NEW YORK—Joe Lhota, the former head of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Republican candidate for mayor, has been connecting with a slice of this city often ignored under the Bloomberg administration: Protestant Christians.
Lhota met with Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, on Sept. 23. The meeting was private and he and his campaign declined to discuss details of the conversation. Lhota told me that religious leaders like Keller have a “finger on the pulse” of the city.
Then on Oct. 9, he spoke at Q Cities, a Christian conference organized by evangelicals that has a TED Talk-type structure. Q’s organizers also invited the Democratic candidate for mayor, Bill de Blasio, to speak, but he declined. Q hosts Christians and non-Christians from all sorts of fields to have a conversation about “the common good.” Lhota appeared along with speakers like the founder of New York’s High Line Park and a representative from the Bowery Mission.
“Faith-based organizations must play a critical role in moving the city forward,” Lhota told the hip gathering in the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. “We could not do the job in the social services area without the faith-based agencies. … You do an enormous amount of good.” De Blasio, in previous forums, has also applauded the role that churches played in recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
The Lhotas attend an Episcopal church on the Upper West Side. De Blasio, in a recent conversation on the website Reddit, said he considers himself “spiritual” and “unaffiliated” with a religion. “I was definitely influenced by the liberation theology movement in Latin America,” he said.
Both Lhota and de Blasio support churches renting from public schools, in contrast with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy. The city has fought churches in court over the matter. The latest court ruling struck down the city’s policy banning churches from renting out public schools for worship services. But the city appealed the ruling, and is awaiting a decision from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court may be holding its decision until the next mayor resolves the issue himself.
When an audience member at Q asked Lhota about Bloomberg’s policy against churches renting from public schools, he shook his head in disapproval. “I disagreed with the mayor on that position,” he said. He said allowing churches to rent space on Sundays wouldn’t be a violation of the separation of church and state.
Lhota lags far behind de Blasio in polls, but whoever wins the mayorship in three weeks has promised to change the city’s controversial policy toward churches. And both candidates are displaying a warmer attitude toward churches than the current administration.