This Holy Week will be witnessed by large crowds of worshippers in churches and synagogues. Most of us pay at least lip service to a religion in our lives. New religious worships sites are announced every week. Our civic leaders have necessarily also become alert to the importance of faith among many of their constituents. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg once famously proclaimed that “there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God's love and mercy…”
Our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has emerged as a champion for a postsecular New York city government that brings seculars and the religious together for the democratic welfare of the city. As a Brooklyn resident, De Blasio came to appreciate how religion is finely interwoven into the texture of people’s lives. In the run-up to becoming mayor, he reached out to the religious by marching with them to protest their exclusion from equal access to after-hours space for community groups in public schools. After his election, he has enunciated a conciliatory tone to the religious.
Last year, Jennifer Jones Austin, who is close to the mayor and is the CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare agencies, told A Journey, “He seeks out their [faith leaders’] thinking. He appreciates that the faith leadership community is involved with the everyday-ness that he cannot be as mayor.” De Blasio recently told The New York Times, “If you are going to understand the community and the city, you have to understand how deeply faithful people are and how central it is to people in their lives.”
In New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has openly identified his Catholic values in his political life, and Corey Booker, an evangelical Christian, was elected in 2013 as the state’s U.S. Senator.
So, is there a demographic basis for this swerve toward the religious in metropolitan politics?
The recent online publication of The American Values Atlas gives some idea of the pervasive distribution of religious identities in the New York City metropolitan area.
Religion in the metropolitan area
About two-thirds of adults in the New York City metropolitan area identify themselves as Christian, according to the recently released atlas by the Public Religion Research Institute. That is probably one reason that last week, the Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams zipped into a church for "Men's Sunday." At Calvary Fellowship AME Church in Bedford Stuyvesant, he enlisted them as volunteers into his "10,000 Concerned Brooklynites" to work on bettering the schools, youth and the elderly. Calvary feeds about 300 needy people each Tuesday at their kitchen.
About one in five say that they don’t identify with any religion, though this doesn’t mean that they are not religious in some other way.
(The 4% "Other" includes 1% Jehovah Witness, 1 % Buddhist, 1% "Other religion," <.5% Mormon, and <.5% Unitarian/Universalist.)
People in the New York City metropolitan area are a little less Christian than the nation as a whole, but are more likely to identify with a religion.
8% of people in the New York metro area say that they are Jews, either religious or secular. 3% say that they are Hindus, 2% Muslim, 1% Buddhist. 4% offered a variety of other religious affiliations.
There are four times more likely to be Jewish than the nation as a whole, three times more likely to be Hindu and two times more likely to be Muslim.
The telephone survey in English and Spanish of 3,383 adults of 18 years of age or older covers the 20.1 million people in the U.S. Census’ definition of the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area at the end of 2014 (19.8 million at the time of the survey). The census determines the boundary, which range from parts of northern New Jersey to parts of Connecticut, according a formula that indicates a high degree of economic integration with New York City proper.
The question used to establish religious identity asked, “What is your present religion, if any?”
Identification with a particular religious affiliation often correlates with social and political beliefs. However, to claim a religion for oneself does not indicate whether one has membership in a religious congregation, how often one attends worship services, knowledge and adherence to particular beliefs or how one’s life affected by the religious identification. The American Values Atlas does not yet provide data to answer these type of questions. Recently, the California-survey organization Barna published the results of its February 3-11, 2015 poll on what are the most important self-identified influences on one’s personal identity. The respondents, even the respondents with a Christian religious identity, rated family, country and faith in that order of importance for their self-identity.
Nationally, personal religiosity is not declining. However, religious affiliation and participation in religious organizations has been declining, according to the findings of a recently released 2014 General Social Survey.
It may be that the religious effervescence that has been rising in NYC is ahead of national trends. For example, the proportion of “non-religious” is lower in the city than other metropolitan areas, according to some major surveys.
Next, we will examine more in depth the Christians whom Pope Francis will encounter when he comes in September.
With additional reporting by Melissa Kimiadi