Jon Butler

 

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

Cover Interview of March 17, 2021

A close-up

Browsing readers might try Chapter 5, “God’s Urban Hothouse.” Anyone doubtful about religiosity in early and mid-twentieth-century Manhattan might profitably turn to this chapter, which describes Manhattan as a modern urban spiritual wonderland.

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Manhattan stimulated an outpouring of individual and institutional religious creativity unsurpassed in any other American locale, urban or rural, and in any century.

Mordecai Kaplan, Abraham Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik recast understandings of American Judaism. Dorothy Day, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and his son, the congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., asserted religion’s required and necessary role in challenging inhumanity and bigotry. Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Jacques Maritain, and Norman Vincent Peale transformed theological and cultural conceptions of religion in ways that have had enormous, lasting effects. They transformed modern theology and religious thinking amidst the din of urban life that Weber thought so spiritually hostile.

Manhattan’s vibrancy lured formidable faculties to Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshiva’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, all of them modern, well-financed, bureaucratically organized institutions. If anything, Manhattan publishers actually increased their output of religious books, which Manhattan’s Publishers Weekly publicized to booksellers and public libraries across the nation. Manhattan-born pastoral counseling combined psychology with religious advising, much of it led by the otherwise often criticized Norman Vincent Peale. The remarkably spiritual Alcoholics Anonymous emerged in Manhattan in the late 1930s. Its famous Big Book described how drunks might assemble a “moral inventory,” then turn their “lives over to the care of God as we understand him,” the italicized words revealing how AA adopted an amorphously powerful spirituality that eschewed narrow religious doctrines.

No single “Manhattan theology” emerged from these thinkers and practitioners. Most leaned liberal but in strikingly different, often contradictory, ways. Most addressed their inherited traditions, but all of them found audiences outside these boundaries. Most also were immigrants, like so many other Gothamites. Only Tillich and Maritain arrived with substantial European reputations. Niebuhr, Heschel, Soloveitchik, Day, and Peale all saw the impact of their work amplified by the opportunities Manhattan provided.

Together they fostered passionate new religious visions that changed what God and religious life meant to millions of Americans, plus others across the world, and did so in decades and an urban place that have long seemed inhospitable to things spiritual.