When Signs of Trouble Appear, Mayor Adams Turns to His Religious Base

After a rough two weeks in office, Mayor Eric Adams of New York City sought a familiar refuge on Sunday: the pulpit at Christian Cultural Center, a nondenominational megachurch in Brooklyn.

He gave a 10-minute fiery sermon in which he said the hardest part of running the largest city in the country was getting the respect he deserved, and that he was being demonized for talking about his faith. Some in the congregation, mostly comprising Black middle-class worshipers, stood to their feet and roared with approval.

Midway through his second year as mayor, Mr. Adams has come to rely more heavily than ever on the religious segment of his multiethnic, outer Manhattan base for support, especially when signs of trouble arise, as they have in recent weeks.

Late last month, Mr. Adams drew criticism for his response to a tenant-rights activist whose family had escaped the Holocaust. The mayor believed the 84-year-old activist had made disrespectful comments, and publicly likened her to a plantation owner.

The following week, The New York Times revealed that a photo of a police officer killed in the line of duty — which the mayor said he had carried in his wallet for 30 years — had been recently created by employees in the mayor’s office. The next day, a longtime associate of Mr. Adams had been charged in a straw donor scheme to raise money for his mayoral campaign; the mayor was not implicated.

Amid the wave of negative news, Mr. Adams chose to lay low. He held no public events or news conferences for several consecutive days last week, until he finally emerged on Sunday at Christian Cultural Center.

“Hard is having someone talk down to you and expect for you to take it no matter what they say and what they do,” Mr. Adams told the parishioners. “I am the symbol of Black manhood in the city, in this country, and what it represents. I’m the mayor of the most powerful city on the globe, and people need to recognize that.”

The next morning, the Rev. Dr. V. Simpson Turner, a pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church and the Fire Department chaplain, conducted a morning prayer with Mr. Adams. An ad for the prayer service carried an all-caps headline: “We stand united in prayer for Mayor Eric Adams, his administration and our city.”

The mayor is not the first politician to take cover behind the warm embrace of religion, specifically the Black church, during times of trouble. When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was being investigated for sexual harassment, he visited a Black church in Harlem with political leaders, and was often photographed with Latino and Black members of the clergy.

The demographic that supported an Eric Adams, who is more centrist and moderate, are the people that go to church,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an Adams ally. “That’s his base.”

But Mr. Adams has leaned much harder into his religious background than most elected officials, especially Democrats.

“You want to see people get angry?” Mr. Adams said on Sunday. “Tell them you believe in God. You want to expose the devil? Say ‘I believe in God and the devil is a liar.’”

At an interfaith prayer breakfast in February, he backed up comments by his chief political adviser, Ingrid P. Lewis-Martin, that his administration “doesn’t believe” in the separation of church and state.

“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state,” the mayor said to scattered applause. “State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.”

In the same speech, the mayor also criticized the Supreme Court decision to remove mandated prayer in schools, saying it contributed to gun violence. And Mr. Adams has said that God told him three decades ago the exact date that he would become mayor and commanded him to “talk about God.”

He has also hired three people in his administration, including two in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, who had expressed opposition to gay marriage because of religious beliefs.

Norman Siegel, one of Mr. Adams’s informal advisers, and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he was concerned by the mayor’s focus on religion.

“You’re the mayor of the City of New York,” Mr. Siegel said. “You’re the government. You shouldn’t be doing that.”

The Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, considers himself a supporter of Mr. Adams. He said he does not agree with Mr. Adams’s views about the separation of church and state, but that he understands the mayor’s comments about faith informing his work as a politician.

“When you’re an elected official, I think that you have to walk a fine line when it comes to religion in politics,” the pastor said in an interview, adding that he didn’t think the mayor was trying to impose his religious beliefs on anyone but that some might feel differently in the country’s current political climate.

A lot of the folks at the Jan. 6 insurrection were holding up signs that said ‘Jesus saves’ and ‘God is with us,’” said the Rev. LaKeesha Walrond, president of the New York Theological Seminary, who praised the mayor’s efforts at talking about faith. “But we also have to be careful to recognize that religious freedom is a true gift in these United States that we live in.”

The mayor attended a nondenominational church of the Church of Christ while growing up in Southeast Queens and maintains an affiliation to that church, said Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor.

The founder and pastor of Christian Cultural Center, the Rev. A.R. Bernard, said that Mr. Adams’s comments about faith indicate that “he’s practicing the social ethic that people closest to the problem know best how to solve the problem, and it takes government to empower those individuals” to make change.

In one example of government interacting with faith, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships is leading an effort to coordinate with 50 houses of worship to house at least 1,000 asylum seekers. The city has received more than 80,000 asylum seekers since the spring and currently has 52,000 in its care. The effort could send millions of dollars to participating religious institutions.

Mr. Bernard said he expected an impassioned speech from Mr. Adams who “knows how to connect with his people.” He described his congregation as a “sophisticated” and “educated electorate” who can tell whether you are “fake or real” quickly.

He was a preacher,” Mr. Bernard said. “We had two sermons; I did one and he did one.”

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