Library Pick: New York Glory: Religions In the City
Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus takes issue with the notion that New York City is a godless, amoral town.
"I have sometimes suggested that over the heavenly gates will be a sign: `From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, the New Jerusalem,'" Neuhaus writes in the book New York Glory. "I add that those who in this life did not like New York City will have another place to go."
New York Glory: Religions of the City (400 pages, New York University Press, $20) is a collection of two dozen essays, bringing together some of the most significant research on religion in the city. The contributors represent various academic and advocacy projects like the City University of New York's analysis of religion among Latinos, the American Jewish Committee, Queens College's Asian religion studies, and the Religion and Immigrant Incorporation project at New School University.
The authors argue that despite New York's image as a "Babylon on the Hudson," it is one of the most diverse concentrations of faith in the world.
New York Glory begins with a demographic analysis of the current state of religion in city. For example:
Combining statistics with case studies on topics like a Flushing Zen monastery, the assimilation of Italian parishes, and politics in African-American churches, the book focuses on broad trends of how faiths have been transformed by the city.
For example, the Nation of Islam, which began in the Midwest, was not successful in establishing congregations in New York City until Malcolm X took leadership in a Harlem mosque. His leadership was essential in opening the Black Muslim faith beyond African-American culture. Today, Malcolm X's mosque in Harlem - which hosts around 500 people for Friday services - counts nearly half of its members as African or Asian immigrants.
A chapter on Russian Jews illustrates how religion serves as a way for some immigrant groups to maintain their own identity in the city. Russian Jews, who which make up a quarter of the Jewish population of the city, tend to see their faith as a personal, rather than a public matter. Therefore, Russian Jews have been slower to assimilate into the larger Jewish population than other immigrant groups.
The city has even produced its own brands of faith. For example, Yoruba began when African-Americans combined Protestant beliefs with Santeria, a Cuban-Catholic religion with roots in African customs.
While the book makes the argument that New York City is not a secular city, it also explores the extent to which New York is a place where people leave their faith. More than seven percent of New Yorkers describe themselves as "agnostic," equal to the combined number of Presbyterians, Muslims, Hindus, Episcopalians, and Pentecostals in the city. "In New York City, power, fame, money, and sex are, in this sense, also time-tested popular religions," writes editor Tony Carnes.
The main conclusion of New York Glory is that religion's impact on New York City's social and cultural life has been underappreciated. Faith, the authors contend, is as important to understanding the city as a whole as categories of race, country of origin, and income.