That’s Me in the Corner

A tiny pocket of Chinatown and its discriminating, religion-affirming denizens loom large in the media: a tour.

If, like me, you’re obsessed with cults, you know that documentaries about cults usually include a voiceover explaining that the era in question was a very turbulent and uncertain time and that that’s why people sought stability in faith. The phrase “no atheists in foxholes” covers somewhat similar ground: i.e., in times of great fear and high mortality rates, people often turn to God and faith-based answers of some form or another. “Some scholars theorize that levels of religiosity and cultic affiliation tend to rise in proportion to the perceived uncertainty of an environment,” Zoë Heller writes in a 2021 New Yorker essay. “The less control we feel we have over our circumstances, the more likely we are to entrust our fates to a higher power.” Heller doesn’t fully buy into this argument, and I don’t either: after all, what times aren’t turbulent and uncertain? Recency bias is a hell of a drug, but I think it’s fair to say that the last decade of mass shootings and pandemics has been a bit stressful: as such, we ought to expect to see a subsequent rise in cults, religious membership, and other forms of spiritual questioning that seek to make sense out of a confusing and shifting reality. But are people actually drawn to religion these days, whether new or old? And if not, why not?

Going strictly by the numbers, standard religious affiliation in the US has been dropping for the last three decades. Instead of the usual increase in religiosity, there’s been a rise in what Pew Research calls “nones”: people who call themselves atheist or agnostic or who otherwise don’t identify as religious. Most of this loss has come from younger Christians leaving the faith. In the early 1990s, a solid 90 percent of adult Americans considered themselves Christian, but today only 63 percent make the claim. (Other religious affiliations have stayed more or less steady.) Belief in God has also dipped: according to recent polling by Gallup, only 81 percent of American adults believe there is a God (down from 98 percent from the 1940s to the 1960s and 92 percent in 2011), to say nothing of possessing a settled idea of what to do with him.

And yet, if you believe the culture-reporting buzz, everyone’s wild for Catholicism these days. Manhattan is crawling with God-fearing scenesters, especially of the “tradcath” variety, clutching their rosaries. “Members of a small but significant scene are turning to the ancient faith in defiance of liberal pieties,” writes First Things editor Julia Yost in the New York Times. “Disaffection with the progressive moral majority—combined with Catholicism’s historic ability to accommodate cultural subversion—has produced an in-your-face style of traditionalism. This is not your grandmother’s church.” How thrilling! Where is this exciting, in-your-face, not-your-grandma’s traditionalism taking place? According to Yost, it’s happening among the Dimes Square set, the residents or hangers-on of a three block “micro-neighborhood” at the edge of Chinatown. Yost assures us that although “the Dimes Square scene is small … its ascent highlights a culture-wide shift.” I’m not quite sure if the ascent of Dimes Square highlights anything, except the power of marketing and gentrification. If you turn the corner past Chinatown’s Tzu Chi Family Service Center, with its stunning rooftop pagoda, you may suddenly come upon a flock of scenesters nesting around the overpriced cafes like pale, self-conscious sparrows. They look at you anxiously and angrily, as if you might be Someone, and since they are hoping to be Someone too, they need to know where you fit into the binary of their ambition: Are you useful or an obstacle? On a beautiful Sunday morning in early October, I ate an indifferent brunch at the famous Dimes restaurant: Few if any of the people I saw in the area appeared to be dressed for a Catholic mass or in a hurry to get to it. They must have been unaware they were part of a culture-wide shift toward traditional religion.

The Dimes Square area is home to a number of large and lovely Catholic churches, including St. Theresa’s, St. Mary’s, and The Church of the Transfiguration. St. Theresa’s, more or less the closest to Dimes Square, offers a bilingual mass in English and Spanish. St. Mary’s describes itself as “located in a neighborhood of Manhattan that is still a neighborhood. All are welcome here and all demographics are emphatically present,” and it alternates between English and Spanish masses. The Church of the Transfiguration, which sits at the bottom of a busy Chinatown street hung with paper lanterns, performs its masses in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The services at all three that Sunday morning in October seemed well attended, particularly by the elderly, which is in keeping with the Pew Research statistics. I didn’t see a substantial population of devout young conservatives in fashionable lace.

ARTICLES ABOUT THIS HIP NEW Catholicism trend have been notably vague about what particular church, if any, this theoretically fashionable set actually attends. Despite the age, soaring architecture, and convenient location of these three Dimes Square–adjacent churches, the vernacular masses on offer may in fact be a turnoff for the discriminating (and I do mean discriminating) young traditionalist. According to my friend Dan Walden, a Catholic writer who often covers the intersection of religion and politics, the language in which Mass is performed plays a critical role in the current inter-Catholic struggle to keep the church relevant during these uncertain times. Vatican II brought about positive changes, including the removal of antisemitic language from the liturgy, but it also implemented vernacular Masses and other liturgical reforms, which “were often implemented in a way that was alienating and sudden,” Walden says. Bigots and traditionalists hated the changes to the Mass, but so did ordinary practicing Catholics like Walden’s grandfather. “I can’t say for sure [why], but it was a really radical change to the way he’d experienced worship for his whole life.” Walden, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, notes that one of the Catholic parishes in town recently switched over to a Latin mass, which brought in an influx of new attendees from the surrounding area. Some of these people, young and old, probably enjoy the Latin Mass for its beauty, but for others, its performance is a sign of conservative defiance, in opposition to Vatican II and Pope Francis’s more recent batch of modernizing reforms. The Latin Mass is more than a linguistic and aesthetic choice: it’s become a symbol of the broader culture war. Reactionary traditionalists seek to return to a world of predetermined social roles in defiance of progressive social justice trends; the Latin Mass (which, Walden tells me, is actually quite different than its pre– Vatican II version) has become one of many nostalgic relics of an imaginary time when people knew their place and didn’t complain.

Analysis by Pew Research suggests that the general decline in religious observance is closely related to the new prominence of the culture war. Of the people who were raised Christian but have disaffiliated themselves, about 70 percent are Democrats or otherwise left-leaning. It seems that, as Pew suggests, “disaffiliation from Christianity is driven by an association between Christianity and political conservatism that has intensified in recent decades.” There are still many left-leaning Christians of course, and many terrific Christian leftist writers, but Christianity writ large is becoming inextricable from conservatism and from the performative elements of the culture war. A recent poll of evangelicals found that while many were antigay and pro-life—in step with evangelical doctrine—a surprisingly large percentage seemed ignorant of basic Christian theology. Seventy-three percent of respondents actually subscribed to a form of the Arian heresy, while others leaned toward Pelagianism. Stefani McDade wrote for Christianity Today that this was less a matter of evangelicals being unfamiliar with basic theological tenets (or somehow really into the machinations of the Council of Nicea) and more that “to many [evangelicals], Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes.” Sociology professor Samuel L. Perry told Religion News that he believes evangelical identity “is being hollowed out by the culture war…. White evangelical is becoming this empty category that really just means friendly to religion and really conservative.” If this is true, then evangelicals are also, in their way, becoming less religious. In times of crisis and culture war, they are turning against God and toward politics, backing markedly immoral politicians such as Donald Trump and Herschel Walker as long as these candidates vow to upset and destroy the left-leaning enemy.

Yost’s piece about the new, cool Catholicism is really just another volley in the culture war, and several critiques of it have pointed out how she buries the lede: the trend, if there is one, is not a micromove toward faith but toward social and political conservatism. Yost can compare the Dimes Square crowd to Oscar Wilde and the Decadents all she likes. She can approvingly quote microcelebrity actor and podcaster Dasha Nekrasova comparing herself to Andy Warhol, but Wilde and Warhol were gay, not just incidentally but extremely, famously gay, as gay as Frances Conroy in American Horror Story: Coven shouting “Balenciaga!” before she’s burned at the stake. This cool new reactionary Catholicism—insofar as it actually exists—is clear about enforcing strict norms of gender and sexual behavior. Walden tells me that as much as he loves the Latin mass aesthetically, he won’t attend one alone: because, as a gay Catholic, he doesn’t “feel safe or welcome there.” It’s impossible to separate the Latin Mass from, as he says, “all the other cultural baggage that comes with it.” Some Catholic churches may perform the Latin Mass and all the other stations of owning the libs, and in doing so they may improve attendance. But the crowd they attract will inevitably lean toward the conservative, the fanatical, and the increasingly vicious.

This traditionalist crowd isn’t just cruel and reactionary: it’s also tedious. A recent Atlantic article covers the rise of “rad-trad” (radical-traditional) Catholics who take photos of their guns draped about with rosaries, which they call “battle beads.” They then post these photos on social media, along with images of “warriors in prayer” and memes about the Crusades. This rad-trad imagery has bled into, and formed an alliance with, evangelical nationalism, of the sort that calls for “righteous violence” against its enemies, a group that includes liberals, leftists, Jews, and the nonreligious. Until quite recently, Catholics would have been included on this enemy list, but according to the Atlantic, that’s changed: “Catholic imagery now blends freely with staple alt-right memes that romanticize ancient Rome or idealize the traditional patriarchal family.” This is scary of course, but it’s also super lame. I mean, classics memes? Really?

These memes and images are a performance, meant to terrify the secular liberal enemy, but they’re also clearly a desperate quest for something really real: something strong and specific—the physicality of masculinity, the hard reality of rosary beads—to shore up one’s sense of self in a shifting, frightening world. It reminds me of the way that the January 6 insurrectionists seemed almost surprised that their attack was really, physically happening, that it was a real event in the real world and not just the act of reading Qanon posts on the computer. (Qanon is itself arguably a cult or a new religion, and if it is, it’s one of the more popular ones of the age.) All this loud performance of religious fervor, whether for God or the God-Emperor Trump or against the stupid libs—are you looking at us now, libs?—does have its scary real-world consequences, but it’s above all else an effort to stop being No One, to be Someone. To be anchored to reality, to be worthy of attention, to be noticed—but not by God, who is aware of everyone anyway, even a single sparrow. No, this performance is much sadder and more desperate than that: it’s the self-taking pictures in a mirror, the empty, terrified, undefined, and fundamentally lonely self, praying to be noticed by the vulgar crowd. It’s oriented not toward God but toward the enemy, whom it both hates and desperately needs.

I LIKE RELIGION. That may seem like a strange thing to say as a nonreligious person, against the backdrop of increasing religious conservatism, but I genuinely do like it. I grew up Jewish but fell away from the religious element pretty much around the time I went to college and realized that much of what I had been fed about the Israel/Palestine conflict as a child was a lie. Statistics will note that this is not an uncommon life trajectory for younger Jews, and if you ask organizations like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) they’ll tell you that it’s the fault of a vaguely defined “anti-Israel” attitude on America’s campuses. If anything, however, the attitude on America’s campuses tends to be anti-Palestine, at least judging by the pro-Palestinian voices who have been fired for their activism, such as Palestinian American professor Steven Salait, who was fired for his intemperate but justified tweets about the colonialist policies of the Israeli government, and Emily Wilder, a Jewish journalist who was fired by the Associated Press for having advocated for Palestinian rights back when she was a student at Stanford. The AJC and other Jewish organizations can keep living in a fantasy world of unvarnished innocence if they like, but the simple and obvious truth is that a specific right-wing foreign policy conviction, shared by many evangelical Christians who want to convert all Jews in order to bring about the apocalypse, has twined itself around the experience of being Jewish in America. Until these things are disentangled, I don’t see how I or many other younger Jews can feel at home in the religion.

It’s this sense of home (which I certainly don’t find in Israel) that I wish I had, and that I find myself envying in my friends who are religious. Traditionalists have done a very good job of transforming the concepts of “home and rootedness” into queasy synonyms for “blood and soil.” But the actual residents of Chinatown who attend vernacular Masses in the area’s soaring Catholic churches are rooted in the real, physical neighborhood, as are those who attend the Mahayana Buddhist temple a few blocks over, with its famous sixteen-foot-tall golden Buddha statue. That particular temple, now painted in red and gold trim, used to show adult movies until it was taken over by a Buddhist organization in 1996 and is now a peaceful, meditative local space. A neighborhood is what you make it.

THE MAKING AND UNMAKING of neighborhoods has been one of the central preoccupations of the Earth Church, a new congregation focused on social justice and climate justice, currently located in Alphabet City, about ten blocks north of Chinatown. The Earth Church began about twenty years ago as a Times Square activist group called the Church of Stop Shopping, which tried to prevent the “Disneyfication” of the area. It started simply as protest and as satire, says cofounder William Talen, who developed a character called Reverend Billy in imitation of evangelical preachers. He’s played the reverend so many times since then that he says the line between performance and reality has been permanently blurred, and at the same time the Earth Church has evolved into something that is trying to change the way people imagine goodness, instead of just protesting evil. It’s still a collective of “activist musicians,” as Reverend Billy calls them, who risk arrest to protest “toxic corporations” and banks that take fossil fuel money, but they also embody a genuine understanding of the earth as a living space, promoting a kind of environmentalism that isn’t theoretical and distant (i.e., an untainted green space over there) but living and present (an interconnected environment that takes humans and every other living thing into account). Reverend Billy says the Earth Church is “trying to find the way to bring the earth back into the experience of ten million [New Yorkers],” because the natural world isn’t a separate experience from people living in it. We are rooted in a home that is right here, and though our ancestors might have arrived due to historical accidents or, sometimes, hideous crimes, we nonetheless have responsibilities toward whatever place we find ourselves in now.

The Earth Church is currently located in a former bank, its neoclassical pillars washed in silver, painted with green leaves, and adorned with stickers of butterflies and birds. In September, it hosted a service with worker-activist Chris Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union; a week later, I attended its memorial service for the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, whom the Earth Church considers a saint. It was a lovely ceremony, with a series of songs and some readings from Ehrenreich’s work. The Earth Church’s vibe is a bit corny, and it may not be for everyone—certainly, if the ironic scenesters a few blocks farther south came into contact with it they would be vaporized instantly—but it points at the general direction that religion or activism or the combination of both can take: oriented around the pursuit of justice (“earth justice and human justice are one and the same,” as the Earth Church says) and on real, local, immediate concerns. Its particular corner of Alphabet City is gentrifying as much as anywhere else in Manhattan, but it’s still “wonderfully diverse,” says Reverend Billy. “Like a subway car.” It also has a lot of parks and trees and community investment. At the end of the Ehrenreich service, Reverend Billy suggested a creative action aimed at stopping the clear-cutting of trees in the nearby East River Park. Half the trees have been cut down already, so the action might seem pointless, but often real faith is demonstrated in smaller actions, in selfless acts that don’t always succeed and don’t make for self-aggrandizing memes you can share online. Nothing local is ever really local, since the planet as a whole has no particular locality and we have a responsibility toward making all of it livable. We have a term of this in Judaism: tikkun olam, the ethical imperative to repair the world.

If people feel disconnected and unmoored in this uncertain decade and are looking around for something physical to hold onto but turned off by angry right-wing institutions that are angled mostly toward the public performance of upsetting their enemies, then it might help to look around and take stock: to consider local churches, temples, and institutions; a gentrifying neighborhood, a neglected building, a grove of trees. The nearby church might just need better music; the gentrifying neighborhood might need your help banning developers. What you do to help repair the world around you might be a religious act, and it might not: religion, too, is what you make it.

Lyta Gold is an essayist, critic, and editor living in Queens. Her favorite part of Judaism is Curb Your Enthusiasm.