The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

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“A Feeling of Belonging can only Develop if People Decide to Listen”

The title of this response comes from an essay by the German journalist and author Hakan Tezkan. Tezkan refers to people’s experiences of racism in everyday life, shared on Twitter under the hashtag #metwo. In the days before we wrote this response, gangs of right-wing extremists roamed the streets of Chemnitz, pretending to be “claiming back their country.” What they were actually doing was chasing and terrorizing people who did not look “German” in their eyes. These examples show the extent to which racism in general, and dealing with migrants and People of Color in particular, is a present topic in German society and media. The RSP interview with Carmen Becker taps directly into this discussion.

When refugees fled to Europe via the Balkan route in 2015, many came to Germany, where they were generally welcomed; the term “Willkommenskultur” (culture of welcome) was established at this time. People’s collective memory of these events was shaped in several ways. On one hand, people of all ranks carried out their work in the official state bureaus, with the assistance of refugees, integrating assistance, language teaching and orientation assistance, as well as in municipal integration centers and social circles.  On the other hand, as Carmen Becker states, the term “refugee crisis” became established in the media. The incidents on New Year’s Eve at Cologne main station in 2015 provided a particularly important tipping point in the popular perception of refugees. The media was not able to portray these incidents in a differentiated way and the refugees and foreigners as a collective were put in the dock. The right-wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and those who had a negative stance on foreigners had been given a trump card. The media in this period often seemed to fall for populist perspectives, instead of taking critical responsibilities.

Carmen Becker refers to Foucault’s term “dispositive” to describe the mechanisms at work here. Strategic interventions (“There is a crisis and we have to intervene”) and the establishing of a currently valid truth (answering questions such as “What is a refugee?,” “How do we talk about refugees?”) are part of that dispositive. For her own research, Becker has decided not to look at the meso or macro levels, but to focus instead on the local level, referring to YouTube shows for refugees (“Marhaba. Willkommen in Deutschland,” which translates to “Hello. Welcome to Germany”) that show stereotypical “German” behavior as a guide for (Arabic) refugees. Here she notes an interesting change of perspective. While it is widely discussed that “the refugees” are often seen as one indistinguishable mass, the picture of German society painted in those short video clips is not especially heterogeneous either. Becker’s approach—to look at the chains of equivalence constructed in these clips—highlights differences in values between German society and the refugees’ society of origin. For German society, secularization and individual freedom stand out as the most important traits. Upon closer inspection, however, only a European-centered sense of freedom is put forward, eliding the possibility of a different approach to freedom of choice in other societies. The European notion of individual freedom does not necessarily cover freedom of religion with regard to Islam. It seems, Becker says, that an unstated preconception underpins these debates, framing them in terms of “good” vs. “bad” religion. The secular bubble includes in its circle of tolerance the religiousness of European peers, but excludes Islam, which constitutes its own, separate sphere. She concludes that refugees are faced with deep insecurity concerning “correct” European behavior. The YouTube videos portray Germany as secular, democratic and liberal, and refugees as Arabic, Muslim, oppressive of women (e.g. by making the headscarf compulsory) and sexually repressive. The possibility of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf as a personal preference in accordance with her religious or cultural habits is not mentioned.

What could be a solution for these issues? In a recently published book on “Xenosophia and Religion” by Heinz Streib and Constantin Klein, we explore the concept of xenosophia as a model for creating a culture of welcome. Xenosophia, to quote the editors, is “the wisdom that might emerge from the encounter with the strange and the wisdom of adequately responding to the strange” (Streib & Klein 2018, ix). Flipping the focus from “How do prejudices evolve” to the more positive question of how xenosophia may enter dialog, the authors find different frames of reference in which people are confronted with “the strange” and different trajectories people take to deal with that challenge. The study started in 2015, when the “refugee crisis” was at its first climax. When a second wave of questionnaire data was retrieved in April 2016, we found the results to be quite shocking: the overall acceptance of refugees had decreased, while the approval of right-wing opinions had increased, congruent with the success of the right-wing AfD during elections. Still, there were people who helped, people who cared and people who did not give in to cheap rhetoric. Those people were found to be open for experience and dialog and they showed tolerance for ambiguities. This tolerance and respect for the other of course is not a one-way street. The last sentences of the book contain that very important message: “The creative and productive way of dealing with and responding to experiences of the strange/alien depends on a habitus of openness for dialog and thus for hermeneutical humility that always keeps in mind the proviso of an ‘it-could-be-seen-otherwise.’ This is no triviality. It is the sharpest contradiction to prejudice and xenophobia” (Streib, Klein et al. 2018, p. 383). We believe this approach may provide one way of overcoming the stereotypes that Becker has described in her study. It’s not an easy path, but it might lead to a better, xenosophic understanding of the other.


Streib, H. & Klein, C. (Eds.) (2018). Xenosophia and Religion: Biographical and Statistical Paths for a Culture of Welcome. Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.


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