Oh, God

Why Religion Doesn't Have a Prayer in New York Politics

But on the religion question, Hikind, who represents a largely Orthodox Jewish constituency, provocatively adds that New Yorkers "could take a Jew saying 'God' 12 times," but not, say, a Bible-quoting Christian. Bill Stern, the Catholic, pro-Bush contributing editor to the City Journal, "applauds" Lieberman for "speaking of his faith in a very direct way" but says there is "a certain bitterness that a white Christian can't do that." The greater acceptability of a devout Lieberman in this city, according to analysts, has less to do with religious differences than with the prevailing perception of Jews as an ethnic, not religious, group.

Not that New Yorkers haven't found religion. According to the most recent comprehensive statistics, the city is full of believers. In 1990, 43.4 percent of New Yorkers identified as Catholic, 27.4 percent as Protestant, 10.9 percent as Jewish, 1.5 percent as Muslim, and 1.4 percent with "Eastern religions," according to research by State Senator Seymour Lachman, who as a dean at the City University of New York several years ago helped produce an in-depth study of the significance of religion in contemporary America. These figures have no doubt shifted over the past decade in favor of the lesser numbers with changes in immigration and suburban migration. (Barnard College religion professor Randall Balmer adds that New Yorkers engage in many nontraditional spiritual practices: consulting horoscopes, using crystals, channeling.)

But demographic diversity here has meant politicians appealing to a broad electorate will not make specific or pronounced faith-based statements for fear of alienating a large group of voters along not only religious but also racial and ethnic lines. "In the South, the question that's asked is, 'What denomination do you belong to?' " says Sheinkopf. "We don't ask those kinds of questions in New York. If you say to someone here, 'Are you Roman Catholic or are you Irish?' they'll tell you first, 'I'm Irish.' "

The increase in African, Asian, Caribbean, and other immigrant populations in recent decades has dampened, for instance, the power of the archdiocese. Certainly Cardinal John O'Connor was a strong political force, preaching against abortion and gay rights, expostulating on labor and military issues, and holding regular press conferences. Yet he was not able to call the political shots with the authority of a predecessor, Cardinal Francis Spellman, under whom the archdiocese was known midcentury as the Powerhouse for its primacy in determining the city's political direction. Despite the cardinal's condemnation of last year's Brooklyn Museum "Sensation" exhibit, it was Mayor Giuliani who took up the public charge with what was considered by many to be a politically opportunistic decision to cut off the museum's public funding in the name of Catholicism. The arguably more observant Peter Vallone sided with secularism and the museum. In the end, the debate said more about the mayor's Senate campaign and public arts funding than it did about Catholicism in New York.

Yet on the local level, religious affiliations play a significant political role, especially where immigrants, minorities, and poor New Yorkers are concerned. "New York is a tale of two cities," says Reverend Al Sharpton, who has positioned himself as an advocate for the city's poor minorities. "God is strongest on the other side of the tracks, with people of color, with people of lesser means. You'd have to go to Bed-Stuy or Brownsville or Harlem or the South Bronx or Spanish Harlem to see God. If you just hung around Wall Street or Midtown, you won't see God."

Religion experts agree to some extent, explaining that the allure of religious institutions for immigrants and the underserved is not just spiritual but often practical. They are often the primary place where immigrants will find others who share a common experience and language and where social services exist. Especially with public aid for poor and immigrant New Yorkers shrinking under the Giuliani administration, religious centers are often the only places with resources enough to provide help with language, employment, immigration paperwork, housing, and food.

The spiritual pull of places of worship in poor minority neighborhoods troubles secular community organizers like Kim McGillicuddy, of the South Bronx-based grassroots organizing project Youth Force. While she recognizes the importance of the social services provided, she is dismayed that churches attract parishioners' money and potential activist energy based on "a guaranteed outcome that is never tested." It is tough to compete with the promise of divine reward, she says, which provides "something to look forward to, while community organizing carries a lot of risk." Joo-Hyun Kang of the Audre Lorde Project, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group for "gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and two-spirit" individuals, adds that some minorities are wary of organized religion, because it "has often played an oppressive and colonizing role."

Reverend John Powis of St. Barbara's Roman Catholic church of Bushwick, which boasts a 1400-strong congregation where some of the city's poorest minorities and immigrants live, protests that his church does not peddle "the opiate of the masses" but rather focuses on improving life "in the here and now." The church has achieved considerable fame outside the neighborhood for a massive, largely self-funded renovation that gave rise to a striking building. But Powis stresses that members are deeply involved in community causes such as youth education, low-income housing, and antidrug initiatives.

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