Jon Butler

 

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

Cover Interview of March 17, 2021

The wide angle

God in Gotham is meant to trace the unexpected and widely unnoticed resilience of traditional organized religion in early twentieth-century Manhattan—Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism—when Weber worried about “disenchantment” and religious leaders fretted about each other and the press of urban density, rampant pluralism, and spirit-crushing anonymity that seemed ill-fitted for traditional face-to-face rural religiosity.

The book emerged from three sources: teaching, a friendship, and a late adolescent fascination.

Teaching: thirty years of managing lectures and seminars for undergraduate and graduate students consistently exposed a conundrum: if modern urbanism suffocated religion, as Weber and secularization theorists said it would and did, how could religion so powerfully pop up like a jack-in-the-box after 1950? Martin Luther King, Jr. marshaled faith as a central force in the civil rights crusade. Jerry Falwell and his successors built a conservative cultural movement on Protestant evangelicalism. Judy Blume entitled her rampant best seller, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, without a hint of anachronism.

A friendship: I was trained to study Britain’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American colonies but spent almost three decades discussing twentieth-century city life, religion, and secularization with Eric Monkkonen, UCLA’s distinguished urban historian. We had been history graduate students at the University of Minnesota, were married to former college roommates, and talked history, especially urban history, every summer for multiple decades of Minneapolis summers as we shepherded our two boys (each) to wading pools and basketball camps. Sadly, Eric died in 2005. I so wish he could have read the book that the conversations produced and tell me what he thought of it.

A fascination: what Midwestern farm town boy or girl isn’t lured by cities, reinforced by a senior class trip (1958) that included three glorious days in Manhattan, with West Side Story playing near our hotel and Tad’s Steak House, the seeming paragon of culinary sophistication, a block away? I was. Happily, the lure of Manhattan never abated.

God in Gotham thus became the perfect project. Where better than Manhattan, the seeming epitome of modern American secularism, to solve a conundrum about American cultural and religious history, lean on the deepest of friendships, and satisfy a long-delayed pre-college fascination?