Oh, God

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

We're a bunch of sinners. We ignore the cries of neighbors when they are being mugged on our streets. We scheme for money on Wall Street and lavish it on sex, drugs, and designer-label excess. We pierce ourselves in unusual places and sleep with partners of the same sex. Even our mayor stopped just short of hiring an airplane to advertise his adulterous ways. (His critics say he is guilty of worse: slashing public assistance to thousands who need it, ignoring police brutality, poisoning New Yorkers with insecticide spray.) Ours is a crowded and colorful city, where, evangelist Billy Graham in 1991 said, "There's little space for others, let alone God," and which he in 1957 compared to the biblical cities of sin, Sodom and Gomorrah.

Certainly for some New Yorkers, like 25-year-old West Village native Rachel Dawson, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's enthusiastic invocation of God during his first public remarks as Al Gore's chosen one on August 8 introduced an "unsettling" and "incongruous" notion. A self-described progressive liberal, Dawson says the repetition of "God" nearly a dozen times inside of 90 seconds is "not the kind of thing I expect to hear from our government leaders." Her father, Harry Dawson, who has taught in a Catholic school for 35 years and grew up in Indiana with a "fundamentalist" mother, is also "spooked" by the mixing of God and government. He says, "It's such a slippery slope—how do you strike the balance between your faith and your power?"

It's tough to imagine New Yorkers' being impressed when George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as the best political philosopher of all time—surely at least a million of us wondered if he had simply been unable to think of any other names. And the Republicans' Christianity-laced doctrine of family values has never been popular here, even with leaders who despise welfare moms and homeless squeegee peddlers. (For all of Bill Clinton's free talk of the Bible, starting with his 1992 presidential campaign, his professed beliefs have never been confused with family values.) But Lieberman—an ethnic minority, a Northeasterner, a wisecracker New Yorkers can almost relate to—plucked God out of the cornfields and brought him to the polyglot streets of the city. What were all the Buddhists, Hindus, reform Jews, black Protestants, Asian Protestants, Irish Catholics, Latino Catholics, Muslims, secularists, atheists, and skeptics among us to think?

Lieberman avoided the question last week, putting the lid on any holy talk in his stock convention address. Whether the decision was meant to minimize attention to his Orthodox Jewishness, to accommodate progressive Democrats like the Dawsons, or merely to follow the subdued Mini-Me formula of running mates, consultants say he made the right move as far as New York City is concerned.

"God is a live hand grenade in New York politics," according to Norman Adler, a political adviser for both Democrats and Republicans. "If you invoke a blessing in the name of Jesus Christ, there's a lot of Jews and Muslims and Unitarians, not to mention lots and lots of secular people, who are very bothered by that." Adler advises his local clients "to be very, very careful about invoking God" and observes that "politicians in New York are very careful about trotting out their faith in public." The reluctance of the city's major elected officials—the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and even City Council speaker, whose daily trips to mass are public knowledge—to discuss their faith (or lack thereof) for this article indicates that Adler is correct.

Former mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins offer typical New York versions of piety: Neither attended religious services with any frequency during his tenure, but both relied on a general sort of spirituality to get through the tough times. Koch quickly assures that he didn't go so far as to "ask God, 'God, please give the city of New York a budgetary surplus.' " Rather, "my prayer was, 'Dear God, give me the strength to deal with,' " for example, the 11-day transit workers' strike in 1980. Dinkins says his faith was a resource as he attempted to manage racial tensions following the Crown Heights disturbance in the summer of 1991. But when asked how religion plays in New York politics, Dinkins offers as an exemplary strategy that of the Catholic John F. Kennedy, who, Dinkins says, emphasized his devotion to the Constitution and downplayed his religious loyalties.

In fact, political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, 50, says, "in my lifetime, we haven't had the experience of someone who is an overtly religious person and for whom that is an essential part of their up-front persona as a candidate for a large office" in New York.

While it is "the nature of New York" to be "suspicious" of religious passion in politicians, according to Sheinkopf, Lieberman is commonly perceived to be sincere in his zeal and therefore passes the smell test. More questionable for conservative and progressive Democrats alike is Lieberman's last-minute retooling of conservative stances in areas such as affirmative action and school vouchers. "Who is the real Joe Lieberman?" asks state assemblyman Dov Hikind of Boro Park, a conservative Democrat who is nevertheless supporting the Gore-Lieberman ticket. His "flip-flopping on all the issues" is most disturbing to Hikind, who fears "he's going to lose everybody on every side."

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.

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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