In 'Sunday Routine' Column, Churchgoers Are Scarce
by Ruth Graham
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Of the 200 people featured in the New York Times's "Sunday Routine" column so far, 24 mention going to church. Four times as many mention exercising, and five times as many work.
Reliable estimates of New Yorkers' church-going habits are hard to come by, but several suggest church-going in 21st-century New York is not as unusual as the Times "Sunday Routine" column describes it. In 2011, the evangelical pollster George Barna found that 46% of New York City-area residents participated in some kind of "weekly religious event." The latest Encyclopedia of New York City catalogs 3,761 houses of worship in the city.
A Pew Forum report in 2009 found that 32% of New York state residents attend weekly services. Gallup finds New York state numbers slightly higher, and puts church attendance in New Jersey and Connecticut at 38% and 32%, respectively. Americans do have a habit of exaggerating their church attendance. But even if all those numbers skew higher than the population of New York City, Sunday Routine, which appears Sunday in the Times' Metropolitan section, is one corner of the city in which the scarcity of church-goers is notable.
The column's concept is simple: Each week, one person, or occasionally a couple, recounts their average Sunday from morning until bedtime. Often they discuss their meals, exercise habits, and favorite TV shows ("60 Minutes" looms large), and sometimes more unusual activities, like wig repair (Wendy Williams) or cruising around in a Lamborghini (telemarketing executive A.J. Khubani). Though most subjects are well-known or influential in some way, the column has also featured a Zamboni driver at Rockefeller Center, a Salvation Army volunteer, and a high-school student—"interesting New Yorkers," as Metropolitan editor Amy Virshup put it an email.
Sunday Routine first appeared on May 29, 2009, with an account of how the city's parks and recreation commissioner, Adrian Benepe, spends his day. Benepe's entry set the tone for the next 193-and-counting columns. He praised Central Park. He mentioned the newspaper. He said he gets "some extended vigorous exercise."
What he does not mention is going to church or performing any other religious activities. In combing through every single Sunday Routine column since its start, in fact, I found that just 42 of 200 subjects (21%) mention performing any kind of religious or spiritual activity as part of a typical Sunday.
Here I should say that I interpreted "religious activity" liberally, giving folk singer Pete Seeger credit for saying that "every time I'm in the woods I feel like I'm in church." I counted the president of the board of directors of the 92nd Street Y, Thomas Kaplan, for mentioning his children's Bible tutor, though he didn't seem to perform any Bible-related activities himself. I allowed meditation, a pagan "morning ritual by the sea," and Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts, who said she makes time for personal devotions. I was less generous with conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, who said that "as an atheist, maybe Nascar is my church?" I wavered over choreographer Mark Morris, who said "Sunday is a day of rest," but ultimately put him in the "no" column.
When I looked over the religious group more critically to see how many were performing traditional religious rituals for personal (not professional) reasons, the already-small number shrank. Omitting the vague meditators (I allowed transcendental meditation devotee Russell Simmons), woods-wandering Seeger, and all the politicians who mentioned attending church services just to meet constituents, I was left with just 32 subjects. When I narrowed even more ruthlessly to find people who attended a Christian church service, the number shrunk to 24. That means that according to the Times, just 12% of "interesting New Yorkers" go to church on a typical Sunday. (Obviously, not all New Yorkers are even culturally Christian; notably, more than 1 million are Jewish and may have celebrated the Sabbath the day before, although Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, for example, mentioned praying on Sunday.)
Peter Steinfels, who wrote a religion column called Beliefs for the Times for 20 years, picked up on the relative godlessness of the Sunday Routine class in a blog post at Commonweal last spring. Steinfels posted an email from former Newsweek religion writer Kenneth Woodward, who noted the paucity of church-going in the column, and asked, "are prominent New Yorkers not likely to be the kind of folks who worship God on Sunday? Or does the choice of whom to feature in 'Sunday Routine' say something about the culture of the people and paper doing the selecting? Is it the mirror or the lamp?" It's worth noting that Beliefs was born when Steinfels, a practicing Catholic, wrote a memo in 1990 observing that "Nowhere in the paper was there a regular treatment of religion for readers with a special interest in the topic, as there was, obviously, for business and sports, but also for science, art, architecture and many other subjects."
The church-going club of Sunday Routine subjects includes the Rev. Al Sharpton, Newark mayor Cory Booker, actresses Kristin Chenoweth and Vanessa Williams, historian Annette Gordon-Reed, NYU president John Sexton, New York City Road Runners Club president Mary Wittenberg, and Republican congressman Michael Grimm. Still, it's a small club.
I asked Ms. Virshup whether she considers religious diversity in choosing subjects for the column, and whether the relative lack of it is a problem. "We strive for all kinds of diversity, including where people live, their race, gender, professions, etc.," she wrote. "We don't necessarily look for people from different religions, and with most people, we have no idea what religion they follow (if any) or if they are observant until we do the interview, though we do sometimes tie a Routine to a religious holiday, in which case that's the point. For example, we did David Posner, the chief rabbi of Temple Emanu-El for the High Holy Days."
If church-going is not part of a typical New York City Sunday, then what are the rituals that have taken its place? Exercise is one Sunday fixture; just more than half of all subjects mentioned fitting in a trip to the gym, a yoga class, a jog, or some other calorie-burning activity. About a third mentioned pet care, usually dog-walking, though 10 mentioned birds. (Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz calls his parrot, Beep, his "son," and Christie Brinkley's perches on her shoulder as she sips her morning coffee.) A few others themes emerge: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, football, a phone call to one's parents, and Italian food, to name a few. And as it turns out, executive editor Jill Abramson was prescient when she said in 2011 that "In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion": Almost four in 10 Sunday Routine subjects mention reading the paper.
Thirty-nine subjects have second homes in which to perform these rituals of relaxation. Read in quick succession, and you can detect a kind of poetry of the elite: "TriBeCa; Southampton; Aspen, Colo.; and Los Angeles" (Jason Binn); "The couple also have a 1906 cottage in Cragsmoor, in the Catskills" (Kent Tritle); "Vienna; St. Petersburg, Russia; and an apartment on the Upper West Side" (Anna Netrebko); "the couple also have apartments in New York and Paris" (Ina Garten).
As for primary residences, three subjects live in the Bronx, four in Staten Island, 10 in Queens, 27 in Brooklyn, and 130 in Manhattan -- 32 on the Upper West Side alone. Ms. Virshup acknowledged the column is heavy on Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn, and said editors are "always striving to find people from different neighborhoods, though we don't have quotas."
Besides drinking coffee, the most popular form of worship in Sunday Routine's New York is work. Over and over, subjects say they devote time to their jobs on Sundays. Biographer Robert Caro puts on a suit and tie and heads in to his office on 57th Street; dozens of others mention tending to email, conference calls, or popping by the museums or restaurants they run. All told, more than 60% of the column's subjects mention working on the Christian day of rest. "Sunday is a phenomenal day for work," architect Rafael Viñoly said when he was featured in 2011. "Disgusting, right?" Viñoly has homes in TriBeCa, Water Mill, N.Y., and London; in response to an inquiry, he described himself as, "Atheist 100%."
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