New York City

Keeping the faith in New York City politics

Even in New York City, there may be one religious line which politicians are not willing to cross: godlessness.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at Riverside Church in Manhattan in March 2014.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at Riverside Church in Manhattan in March 2014. Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

When it comes to religion, New York City residents generally abide by the credo of “live and let live.” Voters in eastern Queens, for example, once voted for a self-identified heathen to represent them in the New York City Council. Sure, Dan Halloran’s adherence to the neo-Pagan religion of Theodism was “a point of contention” in the 2009 race, but he won and served for four years – until he was arrested and convicted for his part in a scheme to buy a spot on the ballot for a mayoral candidate.

But even in New York City, there may be one religious line which politicians are not willing to cross: godlessness. Based on a dozen conversations with City Council members, staffers and others in the political world, there don’t seem to be any city politicians, whether on the 51-member Council or in the three citywide positions, who are “out” atheists who do not believe in God or any higher power. Some questioned whether an atheist could get elected – even in ultra-liberal New York City.

“Nones,” or those who aren’t a member of any religion, are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. Roughly a quarter of people – both nationwide and in New York City – identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” These “nones” are part of the spiritual fabric in the Empire State, the most religiously diverse state in the country. But atheists are more rare – just 3 percent of the population, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

That number seems to be 0 percent among the city’s politicians. After all, there doesn’t seem to be anything to gain.

“Even in a city as liberal as New York, it’s still seen as somewhat perilous to self-identify as an atheist in politics,” said City Councilman Mark Levine, who said he strongly identifies as Jewish.  

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, a self-described “church girl,” agreed that atheism could pose a problem in an election. “I know in some constituencies, that would cause an issue,” she said. “That would be a major issue.”

City Councilman Ritchie Torres said the same. “It would cost you more than it would benefit you,” he said.

Torres said he was a cultural Catholic who now identifies as a deist, adopting a philosophy that God reveals himself through the laws of nature rather than the supernatural. Deism, once adhered to by Thomas Jefferson, has a long history in American politics, but Torres doesn’t have much opportunity to talk about it with his colleagues at City Hall.

“Philosophy of religion does not tend to be the subject of debate at the City Council,” he said.

Yet religion plays an undeniable role. Bronx City Council members Fernando Cabrera and Ruben Diaz Sr. are both Christian pastors. Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich was once on a path to become a Catholic priest. And every City Council meeting begins with an invocation, an often lengthy prayer from a religious leader invited by member of the Council. Such prayers have been challenged by secular groups, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they are allowed. And even though former City Councilman Simcha Felder reportedly once tried to halt it, don’t expect the practice to stop.

The invocations at the council’s stated meetings do make some members feel uncomfortable, Levine said, “but no one wants to be the one who publicly pushes against that tradition.”

After all, religion plays a role in many campaigns for elected office.

“Institutions of faith remain among the most frequent stops of any campaign in New York City,” Levine said. “And that’s probably as true today as it ever was.”

It’s certainly true of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has regularly appeared at churches, synagogues and other houses of faith both while campaigning and while governing – even though he identifies as spiritual, not religious, and does not belong to any church.

De Blasio’s press secretary Eric Phillips told City & State the mayor’s lack of a church has never been an issue with voters. Opposition messaging blaring from vans in the 2013 campaign deriding him as “anti-church” and atheistic didn’t seem to hinder his landslide win. Since a handful of articles following his 2014 inauguration discussed his (lack of) religious views, the mayor’s beliefs have been largely ignored in the media.

Occasionally opposed in matters of the budget, de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson are aligned on matters of faith. Raised Catholic, Johnson now just considers himself “spiritual.”

“I believe in a higher power, which is a source of comfort for me and something I can and have leaned on in troubling times,” Johnson said in a statement provided to City & State. Politics is a tough job, he said, “and I like to think the universe has a plan that involves all of us.”

City Councilman Danny Dromm, like Johnson and Torres, is openly gay, a fact that led him to leave the Catholic Church in the 1980s. ”There is some type of a god, but I don’t necessarily believe in religion,” he said.

City Councilman Justin Brannan said he has struggled with his faith, but wouldn’t call himself an atheist.

“I’m a big believer in faith in action,” he said. “Just going to church on Sunday, but then being an asshole the other six days of your life – why bother going to church?”

Earlier this week, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives – although none from New York – established a “Freethought Caucus,” devoted in part to defending atheists from discrimination.

Is such fear keeping some New York City politicians from identifying as atheists? A number of council members who others suggested might be non-believers declined to comment for this story.

But one member saw nothing to fear. Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander is both a “proud and active Jew” and somebody who “wrestles with the divine.” His Park Slope congregation, Kolot Chayeinu, proudly declares itself as a place “where doubt can be an act of faith,” and Lander said his colleagues wouldn’t be judgmental, either.

“If I had certainty in nonbelief,” he said, “I would feel comfortable expressing it as a member of this City Council.”