Catholics in the American Century

by Karen Johnson. 

What if historians of American history placed Catholics, their world, and their institutional Church at the center of their histories?  Or if not at the center, at least in a place well inside the margins?  How would that change our narratives?  After all, about one fourth of Americans are Catholic.  Shouldn't we account for their role in American history?

Fortunately, these questions are exactly what the essays in Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives ofU.S. History, co-edited by Scott Appleby and our own Kathy Cummings, seek to explore.  They expand on a "historiographical heresy" Jon Butler proposed in 1991: to think about American religious history from a Catholic, not a Protestant perspective.  These scholars take this heresy into American history, not just American religious history.Six scholars play with the question using subjects from the 1960s to the history of sex and gender to Latino immigration.  Five of these scholars admit that they have not, in their past books, seriously engaged with Catholicism.  (Confession, as Appleby points out in the conclusion, is good for the soul.)  

Robert Orsi (who clearly had no need to confess he had ignored Catholics in the past) interrogates how distinctive Catholics are from other Americans.  He argues that to understand U.S. Catholic history, we have to realize that Catholics have lived at an angle askew to American history.  But if we take seriously this "askewness," as he calls it, we can begin to ask new questions that challenge our old narratives such as, “How have Catholic saints been agents of U.S. history?”

Lizbeth Cohen suggests that considering Catholics in American history is a useful way to account for the transnational turn in American history.  She is using this interplay in her history of postwar urban renewal in Boston.  American Catholics were, it is clear, shaped both by changes in Rome that were often influenced by international events (consider how Germany’s treatment of Jews during World War II influenced Rome’s encyclicals on racial justice). But they were also shaped by the local. 

Tom Sugrue thinks that looking at Catholics in the 1960s can help us stomp out the compelling but incomplete story of 1960s exceptionalism.  He would rather look at continuities between the 1960s and earlier eras.  Sugrue's essay ranges over a number of subjects, but I would like to linger on one: Catholic anti-war protests, for instance, were "shaped by a distinctively Catholic understanding of the body of Christ [and] took a quasi-sacramental form" (78).  These protestors drew on a long history of martyrdom (and, I would suggest, a history of sacramental Catholic protest for black rights from the late 1930s).

R.Marie Griffith points out that Protestant hegemony has reigned supreme in studies of sex and gender, serving as an “unmarked category.” In her essay, Griffith shows the diversity of Catholic approaches to birth control education.  In doing so, she challenges scholars to stop making caricatures of divisive figures.  By taking Catholics seriously in their history of birth control, Griffith argues that we will be able to see the varied ways Protestants and Catholics approached gender and sex, and how their interactions shaped one another. 

David Gutiérrez explores what it could look like for scholars of Chicano/Mexicano history to take religion seriously.  He points to how the politics behind the Chicano movement required rejecting the Catholic Church, and how historians of that movement often followed suit.  Like Cohen, he points out that accounting for Catholic history can break down the dichotomy between “us” and “them” in transnational scholarship of the Western hemisphere.  Yet he warns scholars away from the propensity toward "romanticization and hagiography" and argues that historians must consider how many people "betray their stated religious and philosophical principles" (132-133).

Finally, Wilfrid McClay argues that we historians might be living in a moment in American history when Catholic social thought is useful.   McClay argues that, ontologically, Catholic social thought can help contemporary Americans to move beyond the self, which Protestantism and American liberalism have largely valorized.  This reliance on the self is unsustainable because it cannot "generate the solidarities necessary for large and sustained sacrifices and commitments or to provide nonarbitrary justifications for the fundamental building blocks of the social order" (148).  For us historians (who aren’t usually in the business of making ontological claims), considering Catholic social thought alongside Protestant social thinking can uncover a dynamic element of interplay between the two that was formally hidden.  Such a narrative, McClay argues, "would be built on the knowledge that for most of American history the Catholic 'other' lurked conspicuously, and not merely incidentally, in the imagination of leading Americans" (156).

McClay's chapter, by the way,  connects nicely with Heath's post about evangelicals who have left the political right and suggests the role of Catholicism in that move.  Michael J. Gerson, Wheaton College graduate and George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, after all, turned to Catholic social thought to help him sort out politics.  As Gerson commented, "I am not a Catholic . . . But I recognized that my own theological tradition, just emerging from decades of cultural isolation and anti-intellecutalism, has not developed a compelling philosophy of public engagement" (140).   

In all, I'd wholeheartedly recommend this book, not only for your reading pleasure, but as a way to creatively engage the question of what ought to constitute American history. 

I read it on the plane on the way home from the AHA, picking it up after a fabulous panel that referred to this book when it asked what was distinctively Catholic about various contributions to American history.  (The panel included Kelly Baker, Matt Cressler, and Brian Clites.)  The book expanded my intellectual horizons, which was a nice contrast to my position in the “coveted,” but cramped, middle seat.


Curtis J Evans said…
Looks like a good collection. Given the persons contributing, this must have developed out of a conference I attended some years ago at Notre Dame. The names are similar to those who presented.
Karen Johnson said…
My guess is that this was the same conference.
Unknown said…
Great preview Karen! (And sorry you had a middle seat on the flight home!)

John McGreevy's Introduction is excellent, although short. I have the feeling he was holding back a bit. McGreevy recently shared a chapter at Northwestern from his upcoming book, which is on trans-Atlantic 19th. C. Catholicism through the lens of Jesuits in the U.S. Based on that preview, I'm particularly excited to read more about how he conceptualizes the relationship between communal suffering and Catholic distinctiveness.
Unknown said…
Thanks for this review Karen. I think its also worth mentioning that John McGreevy's brief introduction is an excellent survey of other themes and debates that emerge in this volume.

Based on a chapter draft from his next book which was recently presented at Northwestern, I'm guessing that McGreevy has more to say on his own approach to Catholic distinctiveness. In particular, he seems to approach blood and suffering less as collective experiences than markers of individual spiritual growth. I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of his book when it comes out in a year or two.

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