Cities Need Religion

Article excerpt

Los Angeles County's recent decision to remove a tiny cross from its seal has inspired enormous protest, one that seems likely to embroil the county in a storm of lawsuits and possibly lead to a divisive ballot measure during the next few months.

The whole battle smacks of a kind of amnesia about the sources of urban happiness. Contemporary discussions of the keys to healthy city life revolve around many things, from high technology to racial politics. The role of religion--and the importance of churches in keeping moral order in city life--is rarely mentioned.

That postmodern, secular approach would surely have seemed odd to our urban predecessors. Until recently, the linkage between strong cities and robust worship was obvious to all sensible observers.

Religion has played a critical role in urban history from the cities of Mesoamerica, to China and India, the Islamic cities of the Middles Ages to Renaissance Europe, right up to the latest two hundred years of American urbanity. Historically, religious authorities have generally been the ones who devised the codes that kept increasingly crowded and complex societies operating in what we might call a civilized manner.

It should not be so surprising, therefore, that here in California as well, the role of religion in building successful cities was absolutely central. The missions such as those at San Fernando or San Gabriel, whose crosses so offend ACLU attorneys, represented the earliest examples of European urban civilization in this part of the world. …