Jon Butler


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

Cover Interview of March 17, 2021


God in Gotham wasn’t written to celebrate religion. But it was written to help readers understand what might have been accomplished by religious people in seemingly strained settings. In this regard, it is implicitly and explicitly critical of two strands in writing about religion in twenty-first-century America.

First, God in Gotham is critical of histories that implicitly and explicitly celebrate the religious commitment of previous rather than recent times. Historians and scholars of religion have spent too much time insisting that before 1500 religion in the West was essentially “axiomatic,” or a given. But after 1500 (yes, it’s not an accident that the Protestant Reformation dates from 1517) it is said that Westerners faced choices that ultimately led to secularization and its steady effacement of religion. Such accounts dismiss the complexity of the past. Religious commitment and adherence were problematic in all ages and all settings, if hardly in the same ways. It was not without reason that before 1500 every European nation attached horrific penalties to those who rejected religion broadly or spurned its specific government- or church-sanctioned forms, including maiming and death.

Second, God in Gotham is critical of histories that treat twentieth-century American life as all but bereft of religion, especially from the 1920s into the 1970s. They often bypass the deep religious dimensions of the post-1945 civil rights crusade, despite the religious affiliations of so many civil rights leaders. Then such histories breathlessly scramble to describe the rise of conservative evangelical politics, deftly avoiding any account of how the movement could have emerged from the seemingly silent religious stage of the previous half-century.

God in Gotham is hardly without criticism of the figures and movements it describes and discusses. Nor does it suggest that success in grappling with urban modernity after 1880 precluded new difficulties such as those that have emerged powerfully since the 1980s—from the sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism and Protestantism to the stark decline in the mainstream denominations and the rise of the religious “nones”, especially among the young, who are indifferent to traditional organized religion. For better or worse, God in Gotham is a distinctly historical book about the fate of organized religion in a specific place during specific decades. It is not a breezy prognostication about religion’s future in twenty-first century America or the world. However potentially interesting, that is a task blessedly beyond the skills of a historian, and certainly beyond the skills of this one.