Jon Butler

 

On his book God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan

Cover Interview of March 17, 2021

In a nutshell

Max Weber, the German sociologist, and his wife Marianne weren’t impressed with Manhattan’s spirituality when they visited New York City during their 1904 trip to the United States. They probed for religion throughout their American visit but found only disappointment in Manhattan. “The tremendous increase in the clubs and orders here substitutes for the declining organization of the church,” Weber observed. The sermons they heard were boring. St. Paul’s Chapel, built in the 1760s, a “little church” with a “gothic tower that tries to assert itself like an island of peace amid the untamed din of the streets,” symbolized to him faith’s fate in the urban cauldron. Fifteen years later Weber famously proclaimed the “disenchantment of the world.” Wonders, spirits, and the miraculous were evaporating, giving way to bureaucracy, science, technology, and the loss of face-to-face community, when rural villagers flocked to cities. Modernity was killing religion as Western civilization had known it for centuries.

In contrast, Judy Blume’s 1970 teen fiction bestseller, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, described American suburbs full of religion, an extension of young married couples’ urban religious upbringing. Far from confronting modern “disenchantment,” Margaret Simons, Blume’s sixth grade, Manhattan-born, newly suburbanized protagonist found herself surrounded by synagogues and churches. Which was right for her?

Margaret’s infamous talk about boys, her first bra, and her eagerly anticipated first period won Blume immediate attention from school censors. Yet Blume’s title caught Margaret’s main worry: religion. Margaret had none. Facing their parents’ objection to a mixed marriage, Margaret’s Jewish father and Protestant mother punted on faith. But all her suburban classmates “belonged,” and Margaret persistently sought out religion in suburban congregations and nightly “talks with God,” her prayers raising transcendent questions about loneliness, shame, and responsibility.

Judy Blume versus Max Weber? God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan bets that Blume was right, not Weber. Far from exemplifying Weber’s famous “disenchantment,” modern Manhattan birthed an urban spiritual landscape of unparalleled breadth that post-WWII Manhattan exiles sought to reproduce in the suburbs. In the Manhattan of their childhood, modernity refreshed religion.

Between the 1880s and the 1940s Gothamites stuffed the city with the sacred, just when Weber thought it would be dying. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants peppered the borough with sanctuaries black and white, great and small. Manhattan became a center of religious publishing and broadcasting. It nourished a host of spiritual reformers from Reinhold Niebuhr to Abraham Heschel, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr., Dorothy Day, and Norman Vincent Peale. Nontraditional white groups met in midtown hotels while nontraditional black worshipers gathered in Harlem’s storefront churches. Though denied the ministry in all the major denominations, women shaped the lived religion of congregations everywhere, founded missionary and literary societies, and fused spirituality and political activism in organizations such as the Zionist Hadassah.

After 1945, when young Manhattan families rushed to the New Jersey and Long Island suburbs, they recreated the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religious worlds to which Judy Blume’s young Margaret Simons so wished she could belong—none of this possible without religion’s success in early twentieth-century Manhattan, contrary to Weber’s famous prognostication.