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A Show of Faith in Sodom on the Pacific

An Editor's Note

October 22, 2006|Rick Wartzman

At, a Web-based lexicon of the slangy and snarky, you can find multiple listings for California. One of them defines the state, in part, like this: "No morals among these godless people."

Holy moly! Just how godless are we?

Statistically speaking, the answer appears to be a fair bit, at least as compared with the rest of the country. Beyond the raw numbers, though, the picture gets more complicated--and intriguing.

I started to contemplate the importance of spirituality here after reading Amber Nasrulla's story about a flock of prominent African American actors who are embracing explicitly religious projects ("God's Entourage," page 26). "If you look in the right places," Nasrulla writes, "it's not hard to find God" in the entertainment business.

If that's true in Hollywood--where references to "the Good Book" often mean Syd Field's screenwriting guide --where's that leave the rest of us? Living, it turns out, in the midst of what USC's Donald E. Miller calls "maybe the most diverse religious community in the world."

It's a place that boasts dozens of mosques; a large and active Jewish population; 20,000-plus-member mega-churches; hundreds of storefront Pentecostal congregations; and a huge assortment of nondenominational and nontraditional sects.

Miller, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, says he witnesses fantastic displays of faith all over town. Some of them arise out of theology that has been imported from Latin America and other spots around the globe. At the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God on Broadway, for instance, Friday is when demons are exorcised. "It's like you're right in Sao Paulo," Miller says.

Yet it's more than just immigrants who show such zeal. At the Dream Center, a ministry near downtown L.A., "the place is just pulsating on Sunday morning," Miller says. "It's like a nightclub--but filled with people praising Jesus."

All of this controverts the notion that blue-state California is some Sodom on the Pacific.

John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, notes that certain scholars still refer to California and the rest of the West Coast as "the Anti-Bible Belt." That's because, in most polls, only about 30% of adults in the region claim that they've attended a house of worship in the previous seven days. Nationally, that figure runs closer to 40%.

I find the data somewhat dubious; surveying in California, where there are so many newcomers learning English, can be particularly dicey. But even if the statistics are right, they're missing a bigger point: California's range of religious beliefs and practices is extraordinary--"just hyper-pluralistic," in Green's words.

And when you think about it, what could be more divine than that?

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