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A Revival Under Many Tents in L.A.

The area's religiosity has new faces and speaks in multiple tongues. Yet Los Angeles is increasingly demonstrating how faith can be a common ground.

January 05, 2003|Joel Kotkin and Karen Speicher | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor of Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the Milken Institute. He is currently writing a history of cities for Modern Library. Karen Speicher is a graduate student at Pepperdine.

From the suburban fringes to South-Central and the heart of downtown, the Los Angeles area is undergoing a remarkable and exuberant expansion of churches, mosques, Buddhist temples and synagogues. The best known of the new religious institutions is the $189-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. But the building program is remarkably varied and includes mega-churches for evangelicals, the 1,600-seat Korean Valley Christian Presbyterian Church in Porter Ranch, the Faithful Central Bible Church at the former site of the 17,500-seat Forum in Inglewood and the Hindu Temple in Malibu.

The upsurge in religious building reflects an intensification of faith-based activities across the region. Church membership in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the American Religion Data Archive, grew 24% in the 1990s, a rate of growth about twice that of the area's population. In contrast, membership growth nationally was flat.

This growth has numerous sources, most significantly the number of immigrants who have migrated to the Los Angeles area over the last few decades. Virtually all major denominations, from Catholicism and Judaism to Islam and evangelical Protestantism, credit much of their recent expansion to the spiritual demands of newcomers. Others note the rising need among L.A.'s dispersed middle-class population for a community connection in a city whose sprawl and high-pitched energy are obstacles to simple human contact.

The revival in religiosity represents a new stage in the evolution of Los Angeles as a city. It reflects both the city's changing character and its continuing spiritual restlessness. From Mesopotamian times on through the Middle Ages to the great Protestant revivals in Britain and America in the early 20th century, the quest for spiritual meaning has been among the most notable characteristics of great cities. "The city," observed French theologian Jacques Ellul, "is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power."

A heightened sense of religiosity is nothing new in Los Angeles. Founded as an exclusively Catholic city under the Spanish, L.A.'s first great religious transformation came with the huge influx of Midwestern and Northeastern middle-class Americans at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, the city was a bastion of such traditional Protestant groups as the Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans.

The city's new Protestant consciousness had many positive effects. Mainstream Protestantism preached the importance of hard work and clean government, values that played crucial roles in the city's transition from a cow town to a major metropolis. But Protestant hegemony also fostered prejudice against other religions, effectively excluding their followers, most notably Catholics and Jews, from the city's ruling elites.

Also in the 1920s and especially during the 1930s, Los Angeles became a national center of Christian fundamentalism. Impoverished refugees from the Dust Bowl, cut off from their Great Plains roots and adrift in a large, seemingly unknowable city, found solace in the "old-time religion" of such evangelists as Aimee Semple McPherson of the Foursquare Gospel Church.

In the ensuing decades, many marginal religious movements, from astrologers to faith healers, attracted followings. "Los Angeles leads the world in all the healing sciences," commented the journalist Morrow Mayo, "except perhaps medicine and surgery."

In the 1950s and 1960s, religion in Los Angeles fit a more normal American pattern. In a city of big businesses and global ambitions, L.A.'s religious communities were represented by "serious" ecclesiastical leaders such as the Catholic archbishop, the leader of the Episcopal church and the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

This staid corporate model no longer describes L.A.'s religiosity. Although established religious institutions still matter, the current revival of religious life is essentially entrepreneurial, which befits a city that is ethnically diverse and whose economy is dominated by small businesses. It is dispersed and fragmented, unfolding across an archipelago of faiths rather than in a single, sacred precinct.

In the shadows of the city's new religious buildings grows a proliferation of smaller and more eclectic congregations. It's not uncommon for four or more congregations, each speaking a different language and professing a different faith, to share the same facility. This is particularly true of the more evangelical churches, whose rapid growth has yet to bring them the economic power to find permanent spaces amid L.A.'s high-cost real estate. Still, according to the American Religion Data Archive, the number of places of worship in the L.A. area in 2000 rose by about 400 over the previous 10 years.

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