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."
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.