OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Robert Orsi

Portrait of Robert Orsi

Robert Orsi is a professor of religious studies and history and the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. A native of New York City, where he grew up in an Italian American working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, Orsi taught at Fordham University, Indiana University, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard University, where he chaired the Committee on the Study of Religion, before coming to Northwestern in 2007. His work draws on historical and ethnographic theories and methods, and he is the author of several prizewinning books, among them The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (3rd edition, 2010), Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotions to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (1996), and Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (2005). Orsi has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is currently completing a historiographical study, "History and Presence."

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

New York City's architecture (the Empire State Building), neighborhoods (Greenwich Village, Harlem, and others), and cultural styles have long been emblematic of the global modern. For other Americans, the city has been, at different times, simultaneously both the object of desire and of fear and loathing, and much of the desire and fear have centered on religion. The city has been seen as religiously alien, a threat to the virtue of the American heartland, or as the epitome of the evils of modernity. But, in fact, religion has been central to the making of New York, and New York to the religious history of the modern U.S. This lecture takes a neighborhood level view of NY's religious history, with an eye to its broader national and international significance.
The practice of confession would seem at first glance to be the most private of all Catholic practices, and therefore inaccessible to historical study and perhaps also irrelevant to history. But this overlooks the powerful formative effect confession had on young Catholics throughout the 20th century, when regular confession became more common and expected, who grew up to be American citizens. Beyond the deep impress of the practice on Catholic values, confession contributed fundamentally to how Catholics in the US lived in the world, how they inhabited their bodies, lived their consciences, and understood themselves as persons. This lecturer considers confession in the modern history of US Catholicism and its place in American history more broadly.
This lecture looks at the history and ideology of the idea of an "American" religion, as it has developed over time and in historiography, and proposes in place of it a religious history that focuses on the necessarily conflictual and disruptive nature of religions in the US, as lived in encounters among practitioners. These exchanges, across lines of race, gender, region, and class, with fundamental questions of theology and ontology in play, constitute the real dynamics and diversity of religions in US history, while making for a less "American" story.