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Postsecular NYC & Jacob Riis

In NYC’s history evangelical Christians, Jews, Catholics and secularists have often allied for the common good. Might photo-journalist Jacob Riis guide us to a new “bleeding-heart” alliance?

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Riis flash photograph captured a Madonna-like dignity of a poor woman living in a totally dark cellar in 1880s' Lower East Side.

Jacob Riis became the most famous reporter in early 20th century America. His journalism led the way to abolishing unlivable tenement housing and police force corruption and brutality. His photographs and writing caused the enforcement or creation of housing codes requiring fire escapes, windows, toilets and running water. His expose of the likely transmission of cholera through the city's water supply led to today's clean drinking water. Riis' reporting also led to playgrounds for public schools and decent housing for the homeless. He summed up his difficult life and work in the classic book about New York City's poor immigrants How the Other Half Lives. Riis was also an evangelical Christian.

Until recently, Riis’ evangelical Christian faith was hardly noticed by scholars of religion or of New York City. The Encyclopedia of NYC called him a “social reformer, photographer and writer.” The Wikipedia describes him as  “a Danish-American muckraker journalist, photographer, and social reformer.” These and other sources miss how powerfully Riis was guided by his evangelical faith. Riis says that it fundamentally influenced how he did his journalism, photography and social reform. The omission seems to be an example of an unself-critical secularism misguiding our scholarship. The omission of Riis’ faith also hurts democratic progress in a society that is much more religious because Riis himself is an exemplar of how religious and non-religious people can mutually benefit each other.

Postsecular society and democracy


Jurgen Habermas says that we live in “a postsecular society.” By that characterization he means that we live in a world where religion is no longer in decline—if it ever was, and has reclaimed a place in the public sphere and public discourse. Consequently, Habermas says we need to re-theorize religion’s place in modern society for the sake of intellectual and democratic progress.

Craig Calhoun, the president of the Social Science Research Council, has elaborated on Habermas’ call for the inclusion of religion in public discourse for the sake of democratic advance. First, in his “Religion, Secularism and Public Reason,” Calhoun notes the ways religion is a field of vital growth within modernity. He argues that the current state of religion in modern society indicates that it is not merely a survival from bygone days nor a private matter. Justin Beaumont and Chris Baker have promoted a research project to explore “the public resurgence of religion” as “one of the defining features of this century, which has not continued the modernist and secularized trajectory assumed during the latter half of the 20th century.”

Furthermore, religious folk are large contributors to democratic movements and social progress around the world. Of course, there are also undemocratic, inhumane forms of religious activity. Will our response be to try to suppress both democratic religious progressives and religious authoritarians? Does not this weaken the prospects for democratic progress?

Consequently, Calhoun argues, it is no longer plausible to claim that democracy and progress can be conceptualized in secular terms. Or to claim, as John Rawls has done, that public reason is properly purely secular.

The present developments within modern society of the rise of significant religious democratic partisans makes it a matter of justice to include religion into public discourse. It is anti-democratic to demand that religious adherents leave their identifying beliefs at the capital or university doors in order to be allowed to partake of public discourse in those arenas. The growing number of religious adherents in modern society are not going to neuter themselves before secular altars anyway. It would be much better to include them in conversations that have democratic outcomes.

But how can community be established with a public discourse that includes all religious and non-religious parties? In his essay “The task of the translator” Walter Benjamin asked, how can one translate the objective formal facts as well as the unfathomable, mysterious and poetic essentiality of a discourse? Drawing from the work of Habermas, Calhoun, Beaumont and Benjamin, the tasks of creating a democratic discourse and community in the context of postsecular society includes at least seven elements.

The first consideration is the incommensurable authorities that religious and non-religious participants bring to public discourse. In some matters there will be positions that are not reconcilable. However, democracy has never depended upon agreement about many existential issues. What democratic discourse does depend upon, however, is that the parties agree that democracy and relatively unhindered public discourse possess authoritative charisma for anybody included in the discourse, or, at a minimum, avoidance of some classes of anti-democratic activities.

Inclusiveness also means that the authority of the democratic state (and the democratic academy) should be exercised impartially in establishing the conditions of public discourse. The democratic authority and its law shouldn’t disfavor either religious or non-religious parties. Habermas (and Herbert Marcuse in a different context) put it this way, public reason should be rooted in the hope of democratic change not in an empiricism rooted in an authoritarian presentism.

A second consideration is that the boundaries of public discourse need to be large enough to include both religious and non-religious reasoning. However, democratic community requires that the various parties in a discourse commit to finding ways to cross their own boundaries of incommensurable beliefs. Theoretical incommensurability is in fact outstripped by practical commensurability every day because the parties are already committed for the most part to democratic authority.

Third, the practice of democratic discourse in the modern world includes, or should include, the mutual recognition of religious and non-religious parties as legitimate conversation and potential action partners for the sake of the democratic community. Hegel once said that recognition is one of the basic elements in the quest for the good life.

However, fourthly, recognition is not enough. It must include reflexivity, a commitment to see the world from the viewpoint of the other. Such a reflexivity is necessary to democratic discourse in order to form a community of identity, though it is not enough if a commitment to democratic authority is absent.

Fifth, Habermas and Calhoun argue that a modern cosmopolitanism which advocates a full inclusion for all parties is necessary for sophisticated democratic public discourse.

Sixth, cosmopolitanism, recognition and reflexivity call for the parties to commit to translate their religious and non-religious intellectual and political projects into terms that are accessible to “the other’s” reason and emotional empathy. Benjamin called this an “interlinear translation” that gives a large sense and feeling of the other.

Finally, Calhoun says that democracy progresses and community is enhanced when religious and non-religious parties commit to look for areas of practical cooperation and self-change. I call this “odd couple politics.”

Parallel arguments in popular media

At about the same time that Habermas and Calhoun were refining their thinking about the postsecular world, journalists were also grappling with how to address a new postsecular public. This dilemma was felt most acutely by journalists in the big liberal secular media like the New York Times.

In early 2008 Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times column rhetorically asked how secular liberals and evangelical Christians could work together more to help the poor and suffering of our world. Reflecting upon his own social world, he concluded that a large obstacle to such a coalition of bleeding heart secular liberals and bleeding heart religious conservatives was the stereotypes that his fellow secular liberals have of evangelical Christians.

Kristof observed that making fun of Christians is almost second nature to too many secular elites. Kristof wrote, “Liberals believe deeply in tolerance…, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that…remains fashionable to mock.” Yet, Kristof asks, when a disaster or famine or mass murder happens, who is there to help? Often, the only people there are the evangelical relief workers. They seem to go where no one else wants to go.

On May 2, 2008 when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, who was already at ground zero? Mainly, the evangelical World Vision which sponsors 42,000 children in Burma, 20,000 of them within the area of the typhoon.

After Katrina who was first on the ground and effective? Not the government run Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but the Southern Baptist Church which produced millions of meals in the first week after the storm.

Evangelicals are in fact doing yeoman work for the poor and suffering around the world. “Today,” Kristof wrote, “conservative Christian churches do superb work on poverty, AIDS, sex trafficking, climate change, prison abuse, malaria and genocide in Darfur.”

A recent CBS news poll, the columnist pointed out, indicates that white evangelicals care about fighting poverty more than any single issue. In a recent study Who really cares. The surprising truth about compassionate conservatism—who gives, who doesn’t and why it matters Syracuse University’s Arthur C. Brooks concluded that most research indicates that the more religious one is the more charitable giving. Kristof muses hopefully that if secular liberals could overcome their stereotypes, a coalition of “bleeding heart liberals” with “bleeding heart conservatives” could accomplish great things for the poor and suffering.

In NYC’s history evangelical Christians, Jews, Catholics and secularists have often allied for the common good.  Might we find an example in NYC’s history that can help guide us to a new “bleeding-heart” alliance? An exemplar might be Jacob Riis.

A recovery of the story of Jacob Riis’ faith

In October 1872 Jacob Riis thought he had reached the nadir of his two year struggle as a new immigrant from Denmark. He was without a friend, cent in his pocket, or home. These were “nights of hopeless misery” and being “utterly alone in the city, with the winter approaching.”

Riis wandered over to the Hudson River and wondered if his life could go on. Facing the river with loneliness and hopelessness, he asked himself, “What if…? Would they [family and friends back in Denmark] miss me much?” As he was working up to a decision to throw himself into the waters, a little black and tan dog, as cold and lonely as Riis himself, pressed up against the man for warmth. Riis felt as if the dog was God’s hand holding him back from the brink. “And the love of the faithful little beast thawed the icicles in my heart.”

Now determined to survive, Riis went back to the slum neighborhood to seek shelter at police headquarters. It was a rough place that he fell into. The homeless were stacked tight on cold hard wood floors without bedding and at night fell to thieving and fighting. When Riis complained that someone had stolen from him, the desk sergeant dragged Riis and threw him out on the steps. The poor dog who was waiting for Riis sprang to his new master’s defense, taking a bite at the policeman’s ankle. The sergeant picked up the small dog by his back legs and beat his brains out on the steps of police headquarters.

It was a horrible moment but one that Riis remembers as another act of God in helping him on his way to standing up for the poor. He wrote, “The outrage of that night became, in the providence of God, the means of putting an end to one of the foulest abuses that ever disgraced a Christian city [the treatment of the homeless], and a mainspring of the battle with the slum as far as my share in it is concerned. My dog did not die un-avenged.”

This tragedy was the beginning of a journey that led Riis to become the most famous reporter in early 20th century America. His journalism led the way to abolishing unlivable tenement housing and police force corruption and brutality. His photographs and writing caused the enforcement or creation of housing codes requiring fire escapes, windows, toilets and running water. His expose of the likely transmission of cholera through the city's water supply led to today's clean drinking water. Riis' reporting also led to playgrounds for public schools and decent housing for the homeless. He summed up his difficult life and work in the classic book about New York City's poor immigrants How the Other Half Lives.

Riis left the city, riding on trains and working at a variety of odd jobs.  But within a year and a half Riis was back in the city. He thought he might do reporting, drawing upon his experience as a child working with his Dad to put out a small rural weekly in Denmark. He even signed on as a neighborhood reporter for a Long Island weekly, but that effort collapsed when he didn’t get paid. Trying his hand at bookselling door to door, he ended up homeless and broke again. Plopping down on the steps of the Cooper Institute, which later became Cooper Union College, he again contemplated the misery of life in the big city.

Miraculously, a former teacher saw him on the steps and asked what Riis was doing. After Riis confided his failure at bookselling, the man asked, “Now, how would you like to be a reporter, if you have got nothing better to do?” Riis was overjoyed with this fulfillment of his hopes, even if it did show the low qualifications for journalists. As far as Riis was concerned, this was another intervention of God into his life. “What had happened stirred me profoundly…I saw a hand held out to save me from wreck[age] just when it seemed inevitable; and I knew it for His hand, to whose will I was at last beginning to bow in humility…”

Riis was a pretty feisty, strong-willed person and didn’t much want to ask God or anybody else for help. He had even torn up a list of Danish contacts in New York so that he wouldn’t be tempted to sponge off them for help. He thought that turning to God was even more of a weak-willed way of making a go in life.

Yet, now, Riis began to see that reliance on God could create a humbler, more compassionate and even stronger person. “In the shadow of Grace Church I bowed my head against the granite wall of the gray tower and prayed for the strength to do the work which I had so long and arduously sought and which had now come to me…” Riis received his vocational call from God first. Only later did he experience a personal call of salvation, though the movement from one to the other was psychologically connected.

After a short stint in a news service in Manhattan, Riis worked for a Brooklyn weekly, becoming editor after two weeks. Although the paper was a politically partisan paper designed to survive for only one election cycle, Riis was able to convince the owners to give him credit to take over ownership. However, he had some conflicts with the political sponsors of the paper. He wanted to report objectively, and they wanted him to attack their opponents. The friction seemed to have moved Riis to look inward for strength and led to a deeper faith.

The newly born newspaper “magnate” went to a Methodist revival meeting in Brooklyn and found that he himself was the object of the Spirit. “In a Methodist revival—it was in the Old 18th Street Church—I had fallen under the spell of the preacher’s fiery eloquence. Brother Simmons was of the old circuit-riders’ stock…and he brought me to the altar quickly…”

There was an impulse among some religionists of the time that faith and the world does not mix. Riis recalled, “In fact with the heat of the convert, I decided on the spot to throw up my editorial work and take up preaching.” At the same time many churches were railing against Sunday papers as a sacrilege.

Fortunately, the pastor believed Riis should follow his vocational calling as a journalist. Riis says that Rev. Ichabod Simmons told him, “’No, No Jacob… not that. We have preachers enough. What the world needs is consecrated pens.’”

Riis took Simmon’s advice as his life’s theme. “Then and there I consecrated mine. I wish I could honestly say that it always came up to the high ideal set then. I can say though...that scarce a day has passed since that I have not thought of the charge then laid upon it and upon me.”

Moving to the New York Tribune Riis was assigned to the beat at police headquarters. He saw murder, mayhem and sorrow at close range. And as the police center was in the middle of the worst slum area of the city, Riis also learned the ins and outs of the sufferings and depravations inflicted upon the poor.

The effect on Riis was to sharpen his appreciation of both human dignity and depravity at the same time. He came to see crime as a unique opportunity for his Christianity to make him a better reporter. Riis challenged his detractors in church, “Perhaps the notion of a police reporter praying that he may write a good murder story may seem ludicrous, even irreverent, to some people.” On the contrary, Riis claimed, good reporting of murders would show, like the Bible did for David, the beauty and tragedy of humanity in an especially poignant manner. His church critics “fail to make out in it [murder] the human element which dignifies anything and rescues it from reproach…The reporter who is behind the scenes sees the tumult of passions, and not rarely, a human heroism that redeems all the rest.”

Taking the whole of his reporting, the journalist should write his story in such a way as to show its broader significance. “It is his task so to portray it that we can all see its meaning, or at all events catch the human drift of it, not merely the foulness and the reek of blood.” Riis profoundly changed the city by using his ability to show the meaning of the poor as souls loved by God and their plight as hated by God.

Riis’s most famous reporting centered around the wretched housing, education and other conditions in the slums. As a police reporter, Riis was constantly roaming the worst areas of the city, the Lower East Side and the Tenderloin. The reporter liked to walk from 2 am to 4am the whole length of Mulberry Street to get a sense of the proportions of the problems of crime and destitution. “For so I saw the slum when off its guard,” he said. Riis saw young children hauling buckets of liquor for the bars and then sleeping on the floors or out of doors in cinder barrels. Some large block sized tenements were large rambling affairs with few windows, no fire-escapes, no toilets and no running water. Even then, some people could only afford to pay to sleep a few hours for a shift in a room. Others slept in the hallways in which garbage was thrown. Epidemics ravaged to such an extent that up to a fifth of the children died.

To start his monumental “battle with the slum” from 1887-1897, Riis concluded that effective help for the poor would only come if the terms of the debate changed from economic calculus to religion. In 1884 Riis’ articles and photos played a pivotal role in a new effort by reformers to show that criminals, paupers and homeless were “souls” that were worth saving. Riis wrote, “From that time on we hear of ‘souls’ in the slums. The property end of it had held the stage up till then…” Once New Yorkers saw the poor in terms of “souls” whom God loved, practical efforts for reform became commonplace in the city…

Riis cherished how his intensive coverage of the worst areas of New York brought delightful moral and religious surprises. Confounding contemporary stereotypes, human kindness and goodness could be found in the darkest of alleys among any people. “Over in the blackest poverty of the East Side I came across a little office hidden away in a deep basement.” As the reporter drew closer to the office’s door, he made out some Hebrew characters “Gemilath Chasodim.” Riis seems to lead the audience to wonder the worst. What could they mean? Are they the title of gang headquarters? A bordello? An opium den? The neighborhood was made up of poor Orthodox Jews. They teetered on the edge of tragedy on account of their poverty. Were they taking desperate measures? Had the slum downed the children of Jacob? What strange vile practices could be going on there?

Riis let his readers know that he discovered that the door lead to charity organization that loaned to poor people whose back was against the wall. This was probably the headquarters of Gemilath Chesed Bederech Kovod (Free Loan Society) at 108 Second Avenue. Organized in 1892, the society made about 30,000 loans in 1917 for sums ranging from $5 to $300.

From interviews and observation, Riis said, “They knew from their own experience that when sickness or death struck down the wage earner in the family there, it went straight over the edge and was swallowed up in a whirlpool.” A strict environmentalist or racist would expect these poor Jews to be an immoral, vicious people. Much contemporary literature had it so. But Riis found that nothing could be further from the truth. In an essay on “The Jews of the Lower East Side,” the journalist summed up his findings: hardly any crime could be found among them.

To an audience in Chicago Riis continued with this specific example on the deep effect that conservative religion had on the life of that slum neighborhood. As he did so, he ridiculed the idea that immigrants and poor ethnics represented some special danger to America. At the end of the dark, shabby alley Riis discovered a Biblical lesson that challenged contemporary prejudices against the poor and Jews. Riis rather pointedly challenged the prejudiced among his audience: “Now, they [Orthodox Jews] read in their Bible, our Bible, the injunction that ‘If thy brother be waxen poor and his hand fail with thee,’ then it is your time to help him…” Riis then picked up the cudgel against anti-Semitism again: “coupled with the stern injunction ‘And take thou no usury, nor increase, but fear the Lord thy God...’ and being orthodox they tried to live on it…” The Orthodox were not “Shylocks” leaching off the poor with moneychanger interest rates. Further, these conservative Jews were universal in their care. “When a borrower came they did not ask whether he was orthodox or reformed, Jew, Christian or Pagan. He was a neighbor. Was he in need?” A good heart, aided by a moral religion, can make the right decisions between good and evil regardless of the circumstances.

For the rest of his life, Riis lived with an ever-present sense that God had called him to and was with him in his work. Rabbi Stephen Wise wrote for his friend’s memorial service that Riis lived with a vivid sense of God’s presence.

Wise recalled an incident when Riis visited him in Oregon in 1904. “We climbed one of the hills which surround the city of Portland in order to gain a fine view of the sun-capped Hood.” Riis was terribly disappointed that the mountain was covered with a mist but declared to Wise, “I shall not leave this hilltop until Mt. Hood is visible”. “After another fifteen or twenty minutes,” Wise recalled, “the mists slowly lifted and Mt. Hood was revealed in all its majesty. Riis looked at it for a long time and tears came to his eyes, and then he began to jump like a little child, shouting with glee,--God did this for me; God wanted me to see his work! And this was the man to whom God was ever present…in the beauty and glory of sun-capped Mt. Hood as…in the little, broken, stunted, maimed child…”

A personal epilogue

For the last couple of years as I have been traveling down every street and alley in New York City to discover how religious people are changing the face of the city, I came upon the “Blessing Garden” in the Bronx. It was founded by a Muslim and is sustained by evangelical Christians. At that time I recalled that the photographer and journalist Jacob Riis’ and his wife campaigned in the 1880s to provide flowers for the poor children in the Lower East Side. Many of those children had never seen flowers.

I sat down with the gardeners at “Blessing Garden” to ask what impact their garden was having in the neighborhood. They told me how the local iman from a mosque that has since moved from the area started the garden to bring peace to the neighborhood. They joined the garden project to rescue kids out of gangs and to provide a safe spot among the housing projects. They involved the kids in creating art, designing garden plots and publicizing the annual garden fair. The garden was filled with strawberries, melons, flowers and hand made benches. There was a lot of love there. I thought about all of the people that I had met doing good today in the city’s streets—loving, helping and picking up the poor and maltreated. There was the local church that provided a home to an Indian woman in South Ozone Park after she escaped slavery (here in NYC!). There were the people in Washington Heights whom I came across as they were praying over a drug dealer dying from his gun shot wounds. There was the gardener at the tremendous Garden of Eden in Brooklyn’s East New York who proclaimed to the poor, the elderly and the shut-ins that “God provides the bounty, you get the blessing!”

At every step on the way down the 5,300 miles of city streets I have thought about Riis and his big heart. At times when my heart almost breaks over some tragedy that I have come upon, I drew encouragement from Riis’ dedication to tell our city’s stories of trouble and salvation with a “consecrated pen.” Riis was one of the most creative New Yorkers in his photography, journalism and helping the downtrodden. He knew of what he photographed.


Click here for more on Riis' journalism as well as a video about his faith.

Remarks presented to the Columbia University Seminar on Contents and Methods in the Social Sciences. Riis photograph from the Museum of the City of New York.


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  • Terrific! We need Riis in China!

  • Great webzine!

  • Like this!

  • Like this!!!

  • Like this!

  • We hear from a lot of people about Riis. So, we are planning a lot more coverage of Riis's life, faith and career. At the memorial service for NY Timesman John McCandlish Phillips I compared Phillips, who won the 2007 Jacob Riis Award, to Riis. Many of the NY Times and other media in the audience responded with great interest.

  • Just found your essay on Jacob Riis again. Whew, thank you Tony Carnes. My heart has been warmed, especially by your last paragraph.

    I echo Anne's remark about - "I would like to hear more about Riis." !!!

  • A fresh take on Riis. thanks

  • I would like to hear more about Riis.

  • Thank you, thank you, such a very good report, and so much needed. Lacking good histories of Christian witness, we fall prey to the repeated story that there were the "social gospel" types, following the "heretic", or near heretic Walter Rauschenbusch and co., and then "us" good evangelicals anxious to "save souls." With an historical study like this, maybe we can begin to get rid of the myths, and get down to reality.

  • Thanks for the encouragement!

    The comments on this piece informs me that we need to put up more pieces on Riis and our city.

  • Solid piece of work. First-class reporting.

  • Luis,

    Thank you for your encouraging words. We are going out to Astoria today, Monday August 9th.

    We are preparing a documentary about Jacob Riis' faith and will upload it to A Journey through NYC religions when we are finished.


  • Great. How relevant for today.keep up the good work.

  • We think it is great that others are enjoying and getting interested in the thick religious side of NYC. Thanks!

  • Greetings, I enjoy your blog. This is a nice site and I wanted to post a note to tell you, nice job!
    Best wishes,

  • Thanks! Jacob Riis is one of our main inspirations.

  • Particularly liked the piece on Jacob Riis – really enjoyed reading HTOHL when we first moved to NYC living in Stuy Town (where much of Riis’s observations were made before Stuy Town was built), right after writing my thesis about Teddy Roosevelt, who was a good friend of Riis. Helluva writer that links Riis to Habermas (who’s gotta be the most dense – as in meaty, not obtuse – philosopher I’ve ever read)… to Nick Kristoff! Love it…


  • Thank you for pointing out Jacob Riis' faith and its relevance to NYC today. The faith aspect of his life is unknown to most people.

  • Amiable post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you for your information.

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