Upstate New York is lovely. Long Island has its charms. Even New York City has appeal — until the boosters start whooping. Christian boosters are even tougher to take because of that little matter of pride. This leaves me wondering if New York exceptionalism is worse than American exceptionalism. For the history of Presbyterianism, New York wins hands down. All of American Presbyterianism’s major controversies started over New York’s excesses — Old Side-New Side (Edwards and Tennent), Old School-New School (Barnes), fundamentalist-modernist (Fosdick), Old Life-New Life (Keller).
But now we hear that New York is experiencing a spiritual renaissance:
As the 80’s came to a close, a man considered by many to be one of the most influential pastors of our time answered a call to New York City to start a church: Tim Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian, hailed as one of the most vital congregations in New York City.
By that time, the abortion rate in New York City had skyrocketed. Through the planting of Redeemer, a need for a crisis pregnancy center was identified. Subsequently, Midtown Pregnancy Support Center was founded. Other Redeemer members saw the need for a classical Christian school in New York City. So, the Geneva School was formed. That brought families into the city that wanted their children to attend that school.
As the year 2000 neared, New Yorkers saw more than the turn of a new century; they found ways to intellectually examine faith.
The King’s College opened its doors in a 34,000 square foot space the Empire State Building—after a short period of closure—in 1999 (the school is now located in the financial district). This placed the next generation of Christian thinkers in the hub of New York—and American—culture. Because of the placement of The King’s College, hundreds of young people are flooding the churches in the Big Apple.
In 2000, Metaxas started Socrates In the City, a monthly forum that facilitates discussion around “the bigger questions in life.” This event has seen growth over the 13 years in existence, and consistently attracts what Metaxas calls “The cultural elite.” Topics covered at these forums include: the existence of evil, the implications of science in faith, and the role of suffering.
In 2001, New Yorkers saw the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. “These events focused hearts on New York City,” said Metaxas. “This caused a lot of people to move to the city and start churches and other ministries.”
A post-September 11 New York City would see the emergence of many new churches, such as Journey in 2002, Trinity Grace in 2006, and Hillsong NYC in 2011—representing a wide variety of theological and worship styles. More parachurch organizations, like Q, have popped up. Founded by Gabe Lyons in 2007, Q exists to help church and cultural leaders engage the Gospel in public life.
“Now, there are so many churches in town, I don’t know the names of all of them. I know that the Lord is in all of this,” said Metaxas. “I am convinced we are on the verge of some kind of faith renaissance in New York City that will blow a lot of minds.”
A curious feature of this story is that the writer is Joy Allmond, “a web writer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and a freelance writer. She lives in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband, two teenage stepsons and two dogs.”
No offense to Ms. Allmond, but I’d take her piece a little more seriously (though mainstream journalists usually put religion stories in the features sections where tough questions seldom go) if she actually lived and breathed in New York. On the ground in the Big Apple, the story is not Christianity but the new mayor, the Democrat, Bill deBlasio, and there the story even has a religious dimension, though Keller, Metaxas, and Thornbury are nowhere to be found. (Parenthetically, World magazine did report on the Republican loser, Joe Lohta, and his meeting with Tim Keller in September.)
First the numbers:
Protestants were the largest religious segment of voters in the Democratic primary, making up 31% of the voters. Because evangelicals make up the great majority of Protestants in the city, most likely the large majority of the Protestant Democratic voters are evangelical Protestants. Over two-thirds of evangelical Protestants are African American or Hispanic. Over one-third of evangelical Protestants reside in Brooklyn.
Catholic voters were the next largest religious segment of voters in the Democratic primary, making up 25% of the voters. The Catholic voters were less likely to vote in the primary elections. Most surveys have found that Catholics make up around 40-44% of the city’s population. Catholic charismatics, who were endorsed by Pope Paul II, are similar to Pentecostal Protestants in their values and voting behavior.
Jews were the third largest segment. Although Jews make up perhaps 10% of NYC’s population, 19% of the Democratic primary voters identified themselves as Jewish. The proportion of Jews who vote is significantly higher than that for the other main religious groups.
Was it a decisive turn to the left?
So de Blasio did not win the votes of unprecedented number of New Yorkers. And many of those who did vote for him also supported Bloomberg. That doesn’t mean that they like everything Bloomberg did. But there’s no evidence here of a progressive tsunami.
What about de Blasio’s career? The tabloid press paid a great deal of attention to de Blasio’s visits to communist Nicaragua and the Soviet Union as a young man. More recently, however, de Blasio worked as a HUD staffer under Andrew Cuomo, and as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. De Blasio took liberal positions during his tenure on the city council, particularly on symbolic issues involving gay rights. But this is not the resume of a professional radical.
It’s true that de Blasio made “a tale of two cities” the central theme of his campaign. As many observers have pointed out, however, he lacks the authority to enact his signature proposals: a tax increase on high earners, to be used to fund universal pre-K. Nothing’s impossible, but the chances of the state legislature approving such a tax hike are slim. The same goes for several of de Blasio’s other ideas, including a city-only minimum wage higher than the state’s minimum and the issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
The real issues under the de Blasio’s administration will be matters over which the mayor has some direct control. That means, above all, contracts with city workers, and policing. Will de Blasio blow the budget to satisfy public employee unions? And will he keep crime under control after eliminating stop-and-frisk ?
Where is New York City’s spiritual renaissance in all this?
For one thing, Keller focused his church plant on the city’s urban professionals, a class of people who, by definition, don’t necessarily mesh well with either the city’s dwindling stock of middle-class earners, or its increasing number of people of even lowlier social standing. If de Blasio is going to start playing class warfare, Redeemer’s target demographic may tire of being perceived as an economic liability.
For another, ministry in urban markets already struggles with the intense impermanence of career-chasing members who transition into and out of cities at the behest of job opportunities. Should de Blasio give New York’s corporate citizens a cold shoulder, there’s little keeping many companies in the city other than the recruiting edge they get from Gotham’s hedonistic urban allure. Such intangibles could become prohibitive quickly if companies are forced to re-evaluate their balance sheets.
Plus, socially liberal urban politicians are not known for embracing quality-of-life issues as much as their suburban counterparts are, or for their crime-fighting discipline, or their concern for traditional, proven educational practices in public schools. As it is, private schools in New York can cost more than $40,000 per year per pupil, demand is so great.
Indeed, you’d have to be an exceptionally devoted – and brazenly idealistic – New Yorker to not be concerned that the Big Apple’s rewards risk renewed marginalization under de Blasio’s management.
Although it’s not exactly a sin to increase taxes to pay for pre-K programs, or lawyers for renters going to Housing Court, such tactics do not represent a mindset of thrift, expediency, and personal responsibility when a city’s budget already requires astoundingly high tax rates. Such proposals by de Blasio indicate that just as Giulianni and Bloomberg might have given too much leeway to certain business leaders, a renewed emphasis on social liberalism may undermine the city’s economic vitality and endorse certain lifestyles that pose an economic liability for taxpayers.
There’s little in de Blasio’s manifesto that doesn’t presume individual citizens to be more righteous than those they may be accusing of wrongdoing. If equity is something voters thought was missing in the way Giulianni and Bloomberg governed, de Blasio is simply turning the tables towards a different sort of inequity. An inequity that likely will be much more expensive to maintain.
It’s an inequity that could also validate the suspicions that New York’s native poor have towards interloping rich whites, the type of people attending Keller’s various congregations throughout Manhattan. It’s also an inequity that banks on charity not as an opportunity for advancement, but as simply another enabler for attitudes and lifestyles that perpetuate poverty cycles instead of break them.
None of this adds up to a decisive point about urban ministry or the alleged renaissance in Gotham. It does indicate that the hype surrounding Christians in New York City is far removed from the realities of the very city for which they perform cartwheels. If they were spirituality of the church guys, then being silent about the city’s politics and economics in cheers for the revival might make sense. Even then, just as Charles Finney figured, we have natural ways of explaining what appears to be spiritual vitality. Reporters from North Carolina, however, aren’t going to help with those explanations.