God in Gotham
The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan
- ISBN: 9780674045682
- Published By: Harvard University Press
- Published: September 2020
Max Weber anticipated a “disenchanted” modern world that would be hard on religion (5). In God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan, Jon Butler tackles this expectation for religion, taking New York City, the largest city in world in 1925, as the test case. His story spans the 1880s to the 1960s, arguing that contrary to the expectations of many, modern Manhattan did not suffocate organized religion. Rather, “the faithful” thrived and adapted while using the tools of modernity—“the modernity so feared by turn-of-the-century defenders of religion had become religion’s engine” (229). In the conclusion, Butler introduces a final facet to the argument. He shows that this Manhattan-forged religion then exported itself to the rest of America, represented in the migration of “Gothamites” to the suburbs in the mid-twentieth century. Thus, just as he challenged the skeptics of religion in the city, Butler challenges the naysayers who claimed suburban religion was “vacuous” and consumeristic. In fact, it was modern, Manhattan-made (211-13).
Butler unfolds the history by focusing on the three major faith groups in New York at that time: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (27-28). He does occasionally note others. In each chapter, he works through the various challenges that modernity presented to religion: urbanization and anonymity, professionalization and rationalization, materialism and disenchantment, anxiety, class, immigration, pluralism, etc.
Butler explores how the faithful organized and institutionalized their religion in the growing metropolis, noting similarities and differences among the three key groups. Late 19th-century Protestants employed new sociological tools for studying the city’s landscape and demographics and presented the findings at conferences in order to enhance missions’ efforts among the urban poor and immigrants (43-44). While Catholics tended to change little about church hierarchy and worship, they applied modern means of rationalization and management to their charities (57-58). Jewish synagogues “supplanted the disappearing chevras” of early immigrants and expanded beyond mere places of worship to “large-scale meeting and gathering places” that “had classrooms, social halls, libraries, gymnasiums, and even swimming pools” to meet new urban social and organizational needs (72-73). For Protestants, Jews, and Catholics, Manhattan was also a place for major institutions of education (e.g., the Jewish Theological Seminary) and often became the national headquarters for denominations and organizations (e.g., the American Bible Society).
While the city sprawl might seem to dwarf or hide religion, Butler notes that the religious in various ways “sacralized” the urban space (79, 87). Whether renting storefronts for worship, purchasing large buildings (often from other religious groups), or filing into New York’s streets for fairs or protests, Manhattan, far from being a secular space, was filled by religious persons and organizations (93, 99-101, 124, 126). W.E.B. DuBois even thought that Harlem might be “‘overchurched’” (137). More than that, New York was a center of publishing, radio, and TV, and the religious harnessed these same media outlets and airwaves to enhance the reach of their message (79, 102). From Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen to the positive thinking preaching of Norman Vincent Peale to the gospel records of the Fisk Quartet, the sermons, talk shows, and music made their way into households across the nation (101-8, 141, 196-97).
Perhaps two of the most interesting chapters are the ones that deal with race in Manhattan (chapter 4) and the city’s religious intellectuals (chapter 5). Immigrants came not only from Europe during this period, but also from the South and Caribbean to greatly increase the black population. In many ways, black Protestants shared similar beliefs to their white counterparts and also made use of the same modern tools (129, 134-36). However, the urban alienation they uniquely faced was white prejudice and segregation (90, 120-23). This brought a unique dynamic to black churches. The lack of opportunities for blacks in non-religious sectors elevated the role of ministers, making churches one of their few spheres for action and influence (121, 149-50). Their prominence was not just in the city, but often national, despite being in denominations whose center of gravity was in the South (119). The ministers, while often preaching to similar topics as white preachers, also spoke out against injustice and white stereotyping of blacks (121). Ministers often organized to address the inequalities everywhere: business, housing, legal system, media, and denominations.
Butler also tells of several prominent intellectual religious leaders from Manhattan, including Rienhold Niehbur, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Tillich, Dorothy Day, and Adam Clayton Powell Sr., among others. These figures, in friendship and through institutions, used their religious traditions to engage the issues of modernity, often leading these religions (intentionally or not) to adapt to the modern world (155, 188, 191, 194). Throughout the book, he also notes that the response to the modern challenges New Yorkers from the various faith traditions faced was not uniform and controversy was frequent, often leading to splits, fallouts, and public criticisms (183, 187). Butler shows the various tensions between these figures and their denominations as they all wrestled with urban pluralism and proposed ideas and efforts to navigate diversity and develop varying degrees of tolerance (209, 230-31).
One potential criticism that could be levied against the argument centers on the nature of religious adaptation and secularization. For those anticipating the complete demise of religion in the modern urban world, Butler sufficiently challenges such a position. However, not all secularization theories anticipate that. Butler clearly suggests that adaptation is inherent to religion (230), but this is a disputed suggestion that brings us into the realm of religion and theology, which is beyond the scope of the book, though Butler provides some basic discussion about a definition of religion in the introduction (5-7). Moreover, on the historical side, some of the characters in Butler’s history who were anxious about such adaptation and change may not have been comforted by certain accommodations to modernity (231). The intellectuals that Butler puts forward, as he notes, generally “leaned liberal” with certain notions about adaption (155). The hard-to-categorize Niehbur is one character who had concerns about the “health” of modern, urban religiosity (156). What about the concerns of those who did not see certain adaptations as an advance or survival? This part of the story is not told perhaps as clearly or engaged as deeply.
Overall, Butler’s argument is quite strong, both in dealing with issues related to religion and modernity, and specifically on the significance of New York for American religious history. The twists of his argument will certainly resituate the place and significance of Manhattan for American religious life more broadly.
Justin McGeary is the director of Christian Studies at John Witherspoon College.Justin McGearyDate Of Review:April 21, 2022