White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan,” by Jon Butler

Published Monday, January 11, 2021 By Justin McGeary

“Religion is not in a robust state of health in modern civilization. Vast multitudes, particularly in industrial and urban centers, live without seeking its sanctions for their actions and die without claiming its comforts in their extremities.”

Reinhold Neibuhr, quote on p. 156

The mid-20th century New York theologian Niebuhr’s concern for religion’s modern destiny “in [the] industrial and urban” world is historian Jon Butler’s focus in God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan, though Butler has a more positive assessment of religion’s “state of health.” Butler paints a landscape of religious vitality in arguably the heart of burgeoning modernity—Manhattan. He walks through its streets from the later 19th century when the city swelled with European and southern black immigrants to the mid-20th century when the grand, post-World War II suburban exodus occurred. He prioritizes three major religious groups: Catholics, Jews, and Protestants—black and white. Butler surveys newspapers, books, architecture, institutional histories, black-and-white photographs, paintings, demographical studies, public figures, and more to construct his narrative. Butler also shows the disproportionate influence this tiny slice of New York City had nationally, then and now.

Challenging Weber and others’ anticipation of secular “disenchantment” or individualistic religion, Butler shows European, Jewish, and black immigrants in Manhattan actively employing modern techniques to organize life with, in, and around religion. The Protestant establishment did similarly, using incipient sociological demographic methods, for example, to understand the urban landscape and the best ways to reach the poor, immigrant, and unchurched. Irish Catholics, Orthodox Jews, American Presbyterians, and others built institutions and societies (in and around the church/synagogue) to care for the poor, promote temperance, advance education, and pursue other causes. They organized in fundamentally modern fashion. Protestants professionalized using modern management theory to organize increased numbers of church staff and employed modern psychology in pastoral care (45, 195). “Nuns transformed the Catholic presence in the city” by building institutions for education, health, and poverty relief (54). Manhattan became the headquarters of numerous organizations, such as the American Bible Society, and through various seminaries, such as the Jewish Theological Seminary, central in its influence upon denominations (67).

Butler demonstrates that rather than disenchanting urban streets, Manhattan’s religious peoples “sacralized” the modern spaces by building churches, synagogues, schools, social centers (often as part of churches), and other structures. If not by building, they brought religion to the city by renting storefront space. To reach those accustomed to Broadway, they advertised church with neon lights and in modern newspapers. With new technologies, they filled the airwaves with radio sermons or recorded gospel music in Manhattan studios. They also paraded in the streets in large numbers to celebrate, mourn, and protest. They enchanted the modern spaces.

These groups did not always organize and engage modernity in the exact same ways. Jewish religious life was quite diffuse compared with the centralized hierarchy of the Catholic church. In his chapter on Jim Crow in Manhattan, Butler notes that black Protestants responded to modernity in identical ways as their white counterparts, but faced the tectonic difference of racism forcing them to address matters of housing, poverty, employment, and other injustices. This latter reality encouraged more significant political activism to spring from the black church.

The most engaging chapter is Butler’s exploration of a few key Manhattan 20th century figures from the great depression and World War II era, including Reinhold Niehbur, Dorothy Day, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Norman Vincent Peale, and others. These figures provide faces to the anonymity of Manhattan life and show humans wrestling with the modern conditions of anxiety, war, poverty, bigotry, and pluralism through theology, psychology, politics, and protest. Each of these figures took different angles and tactics, all making changes to their received religious heritage, though some more radically and intentionally than others (199).

Butler concludes the book by moving with New Yorkers in their post-war flight to the suburbs. He notes that they took their Manhattan-fashioned religion with them, building churches and synagogues with larger social spaces to host their religious activities and institutions. They embraced even more robust religious toleration, though they retained their racism and segregation often well into the 21st century. Suburbanization’s religion and life may face criticism from more recent generations as vacuous and “not in a state of health” (ala Niehbhur), but Butler notes that it is in fact the religion of modernity, forged in the fires of Manhattan, and still evolving and exercising influence (212, 215).

Contrary to numerous secular nay-sayers (e.g., Weber) or anxious religious leaders such as Niebuhr (or later 19th c. evangelicals), Butler shows that religion adapted to modernity rather than being trampled on the concrete. He directly challenges the expectation that modernity would “disenchant the world” and William James’ idea that religious institutions stifle the genuine spiritual life of the individual. In numerous ways, Butler is right and his argument persuasive. The impression while reading Butler is that religion overcame modernity (or nearly so) and the fears and projections of religious decline were misguided. Yet, there are ways the picture may be too rosy.

An intriguing case in point is Alcoholics Anonymous. It began in Ohio, but one of the founders brought it to New York where it “developed a unique and quietly powerful spiritual ethos in Manhattan” (203-204). The “spiritual ethos” of AA “moved away from traditional denominational and doctrinal focuses and toward broad issues of human responsibility and ethics, as Tillich and Heschel” also did. It found famous expression in the popular, generic AA prayer (“God grant me serenity…”), which seems to have been written by Niehbuhr (205-206). This popular, semi-religious movement has clear parallels, noted by Butler, to Manhattan’s intellectual religious leaders. Did, then, religion overcome modernity? Are the anxieties and concerns for religion of other more traditionalist actors in Butlers’ story inaccurate?

Many of Butler’s historical characters would not share his optimistic assessment of modern religion. What were their concerns? Butler shows religion to be vital and active in Manhattan, yet the historical characters often felt that religious life was fragile in the Manhattan pressure cooker—why? Why were the historical actors so concerned? Butler doesn’t adequately address their concerns, but only tries to counter them by showing that religion was generally surviving, or even thriving.     

Certainly, one key question relating to any discussions of a secularization thesis pertains to the nature of the changes in religion—both belief and practice. Indeed, if one holds to a secularization expectation of complete religious demise in modernity, then Butler’s argument is successful as Manhattan is “God’s urban hothouse” (chapter five). However, if secularization does not destroy religion completely, but rather bends it toward its own ends and empties religion of its essential content, then what? Is it a triumph of religion to replace even a generic late 19th century American Protestant confession with the positive thinking of Manhattan’s famed preacher Norman Vincent Peale?  The immense politicization of religion throughout the book does not sound like religion waiting for a city made without hands.

In his conclusion, Butler does point to the reality that religion regularly changes, he points to the Jewish diaspora or the 1555 Protestant/Catholic Peace of Augsburg as demonstrations of religion’s adaptability (230). Yet, it is not only an historical, but also a theological question. Are the religious changes in Manhattan after 1880 til 1960 comparable to those of the Peace of Augsburg? Such a sweeping, and brief, comparison does not feel satisfying. Butler’s argument has strong historical support, but theological and religious definitions are not substantially considered.

Butler certainly values religion and portrays it as an unshakably human thing. He presents religious toleration, religion without racism, and women’s equality and ordination as facets of good religion (and he notes the frequent failures on this score). Yet, this is far from a creed, nor are any of these values only to be found in modernity. In fact, to think so might still infer the remains of some Enlightenment values, if in a modified form.

Butler keeps the story engaging when it could easily be lost in statistics that give way to the very anonymity the modern city creates.  His narrative’s urban portrait captures the feel of a densely packed, chaotic modern world, but one awash with the energy of immigrants, churches, organizers, nuns, intellectuals, politicians, rabbis, and activists bustling about in Manhattan, propelled by deep religious impulses, beliefs, and institutions.

Justin McGeary is Assistant Professor and Director of Christian Studies at John Witherspoon College in Rapid City, South Dakota.

  • Justin McGeary