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American Religious History

While my digital public history work has traverse a wide range of historical topics and issues, my more traditional scholarly research has been concentrated primary in the field of American religious history with a special focus on Roman Catholics. With so many years of my professional life served in a research faculty position, this work constitutes a somewhat smaller volume than my digital history work, but it is essential to my scholarly agenda and features prominently in my future plans.

A. An Image of God

In 2013, I published my first book, An Image of God: the Catholic Struggle with Eugenics (University of Chicago Press), which has been well-received with positive reviews in major history journals that target US Catholic historians, historians of religion, historians of science and medicine, and the larger community of historians. In the half-century before World War II, the idea of eugenics captivated a broad swath of the American public. The movement drew momentum from disparate sources: from the progressive impulse to systematize and control reform; from popular alarm about an influx of working-class immigrant newcomers; and from concern about the upheavals created by urbanization and industrialization. Keywords such as “imbecile,” “defective,” and “unfit” were code for individuals who, in varying degrees, failed to fulfill society’s desired notions of middle-class productivity and respectability. Eugenicists held that bad heredity was to blame for such failures; society’s blights, according to eugenics logic, could be halted by discouraging reproduction in those individuals. Conversely, the “fit” and “superior” among us could and should be encouraged to multiply. Eugenic ideology was transformed easily into action: proponents wrote reams of articles and advice manuals advocating “proper” lifestyle choices; created programs to urge the appropriate citizens to reproduce; and fought for public policies promoting everything from immigration restriction to involuntary sterilization, from health requirements for marriage certification to stricter antimiscegenation standards.

Across the nearly half-century of eugenics successes, no group was as successful in their opposition as American Catholics. Academics and other individuals could not claim to speak for large constituencies; the Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, did just that, opposing eugenic thinking and policies in the name of the church and its millions of parishioners. Time and again, members of the Catholic hierarchy, as well as priests, physicians, writers, and organized lay men and women, spoke out in the press, within their own organizations, and in the legislative arena against the invasive and restrictive measures inspired by eugenics. Thus, Catholics comprised the most significant and organized opposition to eugenics policies. The result is a story of the clash between Catholics and eugenicists across four decades and its numerous ramifications for how we understand American society, the relationship between church and state, individual rights, and politics.

The fundamental dispute over whether the state has a right to sacrifice an individual for the common good or whether the state has the obligation to care for all individuals as an integral part of the common good, provided the basis of the conflict between proponents of eugenically inspired policies and Catholic opponents of those policies. While supporters of eugenic policies saw hereditary science as the key to transforming American society—because it provided a guide for preventing both the physically and mentally “unfit” from reproducing—their Catholic opponents were much more focused on environmental and religious sources of social improvement, and disdained proposals that called for the state to circumscribe an individual’s natural right to marry and have children. They believed that individuals could not be defined solely by their biology.

I argue that Catholic clergy, writers, and activists urged their co-religionists to objected to eugenics for a number of key reasons. First, they believed that the science that eugenicists used was not rigorous enough to justify their policies. Rather, those scientific claims were simply a guise for more deeply held ethnic, racial, and class prejudices. Second, they rejected the notion that the state and the community that it represents can ever justly assume the power to violate the bodily integrity of an innocent individual, regardless of the supposed biological improvements that will result. Catholics did not disagree with the notion that humans should work to improve the health and welfare of the population, but they did disagree that the goal of biological improvement superseded all other rights, values, and goals. For nearly forty years, Catholic thinkers and eugenics supporters argued about these ideas.

In a book about how and why American Catholics opposed some of the ideas and many of the initiatives of the eugenics movement, one might assume a narrative that rehearses the tired story of the “war” between science and religion. For the most part, however, that age-old trope bears little resemblance to the reality of this interaction. Rather, Catholics addressed eugenics on the grounds that the science was inadequate or poorly done and that the measures that the movement called for were not the best methods to safeguard the rights of individuals while ensuring the common good. More often than not, Catholic thinkers objected to the social application of scientific findings and principles rather than to the science itself. In fact, Catholics made their arguments within the grounds of biology, psychology, sociology, and law, rather than on the basis of religious principles. America’s religious pluralism, they recognized, necessitated convincing those who did not share their religious convictions that eugenic ideas and initiatives were not in the best interests of American society at large.

B. Future Projects and Teaching

I continue to be interested in questions of how US Catholics reconcile their beliefs and theology with larger issues of American pluralism and difference. As a result, I have kept abreast of the literature in these areas and have written some small pieces that explore related topics. Mostly, however I have been laying the groundwork for a future project that takes up a long dormant research interest in the slaveholding practices of the Maryland Province of Jesuits in the early Nineteenth Century. The Jesuits owned and farmed five plantations in Southern Maryland with the labor of enslaved peoples. In 1838, the group sold the entire population of enslaved persons, which numbered two hundred seventy-two men, women, and children, to Henry Johnson of Louisiana, who was likely the former Governor of that state. The moral reckoning necessary to undertake the mantel of slaveholder and to make the decision to sell the enslaved persons rather than manumitting them is ripe for exploration. I aim to investigate the material and spiritual circumstances surrounding this history and to trace these individuals to their destination in Louisiana. Geospatial tools hold great potential for excavating and telling these stories.

In addition to my individual research interests, I maintain an active role teaching and advising graduate students who are working on American religious history after 1865. This includes regularly offering a readings seminar on that topic (HIST615) and overseeing a number of directed readings (HIST804). Of my doctoral students, I am serving as primary dissertation advisor for two very promising projects that center on late nineteenth and early twentieth-century religious history. Both of these projects will involve substantial digital elements, bringing together the spheres of digital history and American religious history in new and exciting ways.

In sum, my research, teaching, and service at Mason, both in positions at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and in the History and Art History Department, has offered me the opportunity to take a leadership role in developing digital theories and methods for conducting historical research and analysis and sharing that work with fellow scholars and the public. I look forward to continuing in this role as I undertake future projects in digital public history and American religious history.