Oh, God

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

Local religious centers provide a blueprint of an area's racial and ethnic politics, which is why for any candidate running on the local level, according to Flushing City Council hopeful John Liu, reaching out to them is imperative. Struggling to navigate the demographic complexities of his neighborhood to become the first Asian elected to the council, Liu is faced with a kaleidoscope of institutions: Islamic mosque, Buddhist temple, Orthodox synagogue, Chinese evangelical church, African Methodist Episcopal church, Korean Presbyterian church, and Hindu temple.

In Boro Park, Orthodox Jewish beliefs and ethnicity have overlapped to create a relatively homogeneous political constituency, which has elected like-minded officials, such as Hikind and conservative Democratic councilman Noach Dear.

In New York and nationally, the church has historically been a political center for blacks and a launching pad for their leaders. Among the current beneficiaries of New York's politically active black church community: Reverend Calvin Butts III, who is pastor of the influential Abyssinian Baptist Church (where former U.S. representative Adam Clayton Powell once presided) and last year was named president of SUNY-Old Westbury; Reverend Floyd Flake, who spent 11 years in Congress and is now heading the $50 million redevelopment effort in the area of his church, Allen African Methodist Episcopal in Jamaica, Queens; and Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the national minister of the Atlantic Avenue-based House of the Lord Pentecostal Churches and a prominent social justice activist.

Reverend Sharpton does not pastor at a single church but claims that, with the backing of black clergy and the support of his community-activism-based National Action Network, he could come out strong in the mayoral campaign he is "seriously" contemplating. By his own admission, he has in the past failed to win the backing of secular black leaders. Despite the seeming strength of the black Christian constituency, no religious black leader has been elected to citywide office.

The influence of the city's newer, immigrant-based religious centers in large-scale political contests remains to be seen. While a solid majority of East Asian New Yorkers are believed to be actively involved in religious institutions, they remain a relatively small voting bloc and have yet to elect any of their own to public office. Indeed, in Flushing, where Asian churches seem to stand on every block and draw thousands to Sunday services, Julia Harrison remains the City Council representative despite the unequivocally anti-immigrant statements she uttered in a March 1996 New York Times interview and apologized for only in part. Liu, who is vying to fill Harrison's seat once the term limits law boots her out next year, predicts that the Asian vote will matter more as voter registration increases.

Conrad Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam minister who has recently made his name as the head of a youth-targeted, "hip-hop" voter education and candidate selection effort, says he is trying to overcome his community's "aversion to and even fear of" mainstream politics and translate its numbers into wider political visibility. The mainstream has its fears too, with controversial NOI leaders such as Khallid Abdul Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan creating considerable political baggage for the black Muslim community.

A look at presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan's poll numbers shows that faith-based political extremism is unpopular nationwide. But in New York, even a little religiosity goes a long way. Those who in recent decades have risen to prominent office here have necessarily been elusive or understated about their spirituality—not because it is a city of too little faith, but because it is one of too many. And because, as Howard Rubenstein, the public relations guru who represents many of the city's wealthiest, most scandalous, and possibly most sinful residents, says, "If we were all very religious, very preachy, I don't think I could stand it!"

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