Research

My research engages questions and conversations across a number of disciplines, including Religious Studies, African American Studies, History, and Theology. My interests include religion in America, particularly African American and Catholic histories; the Black freedom struggles; theory and method in the study of religion; postcolonial and critical race theory; and liberation theologies, among other things.

These interests come together in my first book Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).Cressler Book Cover When most people think of African American religion in the twentieth century, what comes to mind are migrations and freedom struggles. The twentieth century also figures prominently in the stories we tell about Catholics in the United States, the years in which Catholics became “American,” so to speak. Black Catholics, if they are thought of at all, remain anonymous and anomalous in both these histories. Yet this very same period saw the rise of Black Catholics in the United States both in terms of population and prominence. The national Black Catholic population rose by over two hundred percent from 1940 to 1970, so that by 1975 there were close to one million Black Catholics. What caused this remarkable growth? What accounted for the emergence of black Catholics as a prominent force in the U.S. Church if they remained, as Albert Raboteau once put it, “a minority within a minority”? How might our understanding of African American and Catholic histories change if we take Black Catholics as our focus?

Father George H. Clements, Holy Angels Parish (1970)

Father George H. Clements, Holy Angels Parish (1970)

In this book, I argue that African Americans converted to Catholicism in record numbers during the Great Migrations largely because Catholic religious life served such a sharp contrast to the evangelical Black churches increasingly popular in the same period. These Black Catholic communities boomed in the heart of cities like Chicago that would birth the Black Power era by the late 1960s. While commentators have lamented the lateness of the Catholic arrival on the civil rights scene and the absence of Catholic “Martin Luther Kings,” I argue that there was no shortage of black Catholic Stokely Carmichaels and Angela Davises. The concurrence of Vatican II and Black Power sparked intense debates among Black Catholics over proper religious practice, Black cultural heritage, and the relationship between religion, race, and politics. These debates set in motion nothing short of a revolution in Black Catholicism. My book is now available through nyupress.com as well as Amazon.com.

My next project takes its inspiration from the first, but seeks to illuminate explicitly the implications Black Catholic activism has for contemporary Catholics in the United States. In the weeks that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968, Black activists declared the U.S. Church “a white racist institution.” Soon joined by Black sisters and laypeople, their critique of the Church was twofold. They confronted the ways Catholic institutions operated with a preferential option for white Catholics as far as social and political power was concerned. And they sought to unveil the ways Catholicism in the United States, though preached as a “universal” religion, was for all intents and purposes white in its devotional practice. Catholic Studies as a subfield, in my estimation, has yet to fully reckon with the consequences of this critique. My current research thus seeks to historicize white Catholic racism. I am at work on an article manuscript tentatively titled “Categorizing Catholic Racism” that focuses specifically on white Catholic resistance to desegregation efforts in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. White Catholics invested, individually and institutionally, in churches and schools in the white suburbs while simultaneously divesting from predominantly Black communities in the so-called “inner-cities.”

I am also co-organizing a collaborative interdisciplinary project that examines the ways colonialism and racism helped constitute the category of “Catholicism” in the Americas, from the arrival of the Spanish and French in the sixteenth century up to the present. We are asking, of ourselves and our subfield, How must our scholarship change given the entanglement of colonialism, racism, and Catholicism in the history of the Americas?

 

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One thought on “Research

  1. Pingback: Introductions | Matthew J. Cressler

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