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Part 4: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals and the religious context of 1975

There was not much happiness among the major religions of the city either. In City Center Manhattan the evangelical and liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews were all in a depleted state. If Tammy had read The New York Times in August before she moved to the city, she would have discovered the dismal news from […]

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Lower East Side, Manhattan. Photo by A Journey through NYC religions

There was not much happiness among the major religions of the city either. In City Center Manhattan the evangelical and liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews were all in a depleted state.

If Tammy had read The New York Times in August before she moved to the city, she would have discovered the dismal news from religion in the city.

The reporter Kenneth A. Briggs summed up his extensive interviews, “Religious leaders widely believe that since 1965, their institutions have lost both visibility and impact on public decisions. Fewer people now attend worship, and religious spokesmen say they have lost leverage with public officials and income has generally gone down.” The Times noted that the declining influence of religion in the city was symbolized by Mayor John Lindsay’s decision to stop the short-lived tradition of regular mayoral breakfasts with religious leaders that had started with Mayor Robert Wagner. Further, “White Protestants…have by and large withered into insignificance as a religious political force,” the Times said. In 1968 the Council of Churches removed “Protestant” from its title as an effort to augment its numbers with an ecumenism with non-Protestants. Seminaries like Union Theological Seminary at times tried a similar strategy. It added a Pentecostal and a Catholic to its faculty to attract more students, without much success.

Among the reasons that religious leaders cited for their institutional decline were demographic changes, liberal theology, lack of cooperation between churches, organizational sclerosis, and loss of relevance to the baby boomer culture. They could have added a Spenglerian decline of the city’s moral convictions.

The Catholic church had not adjusted to the numerical rise of Hispanics in its pews, was beset by turmoil over the agendas concluded out of Vatican II in 1965, secularism, priestly defections, aging congregations, the movement of white Catholics out of the city and declining revenues. Cardinal Terence Cooke and Brooklyn’s Bishop Francis J. Mugaveco lamented a decline in mass attendance and institutional loyalty. The city’s Catholics were disunited over issues of abortion and birth control. Briggs reported that Catholic leaders felt that “the upholding of abortion by the Supreme Court and defeats of parochial-school-aid measures had sobering effects on the church, among them the recognition that the church holds little sway over public morality.” “We are dealing in a difficult time in the church,” said Rev. Philip Murnion, director of the archdiocese office of pastoral research. He optimistically hoped that the worst was over.

The Protestant church lost members because of its theological uncertainty, migration to the suburbs, racial division and a “survival” mentality that was closed off to new options and peoples. Rev. Dr. Bryant Kirkland, an evangelically-inclined pastor with an old-fashioned preaching style at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, declared, “The city has largely abandoned religion…”

Jewish congregations lost members to the suburbs and its population was aging without replacement. Intermarriage and loss of interest among its youth contributed to the Jewish decline. Rabbi William Berkowitz, the chair of the NY Board of Rabbis , said, “They’re just not coming to temple in urban areas.” He blamed secularism.

However, the Times also noted that “Hard data on the city’s religious make-up are not available.” The data was not collected for Catholics and Protestants because of a reticence to do statistical work and cooperative ecumenical enumeration. Although the Official Catholic Directory showed an unchanged 2.9 million total for Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, this statistic was not based on any careful enumeration.

The Council of Churches of the City of New York only had hard data for member churches. However, even the claim of the council that it represented 1700 churches was contested. The Times noted that “its many critics contend that the number is grossly inflated…”

The Council estimate was that the number of Protestants in the city was actually growing, standing in 1975 at about 2.4 million. The director of their research also estimated that 80% of Protestants in the city were African American. He appears to have arrived at his total Protestant population by assuming that most (he says, 80%) of African American New Yorkers were Protestant, offsetting the 46% drop in the population of White denominations between 1965 and 1975. Leland Gartrell predicted that by 1995 there would be only about 100,000 White Protestants in the city.

At best both the Catholic and Protestant population figures are estimates of religious identity, not church attendance. The actual church attendance may have been in the 20-25% range for those who said that they were Protestant. Most studies of African American religion, for example, have found that around 28% of the African American population in the north attended church regularly.

The figures for the Jewish population in New York City are also uncertain, though perhaps better. Jewish organizations estimated between 1.3 and 1.5 million Jews remained in the city in 1975. This was a significant drop from 1965.

A careful study of Jews in the South Bronx by Seymour J. Perlin gives a good indication of the crisis of Judaism in the city. In 1940 there were about 260 tax-exempt synagogues and twice as many unregistered synagogues in the South Bronx. By 2007 there were three active synagogues with fewer than 2500 Jews. One synagogue was the African American Congregation Mount Horab on 1024 Reverend Polite Avenue .

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Friday, December 10: Part 5: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals and the City's comeback

8 Responses to “Part 4: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals and the religious context of 1975” Leave a reply ›

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