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“Religion's Engine”: Theorizing Religion and Modernity in Jon Butler's God in Gotham

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2021

Thomas A. Tweed*
Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame


After reading Jon Butler's richly documented history of religion in Manhattan, I thought again of one of my favorite images: a 1939 watercolor by Ben Shahn called Self-Portrait among the Churchgoers, in which a photographer stands near a church on Sunday but points his camera toward the street and seems to ignore the gathering worshippers. Some U.S. historians might be relieved they do not need to learn more about those pious pedestrians, or what happens inside, but specialists in religious history might think the photographer has missed all the action. Has he? Well, in one sense, sure. Historians of religion must attend to churches and adherents, as Butler does, but, like Shahn's photographer, Butler also looks out to the wider cityscape. And that approach pays off as he asks how religion confronted “the challenge of modernity” in Manhattan, “the capital of American secularism.” More specifically, he hopes to explain why religion “didn't collapse in modernity's grasp,” as religion theorists like Max Weber and William James predicted.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society of Church History

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11 As Deborah Dash Moore kindly pointed out, Shahn's painting is more complicated than it first appears. It is possible that the artist portrayed in the painting actually is focused on the churchgoers after all, since Shahan was fond of using a Leica camera with a right-angle viewfinder. See John Edwin Mason, “Ben Shahn, with Leica and Right-Angle Viewfinder,” March 10, 2010, available at

12 Butler, God in Gotham, 9, 11.

13 Butler, God in Gotham, 10.

14 Butler, God in Gotham, 9.

15 Butler, God in Gotham, 31.

16 Butler, God in Gotham, 111–112.

17 Butler, God in Gotham, 154–155.

18 Butler, God in Gotham, 199.

19 Butler, God in Gotham, 229.

20 Butler, God in Gotham, 230.

21 Butler, God in Gotham, 27.

22 Butler, Jon, “Historiographical Heresy: Catholicism as a Model for American Religious History,” in Belief in History, ed. Kselman, Thomas (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 288Google Scholar.

23 Butler, Jon, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

24 Butler, God in Gotham, 79.

25 Butler, God in Gotham, 197–199.

26 Jon Butler has confirmed that “Historiographical Heresy” served as the model for what he attempted in Awash. Butler, Jon, “Theory and God in Gotham,” History and Theory 45 (2006): 4761CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In God and Gotham, Butler cites “Theory and God in Gotham” on page 238. For his earlier thinking about religion's persistence, see Butler, Jon, “The Christianization of Modern America, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 11.1 (1998): 144Google Scholar.

27 Butler, God in Gotham, 61.

28 Butler, God in Gotham, 50.

29 Butler, God in Gotham, 229.

30 Butler, God in Gotham, 7.

31 Butler, God in Gotham, 161–162.

32 Butler, God in Gotham, 230.

33 Tweed, Thomas A., Religion: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 I defined these terms in Tweed, Thomas A., “Tracing Modernity's Flows: Buddhist Currents in the Pacific World,” Eastern Buddhist, 43, no. 1–2 (2012): 3841Google Scholar.

35 Eisenstadt, S. N., ed., Multiple Modernities (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2002)Google Scholar. Michel, Patrick et al. , Religions, Nations, and Transnationalism in Multiple Modernities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Berger, Peter, Davie, Grace, and Fokas, Effie, Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme and Variations (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008), 12Google Scholar.