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The legacy of religious diversity in Los Angeles and Southern California

Bruce Phillips


The unique character of Southern California has been asserted for decades. In 1946 Carey McWilliams published Southern California, An Island on the Land, in which he argued that the culture, history, and social organization of the region was singularly different from the rest of America (McWilliams 1973). Nathanael West’s dark apocalyptic vision in Day of the Locust (West 1939) was echoed half a century later in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz. In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies architectural historian, Reyner Banham, revealed that the seemingly chaotic mosaic of architectural styles in Los Angeles had its own logic rooted in the environment of Southern California (Banham 1971).

Two notable sociologists have likewise argued that religion in Southern California is different from other regions. Wade Clark Roof argues that because no single religion was dominant (like Baptists and Methodists in the South), Southern California has been an open religious market: “Religious and spiritual communities of many kinds have flourished in Southern California, each free to recruit members or followers without strong normative pressures upon them to adjust to a dominant faith.” He further observed that even though Roman Catholics constitute the single largest religious group, the influence of the Catholic Church is smaller than the number of adherents would suggest. All religious groups were more or less minorities in Southern California, and thus, "... religious pluralism as a normative system emerged more quickly, coming about largely out of the practical necessity of diverse groups having to work out rules for getting along with one another” (Roof 2007, 85-86). Sociologist Donald Miller (2001) identified a different source for religious innovation in California in the transfer of the locus of authority from institutions to individuals. As evidence for this trend, Miller emphasized that 20% of Californians meditate, a practice outside the Christian tradition that Californians widely claim as their own. As further evidence of innovation, Miller notes that Southern California gave birth to such influential movements as Pentecostalism, Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Hope Chapel, and the Crystal Cathedral. The latter pioneered televangelism and the drive-in church. Southern California is also home to some important “New Religious Movements” as well. Miller notes that Hollywood is the headquarters for the Church of Scientology. He might also have added the Theosophical Society, which moved from New York to San Diego in 1900, and then moved north to Pasadena in 1940, or the Self Realization Fellowship, founded in 1920 which established its world headquarters in Los Angeles. The now defunct World Wide Church of God had its headquarters on a campus in Pasadena. Miller accounted for religious innovation in Southern California with three factors. First, the many migrants to Southern California could re-invent themselves religiously as they did in other ways. Second, the dominance of Hollywood in the local economy attracts people who pride themselves on innovation. Third, the hundreds of immigrant groups in Southern California had introduced new patterns of thought and behavior.

Both the Roof and Miller arguments are compelling and well supported with historical evidence. Nonetheless, participants in the Religion, Politics and Culture in Southern California Religion Working Group,1 organized by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, wondered whether there was quantitative evidence that Southern California has a distinct religious culture. Those discussions were the genesis of this analysis. To find quantitative evidence for a distinct religious culture in Southern California, I use the 2007 Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust to address two questions: (1) Are Los Angeles and Southern California more religiously diverse than other parts of California and other regions of the United States? (2) Does living in Los Angeles, Southern California, or California overall have an impact on religious behavior and belief? The first section of this chapter discusses how to divide California into meaningful sub-regions. The second section tests Wade Clark Roof’s assertion that Southern California has greater religious diversity than other regions both within California and elsewhere in the United States. The third section focuses on the American religious tradition that should be the most resistant to social influences that abound in Southern California: White, non-Hispanic (i.e. Anglo) Evangelicals. To what extent do Anglo Evangelicals in Southern California differ from their counterparts in other sub-regions of California and those regions of the United States where Evangelical Christianity’ is most dominant?

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