Bridging the Religious Divide

Historian Kevin Schultz talks with Brian about the cross-faith coalitions that emerged in the mid-20th Century, and how they inadvertently helped to foster the spread of secularism.

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PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re looking at the wall of separation between church and state.

ED: In the late 19th century, one place that separation of church and state definitely did not apply was in United States Indian policy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted Indians to assimilate into white American culture. And they figured the best way to do that was to spread Protestant Christianity.

BRIAN: But to make Indians into good Protestants, the BIA had to stamp out indigenous spiritual practices. One of these was dancing. And in the early 1920s, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, decided to crack down. He sent a letter to the superintendents of all Indian reservations, asking them to stop “so-called religious ceremonies involving dancing.”

MALE SPEAKER: I regard such restriction as applicable to any dance which involves acts of self-torture, immoral relations between the sexes, the reckless giving away of property, the use of injurious drugs or intoxicants, in fact, any disorderly or plainly excessive performance.

BRIAN: The bureau soon ran into resistance, especially from the southwestern Pueblo tribes. I asked Yale Divinity School historian, Tisa Wenger, to walk me through the Pueblo reaction to the dancing ban.

TISA WENGER: Native people were very upset. And they said, this is not accurate. This is not what our dances do. Our dances are good for our people. Our dances are a celebration of our traditions. We are continuing the ways of our forefathers.

And so for that reason, it became important for them to find a way to defend them against these attacks that were not only coming from the government agents that there was a whole barrage of negative publicity all across– this was debated in newspapers and national news magazines. They had also become a favorite cause of some of the cultural anthropologists and cultural modernist artists and writers of the period. There was an artist colony–

BRIAN: Well, if you’ve won over the cultural anthropologists, you’ve got it made, right? Perhaps one of the most powerful interest groups in America, the cultural anthropologists.

TISA WENGER: Well, I don’t know about that. But they certainly had some influence and an increasing amount of influence in this period in the 1920s. And they’re the ones who initially said, look, this is a real religious freedom issue. And they wrote articles in Survey magazine.

BRIAN: Now, was it their religion? Is this the first time that they played the religion card?

TISA WENGER: Native Americans more generally had for a very long time been playing the religion card, as you put it, had been saying these bans on our dances are a violation of religious freedom. The Pueblo Indians are a little bit different case, because they had been colonized by Spain and become Catholic. And as an accommodation with the Franciscan missionaries, it worked for them to say Catholicism is our religion. And these traditions are our customs. But now, under this new regime and new US policies, that no longer worked. And because of the framework of the US Constitution and the First Amendment, now, framing them as religion and making this religious freedom argument becomes very important and very effective.

BRIAN: But do they make their claims? And now, I’m talking about the Pueblos and their supporters. Did they make their claims in constitutional terms? Did they speak in that language?

TISA WENGER: Yeah. I’m going to read an example of the language that they used. This was a letter that was written by All Pueblo Council on April 9, 1923. In your message to the Indians, you make mention of our dances and about the time that we take in the display of same. One way of worshiping our God is by dancing and singing, praying and fasting. You know better than we do that the Constitution of these United States gives the right and liberty to all people to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. And then they refer, again, to the First Amendment, saying that this circular is illegitimate and should not be enforced and that they are going to continue their dances. And they’re not going to obey this directive.

BRIAN: So what happens? Who wins?

TISA WENGER: Yes. This worked for the Pueblo Indians at the time. Essentially, it became such a huge public relations nightmare for the government, partly because of these cultural modernist allies who had the contacts and the media relations savvy to put out this cry nationwide– the government is suppressing Indians’ religious freedom. And then they publicized the statements from the Pueblo Indians criticizing the government for violating its own constitutional principles of religious freedom. The government backed down. Commissioner Burke said, we really can’t enforce this in the Pueblos. And the agents on those reservations backed down, because it had become such a public relations issue.

PETER: Is that the end of the story?

TISA WENGER: That is not the end of the story. There’s a more complicated implication. The government officials were accusing the Pueblo Indians of violating the separation of church and state in their structures of their tribal governments, because tribal governments were run by leaders who were known by the term cacique. They were behind the scenes leaders and were also the leaders of the ceremonial life.

And so that was attacked by government officials and assimilationists as a theocratic system. And it’s ironic, isn’t it? Because as we were talking about at the beginning, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is working closely with Christian missionaries. So that can appear as a violation of separation of church and state on the part of the US government. At the same time, these government agencies are saying to the Pueblo tribes, you all need to modernize your systems and implement separation of church and state and end your theocratic tribal governments.

BRIAN: So is it fair to say that by introducing the constitutional defense of religion the Pueblos inadvertently undermined some of traditional ways in which religion and governance had been blurred in their way of life?

TISA WENGER: Yes. That’s right. But I don’t quite like the way that you said that.

BRIAN: Good. Then you say it correctly.

TISA WENGER: Because it assumes that there are separate spheres of religion and government. And I think that way of separating out our world is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to conceive of different ways of– but I think a better way to say that might be that modern distinctions between religion and government are forced on them but also that they, in some ways, chose to adopt them in order to defend aspects of their tradition. In other words, it was something of a victory for them, if a partial victory if a kind of constrained victory, because they were then able to continue their ceremonial practices, so that, yeah, their traditions were transformed. But you can see it as a creative adaptation that enabled them also to survive.

BRIAN: Tisa Wenger is an associate professor of religious history at Yale Divinity School. She’s the author of We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom.