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tv   Religion in 20th Century New York City  CSPAN  June 5, 2016 4:31pm-4:46pm EDT

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announcer: next on american history tv, a conversation with the president of the organization of american historians, jon butler. currently writing a book on religion in urban areas, mr. butler sat down with us to talk
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about religion in 20th century new york city and talked to us about misconceptions on the subject. he was interviewed this year in providence, rhode island. >> jon butler, you are writing a book called "god in gotham," what is it about? jon butler: it is about religion in modern manhattan. when people think about religion in america and new york, they do not put the two together. when we think about religion in modern america, we think about rural america and south. but we do not think about manhattan. manhattan and new york city are often referred to as the capital s of american secularism. >> what encouraged you to write this book? jon butler: two things.
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a close friendd who was an urban historian at ucla. we were close friends. we both lived in minneapolis in summer. our kids played together. we talked about urban history all the time. i just found out that i thought there was a story here. in other words, he helped me find a story. i started out as a colonial american historian. 200 years before him. i thought there was a story about religion in modern manhattan and part of that you can see in the iconography and the architecture of the city. people do remember st. patrick's cathedral, central synagogue. but if you walk around the city, you will find religious buildings of every conceivable corner, cranny, people stuck
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them in wherever they could because they had no choice if they wanted to fit them in. i thought, well, there is something to say here and that is what i want to say. i want to tell a story, not an encyclopedic history, not 700-pages long, but a series of essays about how religions unfolded from 1880 into the 1960's. the story is not the collapse of religion, it is not secularization. it is how religious groups coped with their situation, which was anonymity, density, diversity. new york city is the only american city where catholics and jews outnumbered protestants. it did not make protestants pray happy. -- very happy.
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it also made catholics and jews anxious because they were used to not living with so many other groups and that is not taking into account all of the other groups in the city. there was a group in the 1920's which taught natural religions. >> what is that religion? jon butler: i don't know other than the ad. they disappeared. we have -- to my knowledge, i have not found a majority. they advertise themselves as a group that, in a sense, natural mankind had the capacities to rise above itself. therefore, when you discover those inner resources as opposed to reveal the religions which
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teach from texts and tell us what we need to know. we can discover this within ourselves. >> what similarities, if any, did you find from the time that you studied in your book? jon butler: one of the things i found in the colonial period. there is a book that traces american religion from european colonization up to the civil war. what i found was somewhat unexpected stories that we think emphasize the diversity of american religion. there were so many religions, most of them versions of christianity, but there were also substantial numbers of jews in america, in all the colonial cities. there was substantial numbers of catholics in america. protestants did not think they were. an incredible number of protestant groups.
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a perfectly commonsensical reason we have the first amendment. congress shall make no for evidence of free exercise of religion because each of the states, we should have state churches, the federal government had tried to enforce a religion. -- a religious conformity. they knew they would have failed. and that has to do with the diversity of religion. there is another phenomenon, that is that most americans of the revolutionary period did not actually belong to a congregation. which does not mean they were irreligious. but also found that americans practiced and what you would call in modern times occultism. they had little things they carried around with them. amulets that they thought gave them some kind of special little powers. they would consult astronomers, i'm sorry, astrologers.
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astrologers about illnesses, about their fortunes, if a child was lost in the woods. this was in colonial america in which animals roamed the woods. there were still wild boars and pigs and then your child wanders off and you look for two days and you cannot find the child, your local news was there and you would pray. if you still had not found the child, the local minister was going to be very upset. they wrote about their upset this -- upsetness in their diaries or accounts that the family went to an astrologer to find the child. there were whole varieties of religions that were not orthodox in any way, so you have this incredible diversity. you have this unorthodoxy. and yet, people had a sense of the transcendence, the divine.
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overwhelming sense of purpose in life. i find that true of thousands and millions of new yorkers. >> tell me about the prominent religious leaders and did they had any particular challenges in urban areas? jon butler: oh, yes. the first challenge in an urban area is to learn to live with other religions. it is ironic. the protestants more worried about the influx of catholics and jews. how were they going to succeed? especially when they've out they were being outnumbered. they could look ahead and say, if this immigration continues, east european jewish, italian, we're going to be inundated. what are we going to do? we had separation of church and state so to speak, but we had a protestant culture. you can put it that way. but catholics were worried
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because catholics authorities especially were worried because they were accustomed to state churches. and how is catholicism going to succeed without the support of government? that was the european pattern. how are they going to transfer this to new york city? jews were worried because now they are not living -- and many jews did not live in the state in eastern europe, but they were used to being suppressed and pushed down and some of them, many of them could not vote, they had restriction on property. now they are all free and the problem was they also abandoned their judaism. some did because they become communists. some became socialists. at jews, butained could you really be a jew and a socialist at the same time? all of them saw threats to their enterprise and the irony is that
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amidst those threats they thrived. catholics did a great job and you see it in the buildings in new york city. one huge catholic church after the next. that was the strategy of the archdiocese of new york was to have very large buildings and part of that has to do with that it really, physically, testified to the power of the church in a city that had lots of other people. jews began, on the one hand, those that date from the colonial times -- also building big buildings. the interesting part is that from the 1890's to the 1910s and 1920's, probably 1000-1500 small
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congregations, which were tiny, and they were above laundries and above stores and most of them had no rabbis but they were shipped and they worshiped together with 10 or 15 people. when they could not pay the rent, they moved someplace else. and they are the preface to the famous churches of african-americans who moved from the south to new york city, then rented rooms all over the place in stores. yes, there were also big african american congregations. so, you have all of this of all of variety these little, tiny congregations. we generally pay attention to the big ones because they are the ones that leave historical records. question, were there any particular surprises in your research?
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jon butler: yes. one of the biggest surprises was that we also became a place famous for theology, and so if you think of paul tillich, if you think of reinhold lieber, dorothy day, the leader of a special kind of catholicism who is now being promoted for sainthood, if you think of abraham or joseph , very famous jewish theologians, these people all coalesced in the 1930's or 1940's into a remarkable intellectual -- they gave a remarkable intellectual life to the city. they did not always correspond or know each other, the two he did -- one gave
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the eulogy at the other's funeral. and the others did not necessarily associate. but the city and intellectual vitality of modern manhattan helped and them explicitly to make new york city a marvelously theologically creative place and whoever thinks about this about new york city? it is a place where broadway shows and whatnot. you do not think about it as a place for theological creativity inut where would we be judaism, catholicism, and protestantism without those people? not just to new york city, in the nation. these are major national figures and here they are in the capital of american secularism. >> jon butler, thank you very much. jon butler: you are welcome. you're watching american history tv.
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