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The Southern California imaginary

What do we mean when we speak of Southern California? Mike Davis, whose dystopian City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles recalls the muckraking journalism of Carey McWilliams, argues that the urban influence of Greater Los Angeles stretches from “the country-club homes of Santa Barbara to the shanty colonias of Ensenada,” that is, nearly a hundred miles south of the US.-Mexican border (Davis 1990, 6). The general agreement among urban theorists and the U.S. Census Bureau, however, is that the Los Angeles metropolitan region, used interchangeably with “Southern California,” encompasses roughly 18 million people in five counties: Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside (Dear 2002, 3).

If California is like the United States, only more so, Greater Los Angeles performs a similar fun-house mirror function for the rest of the Golden State, and, in turn, for the rest of the country'. This quality is apparent even in Southern California’s decentered, famously sprawling and chaotic built environment. Though development in the region confounds the modernist assumptions of mainstream urban development, “every American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles” (Garreau 1991, 3).

The cultural theorist and architectural historian Charles Jencks sees this profusion of forms without an organizing center reflected in the demography of Southern California as well. “No single ethnic group, nor way of life, nor industrial sector dominates the scene,” he writes. “There are only minorities ... Pluralism has gone further here than any other city in the world” (Jencks 1993, 132).

This broad-based pluralism - including religious pluralism - is nothing new in the Southern Californian imaginary. As Roberto Lint-Sagarena argues in Aztian and Arcadia: Religion, Ethnicity, and the Creation of Place, a key component of the public relations campaigns deployed by railroad companies and California land developers in the late 1800s was the depiction of comity between Protestants and Catholics - between Whites and Latinos - following the upheaval of the Mexican-American War, which ended just two years before California’s admission to the Union:

Religious culture, language, and practice were central to the invention of traditions that helped various groups attempt to remedy the social and political traumas of the war with Mexico...and these had deep social and political consequences, namely the enforcement of racial and ethnic social hierarchies as well as the formation of new identities and communities.

(Lint-Sagarena 2014, 7)

If the imagined promised land of Los Angeles depended, in part, on the myth of a pacific, pluralistic utopia by the western sea, the momentum of religiously inflected myth-making persisted even when wars, riots, and natural disasters threatened to upend the entire project. In fact, as Southern California’s population and demographic diversity has expanded, the range of religious expression in the region has increased apace.

In his essay “Religion in Los Angeles: Patterns of Spiritual Practice in a Postmodern City,” sociologist Donald E. Miller identifies three factors that account for Southern California’s long-standing reputation as a fertile climate for new religious movements and spiritual experimentation:

First, people who moved west were often seeking a chance to start over, and, by leaving relatives and traditions behind in other states, they were free to make new religious associations - or none at all. Second, as the home of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles often attracts people who pride themselves on innovation and putting ideas and images together in novel ways. Third, Southern California is the recipient of hundreds of immigrant groups, all of which bring their religion and culture with them, introducing new patterns of thought and behavior and creating a complex reservoir of religious symbols and practices from which rootless individuals can choose to create their own bricolage of beliefs.

(Miller 2002, 277)

Miller also highlights the region’s shift in the locus of authority from institutions to individuals - which Carey McWilliams traced to the earliest days of California statehood - as a factor that, when combined with the other three, creates an unparalleled opportunity for experimentation. “Although this change in the locus of authority may threaten the custodians of institutions,” Miller writes, “there is no reason to imagine that it will lead to the demise of religion. Instead, this may be the spirit undergirding religious innovation” (Miller 2002, 189).

Southern California religion scholar Wade Clark Roof argues that Southern California’s pluralist culture includes its unique religious culture which is fundamentally the result of there never having been as strong a religious establishment in the Los Angeles region as there was in the Northeast and Midwest (Roof 2007, 85). Roof traces this back to the many migrants from other parts of the United States and from abroad, bringing their religion or secularly with them and entering what was essentially a newly forming society. Similar to Jencks’ observations noted above, this created a religious culture where no one tradition dominated, and the emphasis tended to be on co-existence and acceptance, if not actual cooperation. Thus, the absence of a dominant tradition leads to weaker religious institutions overall, with no one group having the cultural or religious authority to make demands on the lives of current or potential adherents. Because all religious traditions have to adjust to the diversity of religions and other groups in Southern California, they exhibit “a shift in consciousness ... [and] tend to become more tolerant toward other faith communities” (Roof 2007, 87).

To this Roof adds that the appealing Mediterranean climate and natural beauty of Southern California also help to explain differences between the religious and spiritual environment of Los Angeles and the rest of the country. Roof argues that the physical environment provides a context that encourages different forms of individual spirituality that “seems not to have necessarily depended upon close connection with churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions” (Roof 2007, 89). Roof concludes, echoing Miller’s contention that religious authority has shifted from institutions to the individual, that “belief in God or the sacred here is not so much dismissed as regarded as a personal choice, often disconnected from communal ritual” (Roof 2007, 89).

Thus, far from being a godless metropolis, Greater Los Angeles is a fertile seedbed for spiritual cross-pollination, adaptive evolution and religious creativity and innovation, whether individual or institutional. Moreover, the spirit of possibility and agency that Miller and Roof describe has led religious adherents to be active participants in schemes to improve not only their lives but also the wellbeing of the nation and the world. The formation of new identities, the creation of new patterns of meaning, and the reshaping of communal ties and commitments are all longstanding elements of Southern California’s social and religious ferment. What develops in this most global of metropolises is thus predictive of trends in many elsewheres, and as religious myth-making created the Southern California imaginary, examining the region’s forms of religious expression is the best way to begin to articulate those trends.

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