Both Black and Catholic (?)

Here’s my most recent post on Religion in American History, where I offer some musings around my lecture at the Institute of Black Catholic Studies (Xavier University of Louisiana) coming up on Monday, November 10th.


My post today falls in the “shameless plug” category.  I am due to lecture at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana on Monday, November 10th.  The title of my talk is “Black Catholics from the Great Migrations to Black Power,” something I have thought quite a bit about for the past few years.  Nevertheless (or, perhaps precisely for this reason), I’ve been struggling to capture the full significance of this story in just 45 minutes.  So my post today offers some of the musings that have been running on repeat in the back of my mind as I prepare to share this story.

What has it meant to be both Black and Catholic in the United States?  The tension between – or, better yet, the inseparability of racial and religious identities in the U.S. was felt acutely by Black Catholics in the middle years of the twentieth century.  The period I have referenced in shorthand as “the Great Migrations to Black Power,” roughly 1940 through 1970, was an era of unprecedented growth and transformation among Black Catholics across the United States – especially in the urban industrial centers in the North and West.  The Black Catholic population grew by 208% nationwide in these three decades and in the Midwest growth surpassed 400%.  Chicago is perhaps the best example of this, rising from a few hundred people meeting in a single church at the turn of the twentieth century into a population of 80,000 people – the Archdiocese of Chicago boasted more Black Catholics than either New Orleans or Washington, D.C. by 1970, an astounding feat when one considers the long history of Black Catholic Maryland and Louisiana!

Even more remarkable than mere numbers was the dramatic – and often traumatic – transformation of Black Catholic practice and identity in this very same period.  What did it mean to be both Black and Catholic?   Continue reading

Ground Zero and the “S-Word”

As I’ve been teaching a seminar on theory in the study of religion this semester, I’ve been thinking back to a reflection I wrote a few years ago for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin about the ways a key category in Religious Studies – “the sacred” – was deployed in debates about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”  So here’s my theoretical throwback for today:


The vitriol around the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan demonstrates our society’s inability to communicate about critical issues. The proposed Cordoba House was a local issue defended passionately by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that quickly transformed into a cause célèbre, soliciting the national commentary of those as far removed from New York real estate as President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich. But as the conversation shifted from local debate to national furor, possibilities for dialogue disappeared. The media simplified the debate into a polemic choice—is it “right” or “wrong” to build a mosque at Ground Zero? Interviews and essays have tended to follow suit. Support for the Cordoba House is often curt and dismissive, casting aside opponents as intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant. Opposition to the misleadingly termed “Ground Zero Mosque” similarly lacks any intention to dialogue. Those opposed often insist that the memory of September 11 is “sensitive,” the situation “exceptional,” and the rules “special”—effectively extinguishing any productive debate on a topic pronounced, almost a priori, nonnegotiable.

It is important to understand the underlying dynamics and consequences of this debate. One line of inquiry worth pursuing is a critical analysis of the argument that Ground Zero is a special place requiring exceptional rules. When stated most passionately, it is not uncommon for commentators to invoke the “S-word”: “Ground Zero is sacred space.” This “sacredness” has been heralded in a variety of ways, occasionally even in support of the Cordoba House.1 In this case, however, the sacred has been wielded as a self-evident defense against any permanent Muslim presence near Ground Zero. The most provocative version of this argument I have encountered is Charles Krauthammer’s “Sacrilege at Ground Zero.”2 Krauthammer’s piece illuminates ideas that rarely rise to the surface in public discussions of religion, religious freedom, and American nationalism: the explicit entanglement of the sacred with the nation. At the same time, he renders complicated processes that are sometimes quite dangerous, deceptively simple and innocent. Contrary to some of his more crass counterparts, Krauthammer does not portray the Cordoba initiative as representative of some quintessentially violent Muslim “Other.” He acknowledges that the Muslims who perpetuated unspeakable violence on September 11, 2001, were not representative of Muslims as a whole. At the same time, he argues that the Cordoba House should not be built near Ground Zero because the space is “sacred”; it is “hallowed ground.” What is more, Krauthammer boldly defines what transforms an ordinary place into sacred space. He declares that “a place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).”

In other words, Krauthammer characterizes the creation of sacred space as a de facto happening. Something miraculous, remarkable, or unspeakable occurs, which transforms an otherwise ordinary place into a sacred space. This space, because it has been made sacred, now stands inviolable. He then offers examples to defend this logic. Gettysburg was sanctified by the sacrifice of American soldiers; hence, the U.S. National Park Service took down a (presumably “profane”) commercial viewing tower on the premises. An example that has circulated in most “Ground Zero is sacred space” arguments is that the incomprehensible horror of Auschwitz made that space sacred. This prompted Pope John Paul II to order the removal of a Carmelite convent because, in Krauthammer’s words, “this is not your place, it belongs to others.” As with Auschwitz, so too with Ground Zero: it is sacred in the sense that the space now “belongs to those who suffered and died there.” Once a space becomes sacred, the living are obliged “to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated.”

Though he provides a sleek, straightforward equation (remarkable happening + place = sacred space), its simplicity hides the dimensions of power that define sacred spaces and enforce their boundaries. Beyond the fact that Krauthammer implies that the sheer presence of Muslims at Ground Zero forgets, trivializes, or misappropriates the tragedy on September 11—suffering and death shared by Muslim Americans—his meditation on sacredness also obscures the processes by which a space is marked as sacred and the consequences of such a marking. To understand adequately what this controversy reveals about religion in America, it is necessary to unpack the “sacred” in “Ground Zero is sacred space.” What is meant by “sacred” in this sense? How did Ground Zero become a “sacred space”? How are the boundaries of that sanctity enforced, and what are its consequences for American citizens? Continue reading

On Violence, “the Religious,” and Black Power

I am a regular contributor to Religion in American History.  Here is my most recent post:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.”  Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (1968)

I want to return to a question I raised to my last post. Why is Black Power usually imagined to be essentially secular (in juxtaposition to the religiousness of southern civil rights struggles)?  I’d argue that one of the reasons many people at the time (and most historians since) characterized Black Power as such had to do with deep-seated assumptions about the nature of “religion” itself.  What marked Black Power as symbolically different than civil rights was violence, both rhetorical and actual.  The prevailing images of civil rights were tired women and tireless youth marching peacefully – and stoically enduring suffering – for freedom.  Meanwhile, the prevailing image of Black Power was black men donning black leather and brandishing guns.  (This is, of course, not a fair characterization of either.) The problem with this second image, at least for some scholars, is that “religion” – one might say real religion, proper religion, or good religion – has long been presumed to be peaceful by its very nature.  To put this another way, “the religious” (people, institutions, ideas) is legitimate only to the extent that it does not threaten the stability of civil society.  When the religious enters the public sphere through violent means, it is immediately suspect insofar as its relative religiousness is concerned.  This suspicion was behind typologies of “good” and “bad” Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001 and it underwrote (still underwrites) categorizations of the Nation of Islam (NOI) as a political sect masquerading as religious – this despite the fact that Black Muslims were largely forbidden from overt political action or violent confrontation with the U.S. state in the first half of the twentieth century. Continue reading