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The lay of the land

How does this “America only more so” look in the religious landscape of Los Angeles? Stretching from Santa Barbara to San Clemente, the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area comprises over 18 million residents and 60% of the population of the state of California. There are over 15,000 different religious congregations in the five counties that comprise this region (Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside), including churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, meditation groups, and more.2 Furthermore, given its reputation as the center for “secular” pursuits provided by the entertainment and tech industries, that Los Angeles has a vigorous religious presence that has actually increased over the last 30 years may come as a shock to most people. The decennial Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS)3 shows that between 1980 and

2010, the number of religious congregations has grown by 3,848 congregations and 3,043,091 individual adherents, an increase of religious adherents of approximately 13% from 38 to 51% over those 30 years. Angelenos are also busy putting their faith and values to work through faith-based nonprofit organizations. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the five-county’ Los Angeles region has 16,829 “religion-related” nonprofits which accounts for almost one-half of the registered religion nonprofits in the state,4 suggesting that there is a vigorous religious presence beyond traditional religious organizations that are measured by the RCMS.

Moreover, as Roof has shown, Los Angeles, due to its independent-minded populace, has much less of a religious establishment than the rest of the country. This is evidenced by the many innovative religious leaders and movements that have called the region their birthplace and long-time home. A short list would include Aimee Semple McPherson (Angelus Temple), Robert Schuller (Crystal Cathedral), John Wimber (Vineyard Church), Chuck Smith (Calvary' Chapel), Rick Warren (Saddleback Church), and Matthew Barnett (Dream Center). While each of these are within the Christian tradition, Southern California has also spawned a number of new religious movements such as the Self-Realization Fellowship (see chapter 3 in this volume), the Science of Mind (Religious Science), and has been fertile ground for the development and growth of Theosophy' (see chapter 9 in this volume). Southern California is also home to large, thriving, and innovative Jewish synagogues, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and a growing number of mosques and Islamic centers. In short, the Los Angeles region is - and has historically been - a hotbed of religious and spiritual activity' that includes everything from traditional expressions of faith to the latest emerging spiritual movements, each of which have been influenced in their own way by the location and culture of Southern California.

Following the arguments of Donald Miller and Clark Roof, in the final chapter of this book, Bruce Phillips shows evidence of their contention that the freedom from institutional hierarchies allows for more independence and creativity' in religious practice and belief, often leading to the range of religious experimentation and innovation suggested above. Of course, not all religious expression in Southern California is about innovation and creativity. There are plenty' of traditional religious institutions whether churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques, but these organizations are often independent or minimally associated with a larger religious governing body. For example, how many people know that Saddleback Church, one of the largest megachurches in the United States, is a member of the Southern Baptist denomination and not an independent congregation? Furthermore, despite the number of religious congregations and adherents in California, the Pew Religious Landscape survey shows that, compared to the United States, Los Angeles is somewhat more religiously diverse, although it is still a majority' Christian (of all ty'pes) region. Angelenos are also less likely' to believe in God, to consider heaven or hell as real places and are generally ahead of the trend of “religious nones” - those who have no institutional religious affiliation - with a greater percentage of its population that identify as having “no religion in particular.”'

In what follows, we present representative examples of the vibrant religious scene that has been a part of the life of Los Angeles, both in its past and its present. Our goal in this volume is not to provide an exhaustive recounting of all the religious groups in Los Angeles, rather we provide rich examples that illustrate the range of religious and spiritual innovation that creative religious entrepreneurs have developed as they have worked in Los Angeles.

In the first section of the book, we focus on religious innovations in Los Angeles of the past, but that still resonate today. The chapters detail different aspects of Pentecostal Christianity (chapters 1, 4, and 7), which had its beginning in Los Angeles and is now one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world, and another that focuses on its movement cousin, Protestant fundamentalism, which was the precursor to current-day evangelicalism (chapter 2). Other chapters in this section include case studies of the rise of Yogananda and his Self-Realization Fellowship (chapter 3), the rise of Theosophy as a Los Angeles based religion (chapter 9), Los Angeles based efforts in the civil rights movements (chapter 6), and early forms of religious “civic engagement” (chapter 5). An examination of the showdown between an order of Roman Catholic sisters and a very conservative cardinal rounds out the first section.

In the second section, the chapters analyze current expressions of religion in Los Angeles, whether for individuals or how religious organizations adapt and change in response to the culture, demographics, and physical space of Los Angeles. Thus, chapter 10 details how a large charismatic Christian church that is known nationwide for its urban outreach programs, uses the idea of Los Angeles in the construction of its programs and its identity. Two chapters on Jewish life in Los Angeles follow: one detailing “religious hybridity” (chapter 14) and the other focusing on the expansion of the Jewish emphasis on “never again” beyond Judaism to mobilize Jews to respond to the genocide in Darfur (chapter 11).

The Latinx and Korean presence in Los Angeles is significant, including their religious presence. Chapter 12 focuses on how spirituality is used in Latinx social justice activism and chapter 13 focuses on a Latinx congregation and its successful efforts to engage multiple generations. Chapter 15 investigates how Korean megachurches, which are simultaneously influenced by their ties to Seoul and their presence in Los Angeles, provide religious and spiritual spaces unique to Los Angeles for their Korean members. Chapter 16 details how Buddhism in Los Angeles has taken on the characteristics of the city and its population, showing its ability to adapt and evolve over time. The book finishes with a chapter that uses data from the Pew Research Center to show how religious diversity has defined Los Angeles over time, and to test the claims that religion in Los Angeles is, in fact, different than that found elsewhere in the United States.

The California dream, which McWilliams poignantly describes, is both a distillation and an expansion of the American dream. The Golden State in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is a place of freedom and possibility where outsized dreams - both of God and the creation - inspire migrant workers to organize, marginalized groups to claim leadership, and believers to work for a better world. Religion in Los Angeles recounts these stories, demonstrating how and why religion has been central to the life of a city and its people.


  • 1 Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, in response to a question about where workers would advise young people seeking opportunity to go, during a public forum at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on August 30, 2018.
  • 2 (accessed 12/1/2020).
  • 3 The Religious Congregations and Membership Study is a survey conducted every 10 years by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Available from: For access to data to run queries on religious membership of US congregations and denominations:
  • 4 (accessed and computed December 13, 2013).
  • 5 Bruce Phillips, “Past Meets Present: The Religious Landscape of California,” unpublished paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 7-10 Nov. 2013, Boston, Massachusetts.
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