Kate Moran is Associate Professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University. This interview is based on her new book, The Imperial Church: Catholic Founding Fathers and United States Empire (Cornell University Press, 2020).
JF: Why did you decide to write The Imperial Church?
KM: I grew up Catholic in California, and have long been interested in the complex place Catholic history occupies in public culture. Studying U.S. history in graduate school, I was also surprised to learn that—despite the demographic significance of Roman Catholicism in the United States—Catholic history is still often treated as a confessional sidetrack. I was inspired by a vibrant group of scholars of history, religious studies, literature, and American studies who were pushing back against that marginalization.
Specifically, in this project I set out to challenge two historiographical tendencies. One is the tendency to tell the history of Catholicism and American culture primarily as the story of a rise and fall of anti-Catholicism. The other is a tendency to see nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholic history as a largely Atlantic-facing story of immigration. I became curious about what to do with the many examples of non-Catholics talking about Catholicism in ways that didn’t fit a presumption of hegemonic anti-Catholicism. And I wondered what those conversations looked like well beyond the eastern seaboard cities that dominated the scholarship.
Ultimately, looking in these directions led me to something that scholars have noted in a piecemeal way, but neither named nor charted: the emergence, between the 1870s and the 1920s, of popular, cross-confessional efforts to celebrate historical Catholic missionaries as regional and even national founding fathers.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Imperial Church?
KM: The Imperial Church traces a widespread re-evaluation of the place of Roman Catholicism in U.S. history and culture during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: alongside and against powerful anti-Catholic currents, many American Protestants began to celebrate Catholic missionary histories. In the upper Midwest, Southern California, and the U.S. colonial Philippines—in journalism and travelogues, poetry and plays, monuments and pageants—American Protestants joined their Catholic compatriots in commemorating and celebrating historical Catholic missionaries as gentle and effective agents of conquest, uplift, and economic growth, as founding fathers who could serve both as origins of, and models for, the U.S. empire.
JF: Why do we need to read The Imperial Church?
KM: Speaking as an academic, I would say that The Imperial Church brings the study of U.S. religion—and particularly of Protestant-Catholic relations—together with the study of U.S. empire in new and transformative ways. It demonstrates the importance of Catholicism to the rhetoric of U.S. empire, and it demonstrates the importance of the category of empire to the history of U.S. Catholicism. It encourages us to think critically about what can sometimes be simplistic and celebratory narratives of the eventual inclusion of American Catholics into some sort of American religious “mainstream.” The cross-confessional celebration of Catholic missionaries as American heroes was absolutely an embrace of Protestant-Catholic toleration and unity; it was also predicated on the fantasy of a common white Euro-American Christianizing and “civilizing” project.
Speaking as a person living through the current moment, I would also say that The Imperial Church can help us understand vital contemporary debates about how to remember the violence and colonialism of the U.S. past, and how to reckon with its legacies and its persistence. One of the central figures of my book – the Spanish Franciscan missionary to California, St. Junípero Serra—is one of the people whose statues are currently being toppled and removed, to the relief of some and the horror of others. Part of what this book does is explain why we have so many public monuments to Serra, and to other historical Catholic missionaries, in the first place.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KM: It was a gradual decision. I’ve long been interested in–to crib from Joan Didion–the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. I came to focus on intellectual and cultural history, and American studies, because those modes of inquiry gave me tools to examine the stories people in the past told themselves about who they were and what mattered most to them. As I began teaching, I realized that good teachers of U.S. history and American studies are always encouraging students to critically engage with some of their own inherited stories: about what kind of country they think this is, and what role they want to play in its future. I feel quite honored to be part of students’ work in this regard, and to be working alongside them.
JF: What is your next project?
KM: It’s in the early stages, but I’m putting together a project on the San Francisco Magdalen Asylum. The asylum was founded in 1865 by Irish immigrant Sisters of Mercy as an attempt to provide refuge for women fleeing forced prostitution in post-Gold-Rush San Francisco. Within a few decades, the asylum also became a state-sponsored carceral institution: girls sentenced by county courts to confinement in San Francisco’s Industrial School, for crimes such as vagrancy and “improper conduct,” were sent instead to the Magdalen Asylum. As a result, the asylum was the subject of at least two lawsuits, both of which accused the county of unlawfully contracting its public duties out to a religious institution. I’m interested in using the history of this asylum to continue to explore some of the themes I worked on in The Imperial Church: the religious history of the U.S. West and Pacific; intersections of (Catholic) church and state; and the global dimensions of U.S. religious history. More specifically, I want to explore what research into the work, ideas, and charism of the sisters—entwined with what I can unearth about the work, ideas, and goals of the girls in the asylum—can tell us about the development of women’s and children’s incarceration in the United States.
JF: Thanks, Kate!