The decline of the evangelicals is peculiar to a fifty year period within the city’s almost four hundred year history. The religious decline was bracketed by a predominance of evangelicalism in the 19th and early 20th Century and its revival starting in the 1970s. The periods of evangelical effervescence were marked by massive immigration, migration from other parts of the United States, and conversions. The period of evangelical decline, which was marked after World War I, was characterized by low immigration, Protestant moves to the suburbs and, perhaps, low number of conversions.
A general decline of religion’s role in the city was reinforced by a secularizing of institutional worldviews. For example, the city media started to de-emphasize religion as an important aspect in solving urban problems. In the 1930s the New York Times changed its editorial loyalty from moral/religious reform to secular scientific political management. Although there seems to have been a surge of religious and Protestant fervor after World War II, by 1957 the Protestant Council of Churches of the City of New York and Catholic leaders asked Reverend Billy Graham to come help rescue the Christian churches from drastic decline. Many commentators claimed that New York City had a social and cultural ecology that was hospitable to secularism and hostile to faith.
In a 1969 article Nathan Glazer wrote that religion would no longer exercise a political role in New York City politics. Racial identity had become the new powerbroker. Many took Harvey Cox’s declaration of the triumph of The Secular City as an apt description of New York City. Cox claimed that “the rise of urban civilization and the collapse of traditional religion are the two main hallmarks of our era…The gods of traditional religion live on as private fetishes or the patrons of congenial groups, but they play no significant role in the public life of the secular metropolis…This is the age of the secular city.”
Rev. Billy Graham @ Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1957
Next Monday, December 6, 2010: Part 3: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals and NYC around 1975