford), four mornings at the Graduate Theological Union library (Berkeley), three afternoons at the Bancroft (Berkeley), and one afternoon at the California Historical Society (San Francisco).
One important thread involved new religious movements and the “cult” scare of the 1970s, especially as it played out in California. The GTU has an excellent “vertical files” collection on new religious movements, which includes extensive materials from and about the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church (Moonies). Not surprisingly, given the animus directed against them, both of these groups developed very sophisticated public relations campaigns that appealed, among other things, to the constitutional principle of religious freedom. As their opponents sought in various ways to define their activities outside the bounds of what could be protected under the First Amendment, they worked to place themselves squarely within the protected category of “religion.”
While none of that was a surprise, I did find some unexpected (at least to me) intersections between the NRMs and the other sorts of groups I was pursuing. For example, at the GTU I was also exploring the papers of Richard Boeke, a Unitarian minister in Berkeley during the 1970s and 1980s who was instrumental in reviving the North American chapter of the International Association of Religious Freedom (IARF). This is an organization of Unitarians and other religious liberals, originally founded in Boston in the early twentieth century, which has given me rich insights into how religious freedom appears from the very liberal end of the religious spectrum, Christian and otherwise.
Boeke also ended up being active, along with religious studies scholar J. Gordon Melton and many others, in a group called the Alliance for the Preservation of Religious Liberties (APRL), which was based in Los Angeles but had a very active Northern California chapter. APRL’s primary goal was to combat the persecution of new religious movements, and dedicated much of its energies to public relations against “deprogrammers” hired by some families to get their young adult children away from the “cults.” They also fought legislation that was proposed in California and many other states to specifically legalize deprogramming—some deprogrammers were being convicted under kidnapping laws—when the person targeted was involved in a group that allegedly used “brainwashing” and other coercive tactics. The national APRL president, Dr. Ross Bartlett, was a Baptist minister from Los Angeles whose contributions to APRL newsletters quite clearly reflected the Cold War context of these events. America must allow religious liberty for all, he wrote, and not just for the popular or well-established religions, because to do otherwise would make the United States like the totalitarian and anti-religious Soviet Union. (On the other side of the debate, anti-cult activists represented the Scientologists, etc., as “totalitarians” who forced a conformity of belief—thus violating the religious freedom of their members—and threatened the foundations of a free society.)
The Jonestown tragedy of 1978 inspired a rash of anti-cult publicity (as well as legislation), and occasioned much soul-searching on the part of many of those who had been defending the rights of new religious movements. Even within APRL, the limits of religious freedom were always complex and very much contested. The organization included some Scientologists and Moonies as members—after all they had a stake in the cause—and so regularly faced accusations that it was simply a “front group” for these movements. In the early 1980s, Bartlett visited chapters across the country to ensure this was not the case. After investigating the affiliations of all local APRL leaders, he ultimately forced a “purge” of several regional chapters in order to ensure the national credibility of the organization. Around the same time the IARF sponsored a symposium on “The Limits of Tolerance,” asking under what conditions “tolerance” and inclusivity might become counterproductive and actually undermine the liberal values they wanted to advance. Some of the correspondence around that symposium revealed that part of the impetus for the event was a petition from the Church of Scientology to become a member group of IARF—a request that was promptly denied. Scientology, tainted as it was with a reputation for fraud and coercion, clearly did not fit the IARF’s parameters for an ally in the cause of religious freedom. Even the ACLU (I spent my time at the California Historical Society with the Northern California ACLU papers) went through some soul-searching after Jonestown, as several chapter leaders questioned the wisdom of their support for the People’s Temple during its San Francisco years. And they extended these doubts to the broader question of religious freedom, asking whether and when they should be more selective in advocating for “freedom” for groups that may prove undesirable in various ways.
At the Bancroft I spent much of my time with the “People for the American Way Collection of Conservative Political Ephemera, 1980-2004.” You would be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) how many right-wing organizations over the past three decades have employed the words “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” in their names and statements of purpose. This focus on religious liberty sometimes made for strange bedfellows: in the early 1980s, when a number of luminaries from the emerging Christian right went to Washington, D.C. for a march for religious liberty, some were surprised to discover that the march had been mostly organized by the Unification Church—part of a campaign to have its leader, the Reverend Moon, released from prison (he had been convicted of various financial improprieties). While some who had come for the march disavowed any connection with the Moonies, others heartily embraced the cause of Rev. Moon as a legitimate religious freedom issue.
More broadly, the People for the American Way collection helped me understand how the religious right managed to seize ownership of “religious freedom” in American public discourse in the 1980s and into the present. At mid-century a majority of religious freedom talk had come from the coalition of civil libertarians, Jewish organizations, and mainline/liberal Protestants who advocated for the separation of church and state as the primary guarantor of this liberty—an agenda reflected in the Supreme Court’s adjudication of First Amendment cases in that period. (Not at all concealed in much of this advocacy, especially around public-parochial school questions, was a deep and abiding suspicion of Roman Catholicism as a major threat to American liberties.) But in the conservative upswing that began in the 1970s, evangelical leaders asserted a fundamental conflict between religious freedom and the separation of church and state, pushing for things like prayer in the public schools as an issue of religious freedom.
Although there were many factors that played a part in that shift—the cultural and political dynamics of the ongoing Cold War prominent among them—I have started to see the “cult” scare of those decades as one contributing factor. On one hand, the events of Jonestown and the cult controversies contributed to doubts among liberal groups like the ACLU and the IARF about the limits and the utility of religious freedom talk. And on the other, despite the doubts of some evangelical leaders, the Washington march organized by the Moonies contributed to the surge of the new right-wing discourse of religious freedom.
So that sums up some of my more interesting finds in the Bay Area archives. Again, not entirely about the west, but the distinctive religious dynamics of California are essential to these insights. And I’d love to hear thoughts on this work from any readers of this blog.