My research examines the contestation between religious ideals and cultural norms in the twenty-first century United States. Using ethnographic research, historical analysis, and culture theory, I study how religious practitioners shape and are shaped by their cultural contexts drive my work. My work on twenty-first century Catholicism studies the role of religious experience and devout communities in constructing American religion.
My first book, Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Adult Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool, to be released by Oxford University Press in December 2018, is an ethnography of millennial-generation Catholics who evangelize college students across the U.S. Drawing on fourteen months of participant-observation and sixty-five ethnographic interviews, this book examines how young adult Catholics promote their vision of “dynamically orthodox” Catholicism to college students across the U.S. Missionaries embody an attractive style of Catholicism in their skinny jeans and devotional tattoos, large-framed glasses and scapulars. They promote a Catholicism that interweaves distinctly Catholic prayers with outreach methods of evangelical Protestants and the anxieties of young adulthood. This Catholic identity grew up amid middle-class American norms: missionaries are on their iPhones as much as any other millennial; they drink beer and they love college football. Missionaries also live according to strict gender essentialism dictated by popes—men lead, women follow—while simultaneously affirming stay-at-home fatherhood and women earning MBAs. As they navigate Catholic and US identities, missionaries pray to saints and propose Catholicism as uniquely able to overcome perceived threats of secularism and relativism Millennial Missionaries examines the central role of millennial-generation Catholics in the creation and contestation of contemporary American religion.
My research contributes to the interdisciplinary study of American religion by theorizing prayer as an intersubjective set of practices whereby religious subjectivities are made, gendered, and challenged. Prayer is a discipline of placing oneself, repeatedly and with the correct (and ever-correcting) disposition, into the presence of divinities. Catholic prayer, in particular, requires the complex intermingling of bodily, mental, and emotional praxes. This work demonstrates how religious subjectivities emerge as dynamic responses to cultural and religious expectations.
Aspects of this research have been published in “Gendering Prayer: Millennial-generation Catholics and the Embodiment of Feminine Genius and Authentic Masculinity,” in Religion and Gender and “‘Gemma is My Girl!’ Devotional Practices of Millennial Catholic Women and the Making of Contemporary Saints,” in American Catholic Studies. A chapter on how millennials pray with smartphones, “iPrayer: Catholic Prayer Apps and Twenty-first Century Catholic Subjectivities,” is published in a collection on religion-themed apps with Palgrave Macmillan Press.
My current research project pivots to questions of religiously informed family life and reproductive choices in the U.S. Catholic Sex Lives: Natural Family Planning and the Making of US Catholicism examines Catholics’ rejection of contraception in favor of Natural Family Planning (NFP). This project examines why women and couples choose to regulate family size with deference to papal statements, basal thermometers, and abstinence within marriage. How does their choice to pray to St. Gerard instead of use contraception affect other aspects of their lives? What influence does their decision to carefully maintain fertility charts have on the broader U.S? This project studies Catholics who reject modern birth control methods in favor of Natural Family Planning (NFP). My research asks why women and couples choose to regulate family size using prayer and Vatican documents, basal thermometers and mucus measurements, and abstinence within marriage. How does their choice affect other aspects of their lives? What influence does this decision to eschew advanced medical technology have on their cultural context? These questions, which point to the power struggles between religious ideals and US cultural norms, drive this project.
NFP families are both the product of and intentionally contest prevailing trends in American familial norms. NFP-practicing women embody a strict interpretation of Catholic teaching—they describe themselves as “open to life” and tell me children are “gifts, not burdens.” However, like their non-Catholic peers, these Catholic women expect their husbands to be actively engaged fathers and argue that women’s health concerns are reasons to disavow the pill. Their kids play soccer with children conceived through IVF and they attend Mass with two-child families relying on IUDs. These multiple influences on family life make NFP rich terrain for reconsidering the entanglements between religion and US culture.
Drawing on this ethnographic work, I have published on aspects of gender and sexual norms.
My research is located at the intersection of contemporary culture, religious practices, and daily life. I reconsider religious experience, gender and religion, and the relationship between religion and U.S. culture. My work interweaves the study of culture with the study of religious subjectivities. The study of how religious practitioners pray complicates scholarly understandings of the relationships between religion and culture. My research posits that prayer lives must be studied critically and seriously in order to understand how religious actors move in the world.