R. Scott Hanson is Lecturer in History and Director of the Social Justice Research Academy at the University of Pennsylvania. This interview is based on his new book City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (Fordham University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write City of Gods?
RSH: I was completing my M.A. in Religion at Columbia in the Fall of 1993 when I became interested in the intersection of religion and immigration in American history. I was fortunate to find out about the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which sought to map the new religious landscape of America since the Immigration Act of 1965. I began work as a researcher in New York City the next summer, and this research ultimately led me to Queens and the microcosm of world religions Flushing. When I learned that Flushing was founded in 1645 and was considered by locals to be “the birthplace of religious freedom in America” I knew I had stumbled on a topic that I wanted to explore more deeply, and this turned into a dissertation at the University of Chicago which I then spent a long time revising into a book manuscript.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of City of Gods?
RSH: I argue that the absence of widespread religious violence in a neighborhood with densely concentrated extreme religious diversity suggests that there is no limit to how much pluralism a pluralist society can stand. On the other hand, I also argue that there are in fact some real limits of pluralism when it comes to cooperation and community—spatial limits, social limits, structural limits, and theological limits—and these limits illustrate the challenge of trying to find unity in a pluralist society.
JF: Why do we need to read City of Gods?
RSH: Flushing is an extreme case with a unique history, but there is reason to believe that other communities can learn from it—certainly other dense urban areas with similar recent economic histories and growing new immigrant populations, but similar changes in the religious landscape are likely to develop in many other types of communities across the country, too (in fact, they already are). Indeed, we may be able to glimpse the future of religion and intergroup relations in America by studying Flushing not only because the striking exaggeration of its diversity makes the issues more sharply defined but because the story of the neighborhood and its pioneering colonial history mirrors that of the nation in microcosm.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RSH: I was an English major (American literature) in college, so I’ve always been drawn to stories. But it was when I began a Master’s degree in Religion that I got into American religious history, and eventually immigration/ethnic history, urban history, and American history in general when I started my Ph.D.
JF: What is your next project?
RSH: Since moving to the Philadelphia area in 2002, I have been teaching and writing about the broader history of the Mid-Atlantic region (which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland)—an area that was characterized more by religious pluralism than the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony and the largely Anglican southern colonies. There are plans to edit a new volume on religious pluralism and region, and I have been exploring the possibility of a documentary film based on City of Gods. In my free time, I have also been working on a screenplay adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
JF: Thanks, Scott!