Are Christians Allowed in New York?

It makes conservatives furious, but is Dan Piepenbring right? Piepenbring recently blasted Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York City in the pages of the New Yorker. The brouhaha shows how little most of us understand about New York’s real status in our continuing culture wars. It has never really been the Great Sodom that conservatives excoriate and progressives celebrate.


The Christians that never sleep?

Piepenbring is mad that Chik-fil-A is sneaking into his city. He dislikes the conservative evangelical politics of the chain’s founder. More than that, though, he seems put out by the Midwestern aw-shucks-ism at play. Piepenbring seems offended by the way Chik-fil-A imported a family-values vibe into his grunge-chic citycape. The company’s trademark Cows exemplify the problem. As Piepenbring puts it,

The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.

Conservatives reacted with predictable hauteur. For example, American Conservative’s Rod Dreher blasted Piepenbring’s “Yankee bigot[ry].” “In terms of parochial, un-self-aware narrow-mindedness,” Dreher opened,

it is hard to beat this piece from the New Yorker on how the a [sic] popular purveyor of delicious chicken and waffle fries is making Manhattan into an unsafe space.

It should be funny, Dreher notes, to read anything that soberly invokes phrases such as “suburban piety.” In actual fact, Dreher concludes, Piepenbring’s half-baked screed is more than a sad joke; it serves as yet more evidence of widespread “anti-Christian bigotry.”

I can’t agree with Dreher’s main point about anti-Christian bigotry, but I do think that Piepenbring’s brand of “keep New York weird” rhetoric misses some important truths. Full disclosure: I share the desire to sponsor local over chain. Up here in sunny Binghamton, I go to Laveggio instead of Starbucks; Consol’s instead of Olive Garden. But even though I share Piepenbring’s anti-corporate aesthetics, I can’t help but think he is willfully ignoring some fundamental truths about his city.

It’s beyond obvious, of course, that New York City is the headquarters of America’s financial and corporate culture. Less obvious, perhaps, is that New York has also served as a center of conservative evangelical intellectual culture and activism.

A century ago, progressive New Yorkers were similarly riled by the fiery fundamentalism of New York’s John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist and one of the undisputed national leaders of the 1920s fundamentalist movement. I spent some time with Straton’s archived papers a few years back and they are chock-full of ardent correspondence with all the top conservative evangelicals of his generation.

Again and again, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists praised Straton and acknowledged his New-York-based leadership of the national fundamentalist movement. In 1922, for example, the president of fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois wrote to Straton

to thank you for the attack you are making on the infidel teaching of our time.

Beyond any dispute, Straton used his New York City headquarters to fight evolution and theological liberalism. He used the cultural clout of his big-city address to add oomph to his fundamentalist activism. Yet even his fundamentalist admirers tended to assume that fundamentalism was not a true product of the Big Apple. Straton himself sometimes agreed. In spite of the fact that he had built his fundamentalist empire from Manhattan, Straton told the New York Times in 1925 that fundamentalism was a Southern thing. As Straton put it, fundamentalism represented

a rising tide of spiritual earnestness preparing in the South and West which will sweep the country.

Even today, New York City is home to some of conservative evangelicalism’s most vital institutions. Most notably, The King’s College moved downtown in order to exert its presence in the heart of Gotham. As one enthusiast put it, by moving to New York, TKC could be

a counter cultural Christian college in New York City that leads with academic excellence and ‘convictional civility.’

Though both conservatives and progressives have tended to assume that conservative evangelicals don’t fit in New York’s hurly-burly cultural landscape, both sides have frequently missed the long, continuing tradition of New York’s role as a capital city of conservative evangelicalism.

They don’t agree on much, but both sides seem to ignore New York’s real role as an international headquarters of conservative evangelical religion. Why?

A Conservative Runs on Charter Schools

How can a Republican get votes in the Big Apple?  Mayoral candidate Joe Lhota thinks promises of charter schools will help.

In a recent advertisement analyzed in the New York Times, Lhota critiques Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio for threatening to charge rent to charter schools.  Lhota, in contrast, promises to double the number of such schools.

Why?  According to the ad, charter schools promise the best educational hope for “inner city” kids.

Charter schools also represent the first best hope for many conservative educational activists.  The free-market conservatives at the Heritage Foundation, for example, insist that expanding the number of charter schools will expand educational opportunity for all.

Lhota does not seem to support charters in order to prove his conservative credentials, however.  Just the opposite.  Charter schools, Lhota claimed, were the real “progressive education approach.”  Lhota insisted that his support for charters proved that he was the real educational progressive in this race.  “If you oppose charter schools,” Lhota told the Association for a Better New York, “and the programs and the other choices that are available for minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants, you cannot call yourself a progressive.”

That’s educational politics for you: the more conservative mayoral candidate endorsing a school program beloved by conservatives and calling it the progressive choice.


Saintliest City in the USA?

Eve apparently didn’t take her bite out of the Big Apple.

According to one new survey, New York City leads the list of America’s saintliest cities.

How do they know?  This survey tallied up a list of presumably sinful institutions and events: strip clubs (lust), cosmetic surgeons (pride), violent crime (wrath), theft per capita (envy), charity (greed), obesity (gluttony), and physical activity (sloth).

By this tally, the megapolis of New York had the fewest such sinful occurrences per capita.

Does it mean much?  Not really.  In this quirky survey, New York scored big due to its relatively low levels of obesity and relatively high levels of physical activity.  Such things don’t paint a convincing picture of “saintliness.”

Nevertheless, this survey can serve as a reminder once again to watch out for simplistic assumptions about the nature of religiosity in 21st-century America.

Despite the presumptions of some culture-war pundits, the “God-fearing” America is not limited to small towns and the Midwest.  Big cities often host the most religious Americans, acting in the most religious ways.


In the News: Tebow in Fundamentalist New York

I know I’m not alone in hoping for some kind of Tim Tebow media blackout.  I was hoping the end of the football season, especially with the Broncos’ defeat, would bring some quiet to the Tebow-as-Christian-in-a-strange-land stories.  But Tebow’s move to the New York Jets brought a new round of media focus on Tebow’s style of loud public Christian-ness.

IMHO, the most interesting comment on the Tebow move came from Paul Moses at dotCommonweal.  Moses noted that the New York press tended to gasp at the incongruity of an extravagantly Christian celebrity in the extravagantly pagan Big Apple.

Moses pointed out,

The Times put it this way: “Tebow is also a somewhat incongruous fit: an outspoken Christian playing  in a city known for its extensive night life and a member of a  franchise made famous by the bachelor stylings of Joe Namath and  currently known for the profane speeches of its coach, Rex Ryan.”

And this, from the National Enquirer: “It is unclear how the pie-eyed pundit of the pigskin will respond to the multitude of temptations New York has to offer.”

Moses took such papers to task for assuming too much about life in New York City.  New Yorkers are a decidedly religious group.  Moses cited a Gallup poll from 1991 in which a majority of respondents–53%–said they prayed at least once a day.  The problem, Moses claimed, is that too many people equate Manhattan with the entirety of New York City.  In Manhattan, 17% of poll respondents claimed to be atheists.  In the Bronx, that number dwindled to 1%.

As we’ve pointed out here before, people who do not know much about Fundamentalist America often assume that religiosity goes up only with distance from big cities, education, and indoor plumbing.  It is just not true.  The myth might come from the association in the United States of conservative evangelical Protestantism with conservative religion as a whole.  But if we look at other conservative religious folks, New York City has as much of a claim to fundamentalism as anywhere else.  In the Catholic Church, for example, New York City is now home to genial Archbishop Timothy Dolan.  Dolan’s blog and very public presence inject a strain of conservative religiosity into life in the Big Apple.  And, of course, outside of Christianity, New York City is host to innumerable conservative religious groups.  The old joke about the hayseed who comes to New York and is surprised by the number of “New York Amish” demonstrates that New York has its own profound tradition of deeply conservative culture and theology.

Even within the bounds of conservative Protestantism, large urban areas have always served as strongholds.  True, someone wanting a Protestant fundamentalist education could go to Bob Jones University in lovely Greenville, South Carolina.  Or she could go to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  But she could also head to Los Angeles to Biola University, or to Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute or Wheaton College.

The roots of this commonly held misperception, I think, come from the utter dominance of conservative evangelical Protestantism in some rural areas.  When folks from the big city drive around in fly-over country, they are shocked by the public dominance of this type of fundamentalism.  But such folks ought to look closer at their own cities.  Look for storefront Pentecostal churches.  Look for big cathedrals.  Look beyond the stereotypes of cities as home only to nightlife and paganism, and you’ll notice a deeply religious urban America.

There might be a few translation difficulties as Tebow  moves from the Bible Belt to the Big Apple, but there will not be any lack of fundamentalists ready to greet Tebow as he (if he?) makes his New York Jets debut.