The story of religious tolerance in Flushing, Queens

Following the sack and storm of Rome in 410 C.E., a defeat worshippers of Roman gods blamed on Christianity’s ban on polytheism, St. Augustine defended the Christian faith with furious zeal in his treatise, “Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans,” or “City of God.”

The fall of Rome, Augustine argued, was the fault of mad and wicked men. He asserted religious pluralism was an inescapable fact, and foretold the inevitability of a secular, religiously diverse Roman city welcoming Christians and non-Christians.

“Both alike enjoy the good things, or are afflicted with the adversities of this temporal state,” he wrote, “but with a different faith, a different expectation, a different love, until they are separated by the final judgement, and receives her own end.”

If St. Augustine were alive today, R. Scott Hanson, a lecturer in the Department of History in the School of Arts & Sciences, says he may well agree that New York City was the Rome of the 20th century, and the embodiment of the religiously diverse city he foresaw. Nowhere is this pluralism more evident than in Queens, the most diverse county in the country, and nowhere more dramatic than the Queens neighborhood of Flushing, which Hanson calls “perhaps the most compelling case of religious and ethnic pluralism in the world.”

In his book, “City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens,” Hanson, who is also director of Penn’s Social Justice Research Academy, uses the history of religious diversity in Flushing to examine religious diversity in America, and consider the possibilities and limits of pluralism.

The investigation has its origins in The Pluralism Project, a research project at Harvard University Hanson worked on after completing a master’s degree at Columbia University in the mid-1990s. The program sent students around the country to document the change in America’s religious makeup, and he was responsible for covering New York City. He ended up spending a lot of time in Flushing, and says he was struck by the sheer density of diversity.

“In two-and-a-half square miles, I counted over 200 different places of worship in a densely concentrated residential and commercial neighborhood, and almost every kind of place of worship that you can think of,” he says. There were over 100 Korean churches alone. Flushing is also home to the first Hindu temple in America.

Hanson continued exploring the area as part of his dissertation work at the University of Chicago, returning to Flushing every summer to do additional research. Ultimately, he moved to Flushing and lived there for two-and-a-half years, conducting fieldwork, participant observation, oral histories, and archival research.

Under Dutch rule when the colony was known as New Netherland (the British later renamed it New York), Flushing, originally called Vlissingen after a town in Holland, was established in 1645 with a charter granting liberty of conscience, the earliest such charter granting religious freedom in colonial America. 

Predominately Christian and Jewish, and black and white through the 1950s, the city experienced a wave of immigrants after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were joined by a large population of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Flushing’s religious landscape grew so diverse and densely populated that Hanson says it became “a microcosm of world religions by the end of the century.”

New immigrants to Flushing have been met with occasional hostility and hate crimes from their neighbors, but there has been no widespread religious violence. The various peoples and persons of faith eventually settled into tolerance and coexistence.

“That’s the good news,” Hanson says. “In a community that’s becoming more diverse in terms of immigration and new religions coming in, it’s going to be OK. We can all live together.”

Still, religious pluralism in Flushing has its limits: spatial limits, theological limits, and limits of class, race, and ethnicity. 

“African Americans have reported feeling left out of this kind of economic boom in Flushing, not being served in some businesses or not offered jobs," Hanson says. “And urban redevelopment from the 1950s to the present displaced and essentially segregated much of the black community.” 

Groups can be isolated and keep to themselves, and people do not often interact in meaningful ways—in part because of the nature of life in a large, diverse, densely populated urban neighborhood. But Flushing is making progress.

Hanson says he has returned to the neighborhood frequently since he completed his research, and has noticed encouraging interactions between different ethnic and religious groups and efforts toward interfaith involvement, due in some ways to the children and grandchildren of immigrants becoming further integrated into society and engaged with the community.

While not quite as extreme as Flushing, large portions of the country—urban, suburban, and rural—are becoming increasingly religious and ethnically diverse. Hanson says the lessons of Flushing, successes and failures, can be applied to densely populated, rapidly changing neighborhoods across the nation. 

“Other places in America are wrestling with these same issues to one degree or another,” he says. “In that sense, I think we can learn something from the story of Flushing.”

R. Scott Hanson