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“See You in Church?” Religion and Culture in Urban America
 

"See You in Church?"
Religion and Culture in Urban America

by Jan Shipps
with a Foreword by David Bodenhamer



When cities in the United States are mentioned, people probably think first of places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta.  And why not?  Such huge urban complexes are as important as they are visible.  But they are not home to the largest proportion of the nation’s residents who live in cities or somewhere within the boundaries of places the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget classifies as MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas).  More U.S. urbanites live in cities ranging in size from metropolises that are currently in the process of becoming mega-cities to small municipalities that are hardly more than big towns.  Despite this wide size range, these cities are embraced in the useful category, “mid-size.”  Because I believe that urban culture is more amenable to study in these places of more modest size, this prospectus is for a book about religion in the nation’s mid-size cities.

My title is expressed in the form of a question.  It signals my contention that, although no means the whole of the story of religion anywhere, institutions are where religion is most apparent to ordinary folks.  This makes the institutional configuration of religion in cities the best place to begin a description of religion and culture in urban America.  The reasons are obvious.  Whether great or modest in proportion to the population, the numbers and kinds of religious institutions present in a city are hallmarks that point to that city’s personality, its municipal ethos and urban character.  This is particularly true when the levels and types of support commanded by the various forms of organized religion are taken into account.

The only de jure standing that religious institutions in the United States have is the one provided by their tax-exempt status, and, in some instances, by local zoning regulations which protect their structures from being surrounding by bars, dance halls, and the like. Consequently, the levels and types of support religious organizations are able to muster really matters.  Strong financial bases and enthusiastic congregational participation govern the capacity to act that such institutions have.  The amount and kind of strength they have is also decisive as to how much real (or simply potential) political, economic, and cultural influence is (or may be) wielded by the leaders, both lay and clerical, of the various religious communities in a city.  For these reasons, the extent to which urban dwellers of every sort (from the wealthiest to the poorest, the most to the least powerful) see one another in church--and are seen there--truly makes a difference.  

Moreover, while religious institutions do not always determine, they surely help to set a city’s moral tone.  Religion always escapes its institutional bounds to express itself in cultures in manifold ways, as spirituality and as an almost congenital recognition of the holy that makes itself felt in times of crisis and celebration.  Yet chapels, churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are religion’s most visible manifestation.  Moral authority may not emanate from them as it once did in Europe and in some places in colonial America.  But action that affects urban life arises out of their midst as they establish and run schools, hospitals, and social agencies of every sort, and as they exercise political influence.  The story of religion and culture in urban America is not fully contained in the answer to the question of whether city-dwellers see each other in church (and in other worshiping communities), but their presence or absence there carries enough weight to make organized religion terribly important.

Fortunately information is available from which to develop institutional profiles of religion in American cities.  Historical data gathered from religious institutions by the Census Bureau were published in 1896, 1906, 1916, 1926, and 1936.  Information gathered annually by the National Council of Churches is also worthwhile.  But of greater use for this work are statistics gathered and published in 1971, 1980, and 1990 by the Glenmary Research Center in volumes describing Churches and Church Membership in the United States decade by decade.  The value of this information is limited because it is not collected for groups that cannot be placed in a Judeo-Christian category and because it is reported by counties rather than by postal zip codes or some other geographical division that would make it possible to better represent metropolitan borders.  But it is still extremely serviceable.  From it, I have developed statistical pictures of the institutional configuration of the Judeo-Christian communities in the core counties of 77 urban areas.  Along with levels of church adherence, I am using these as my first line of comparison and contrast among the various American cities. As imperfect as they are, they make possible correlation that is better that “guesstimates” about the relationship between church adherence and all sorts of other statistical measures that tell us about American cities.

I recognize, however, that the story of religious institutions in cities is hardly static. Changes occur from time to time in the numbers and kinds of religious institutions in relation to the populations of various urban areas.  Sometimes these alterations are quite dramatic.  At other times they take place so slowly they are hardly noticed.  Yet the level of time and talent rendered to the different religious institutions in divers urban areas shifts more or less constantly as residential patterns change and sundry elements of city life adapt to urban growth and development.  In addition, the influence of religious leaders is not only altered as situations change; such influence is also exercised in different venues at different times by the leaders of very different types of religious organizations.  For all that, the numbers and types of religious institutions, the levels of support they command, and how much influence they exercise overall is critical.  Hallmark elements, they place an imprint on urban cultures that both affects the secular life of urban America and the non-institutionalized religious life of the people who dwell in the cities of the nation.  

The book described here is not simply “church history," a venerable genre now denigrated as old-fashioned by some in the study of religion.  As part of a wide-ranging and multifaceted Project on Religion and Urban Culture at The Polis Center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, this is part ethnography, part reportage, and part reflection based on history.  Proposed as a companion volume to Sacred Circles and Public Squares, a work primarily focused on Indianapolis, See You in Church? will extend that work by pushing beyond it to address such general questions as:

                     To what extent has religion played a role in the formation of particular urban cultures in the United States?

                     What has been the impact of the separation of church and state and other aspects of the American situation on cities in the United States?

                     How much has the place of religion on the urban landscape changed across time?

                     How pervasive has religion been in particular U.S. cities and, of greatest significance, what difference does its presence or relative absence make?

In order to provide explicit as well as general answers to these questions and to place Indianapolis more securely in a comparative context, I set the stage with three chapters surveying the urban scene.  Then using the centering, de-centering, and re-centering" that occurred in Indianapolis as a starting point, I move outward forward from there to whether and how this pattern worked elsewhere.  In order to provide specificity, I have studied religion in four other mid-size cities: Providence (RI), Lynchburg (VA), Salt Lake City and Seattle.  In addition to a chapter on Indianapolis, the book will have chapters on each of these cities.

As a historian, I am always sensitive to chronology.  But in this work I start my examination of religion in all these cities with a look at the situation at the end of the twentieth century.  In each chapter, I will pay sufficient attention to the past to permit me to offer suggestions about the role of religion in the formation of the civic cultures of these urban places and the role of civic culture in the construction of the religious patterns that developed therein.  But the emphasis will be on the here and now. 

To illuminate difference, each chapter will open with an informative picture revealing the size, ethnic profile, population density, type of city government, relationship with the state in which the city is located, and so on.  In addition, possibly on a facing page opposite the opening of each of the chapters devoted to particular cities, I will present a colorful pie chart that describes the institutional configuration of religion in the city.  (If they are available by the time the manuscript is completed in 2001, the 2000 statistics will be used.  Otherwise, the picture will represent the situation in 1990.)

Because it is necessary to place the many religious institutions in these cities into summary categories, I will include a brief transition to the second section of the book in which I will describe how the categorizing of denominations has become a major issue in the study of American religion.  I will indicate that as far as it makes sense to do so, in any statistical analysis I present, the results will reflect my use of a categorical scheme developed by sociologists who analyze General Social Survey data.  (These data are obtained from responses to questionnaires administered to a random sample of individuals in the U.S. whereas Glenmary Center data are obtained from denominational bureaucrats rather than individual members of churches and synagogues.)  

In most of the charts and graphs used in this work, however, I will collapse these categories into the four standard categories (mainstream Protestants; conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) often used in the analysis of American religion. I have also created a category that I call “traditional non-mainstream" that includes Quakers, Moravians, Mennonites, Unitarian-Universalists, and a variety of others who have been around for a long time, but fit neither into the Protestant mainstream nor the conservative Protestant (Fundamentalist-Evangelical-Pentecostal) categories. Moreover, as my analysis is presented in the chapters on the cities I have studied closely, I will use a separate category for Mormon bodies (i.e., the LDS and RLDS churches). 

My reason for doing this last is that it is virtually impossible to describe the institutional configuration of religion in cities in the American West without separating the Latter-day Saints from other conservative churches.  In charting the institutional configuration of religion in cities in the American South, I will be careful to indicate the presence of denominations that are traditionally part of black religion. 

While my division of church adherence into six categories is not very helpful analytically since the Mormon and “traditional non-mainstream” categories rarely make much statistically significant difference, I will argue that these six categories are very useful for descriptive purposes.  In addition to explaining the basis of my analysis of institutional configurations, I will explain why I am using church adherence rather than church membership in my pictures of the institutional configuration of religion in the various cities.  And I will point readers to a website where comparable pie charts for the other cities in the nation will be available.

Indianapolis is a particularly good place to begin consideration of religion in particular cities.  At least in outline, the story of what has been happening to religion in this Midwestern metropolis, especially since World War II, comes reasonably close to what most people seem to think happened to religion all across the nation during the same period.  Most people know about the decline in membership in mainstream Protestant denominations and most assume an accompanying diminution in the influence of the so-called Protestant establishment in the cities of the nation.  General knowledge extends to the movement of Catholicism and Judaism into the cultural mainstream, as well as to the increased importance of black religion in the years since the Civil Rights movement.  And in view of the current political situation, nearly everyone has some idea of what appears to be the ever-growing prominence of the Christian Right.  Since all these factors are part of the recent history of religion in the Hoosier capital, Indianapolis can almost be seen as an ideal type.

Therefore, presenting the Indianapolis story first allows me to use the "centering, de-centering, re-centering" described by Farnsley, Demerath, and my other colleagues in The Polis Center in Sacred Circles and Public Squares as an archetype.  As do all good archetypes, this one permits useful comparison and contrast.  Additionally--and I will place great stress on this--what happened in Indianapolis points very directly to religion's progression from the public to the private sphere.  It describes religion's move away from a center from which moral, if not religious, authority once emanated, to local congregations and, from there, into families and even individual lives. This is likewise a pattern that allows for comparison and contrast. 

Contrasting what occurred in Indianapolis with what happened in four other cities will allow me to demonstrate that things did not transpire in the same fashion everywhere.  Indeed, the role of religion in urban cultures is so much a part of and so clearly determined by the historical experience and distinctive ethos of each city that generalization is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.  This means that as I place what we have learned about religion in a single city into larger perspective, I am making an implicit argument about the difficulty of synthesis.

The three chapters at the beginning of the book will be broadly conceived.  In them I will survey of the chronological landscape, reminding readers that calling a place a city in the old world originally meant that it was the site of a cathedral where a bishop was in residence.  I will point to the fact that, at least in North America’s English colonies, no bishop was ever assigned to preside.  As a result, although many communities, especially in New England, were laid out with parish churches on their central village greens, these were not sacred centers from which authority flowed that was respected throughout an entire colony or entire region.  I will consider what this meant as far as the role of religion as cities came into being, first in the English colonies and afterward all across the U.S.  Then, in an excursion into the history of American thought about cities, I review patterns of thought regarding the urbanizing of American life.  The last of these three general chapters is a visual overview of the presence of religion on cityscapes in the ante-bellum period and its virtual disappearance from modern cityscapes.

Following the transition to my case study chapters and the presentation of those chapters, which in many ways will form the heart of the book, I will take a panoramic view to demonstrate how complex this matter of religion in urban culture is.  This last section will center attention on the importance of locality and the significance of region.  As in much else in the culture, the several geographical regions of the nation tend to influence the patterns of religious development and, very particularly, urban institutional profiles of religion.  Again, I will refer to a website where can be found not only the large assortment of charts describing the institutional profiles of religion in selected cities, but also institutional profiles of religion in the urban areas of four regions of the U.S. (the South, the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West).  In addition, in this summary part of the book, I will return to the question of what difference religion makes.  This time I will present a specific measurement of the correlation of church adherence and charitable giving (and how that giving is spread across the categories used by the IRS) to indicate an answer that goes beyond general impressions.

A final brief chapter will use comparative statistics and my general observations to argue against the intuitive notion that the anonymity provided by urban living leads to a weakening of the institutional strength of religion.  Examining church adherence patterns decade by decade reveals that urban life leads, perhaps inevitably, to a certain “circulation of the saints.”  In addition, cities are fertile ground for the sort of experimentation that leads to the creation of religious and proto-religious bodies whose membership is too unstable or whose computation is too undependable to permit scholars to put much faith in them.  Even so, I will end with an upbeat prognosis: although often present in different forms, religion is as alive and well in an overwhelmingly urban nation as it was when living in cities was something out of the ordinary.               


Proposed Table of Contents (with chapter-by-chapter descriptions)

An Introduction by written David Bodenhamer, the director of The Polis Center, will include a brief description of The Polis Center’s Religion and Urban Culture project, indicating where this study fits into the larger project.  It will make clear how this book and its companion volume are related and explain what drove both the research for and writing of this book.   

The Introduction will be followed by my Preface that will begin with an extended account of the founding of Sacramento I found in an early city directory.  This account is not simply an interesting way to open a book about religion in urban America.  It also indicates that, at least in frontier areas there was a perception that religion was the means of bringing of order out of chaos.  With that in view, I will indicate that although I do not intend to argue that religion did--or did not--bring order out of chaos in early American cities, I do intend to address basic questions about religion in urban America. These questions will be listed in the Preface and some explanation of why they are important will be given.     


Part One: Religion and the Urban Scene

Chapter One.  Tentatively titled “The Difference Place Makes,” this chapter will direct attention to the way in which the genesis of Anglo-European cities in the part of the world that would become the U.S. differed from the evolution and development of the English and continental cities that were anchored by cathedrals and other sacred centers around which settlement took place.  A brief overview of urban development in England's North American colonies will recognize religion as the primary impetus for the creation of Boston, Philadelphia, and several other towns (primarily in New England) which would become major urban centers.  I will also make reference to St. Louis and New Orleans. But then I will go on to point to economics and/or politics as the usual catalyst stimulating urban development in America.  More often than not, trade, finance, and various forms of pecuniary opportunity were responsible for the growth of cities in the area that would become the United States, but a significant number were, like the nation’s capital, founded as administrative centers. 

Without arguing that the characteristic cultural diversity of cities and the appearance of differentiation in religious organizations and patterns of living in urban situations accounts for the separation of church and state, this chapter will point to how the absence of establishment led to religious competition and, as historian R. Laurence Moore put it so succinctly, to “Selling God.”  As is appropriate to first chapters, this one will go on to point out that this competition, and practically everything else about religion, has by and large been neglected in the policy-oriented urban studies literature (which mainly deals with American cities after World War II).  In early urban historiography, religious diversity was often celebrated, but its impact was often underestimated as the great majority of those who wrote about religion in cities focused their attention on “bricks and mortar” and on clerical and lay leadership. The chapter will end with an expression of intention to move beyond emphasis on religion’s material accomplishments and the activities and influence of religious leaders, both lay and clerical, to a comparative examination of religion in the context of urban culture.

Chapter Two, to be called “Cycles of Hope and Despair,” will review of the shifting perceptions of urban life which have prevailed across time in America.  Beginning with the early veneration of the republic as a bucolic nation standing over and against Jefferson’s picture of cities as “sores” on the body politic, the chapter moves on to describe the steadily increasing growth in the number of areas in which population is sufficiently concentrated to allow city life to unfold and flower.  Tracing how the city came to represent progress after the Civil War, the chapter moves on to show that even as cities became, in the public mind, places where opportunity abounded, the nation’s urban areas were so often pictured as ominous sinkholes of sin.  Perceptions that had quite obviously been moving toward the positive pole started to swing in the other direction.  In the twentieth century, as increasing numbers of urban centers with more than 10,000 and often as many as a million residents starting flourishing, the reality of city life which provided cultural as well as economic opportunity led Americans to appreciate and even to welcome the urbanizing of the nation.  But the flight to suburbia, which began before World War II, combined with the danger posed by crime and drugs to generate the reappearance of fearful perceptions, often extreme enough to make American cities appear as uncivilized and perilous as European cities had appeared to Thomas Jefferson.  The chapter ends with an account of urban renewal efforts and attempts to revitalize central cities that may be leading once again to changing perceptions that are making cities and the urban experience appear in a more positive light.   

Chapter Three will describe "The Disappearance of Religion from the Urban Landscape."  It will have two parts.  In the first, visual representations of American cities will be used to illustrate how religion, one of the main features of early cityscapes, practically vanished from modern cityscapes.  Now the emphasis is on cathedrals of commerce rather than both the plain and the splendiferous houses of worship that were so much a part of the images of American cities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Underlining the difference, pictures of specific urban spaces will be compared as examples of early cityscapes (either produced as etchings or with the use of wide-angled lenses to photograph painstakingly created miniature urban landscapes) are placed alongside modern picture postcards of cityscapes of the same places. 

The second part of this heavily illustrated chapter will focus on differences in the way religion does or does not appear on the cityscapes that are seen from the interstate highways that traverse American cities and from other urban thoroughfares.  Photographs from ten or twelve American cities will demonstrate that the place of religion on the visual landscape differs dramatically from one city to the next.  The extent of this variation will put down the groundwork for Part Two that, in concentrating on religion in five very different American cities, will demonstrate how difficult it is to generalize about patterns of urban religious life.


Part Two - Religion in Five American Cities  

A brief introduction will precede the chapters in this part of the book.  In addition to material described above about the source of the statistical data used in the book and about my analytic scheme, I will clarify how, with an eye to presenting the intense level of heterogeneity present in the nation’s urban cultures, I selected my five “case study” cities. Difference was key. But the introduction to this section of the book will also describe how, with the assistance of the staff of The Polis Center, I created regional urban cohorts (of 18 cities each) to allow an assessment of how Providence is and is not representative of New England cities; how Lynchburg is and is not like other Southern cities; where Indianapolis fits into the array of Midwestern cities; and the extent to which Seattle is similar to and different from other cities in the western United States. 

This section will also point out that Salt Lake City is not a typical western city.  From the perspective of religion in American cities it is sui generis.  I am including it this urban assortment because it exemplifies how a city with an established church exists within the framework of a nation in which church and state are separate.  Its story reveals what might have been if our founding forbears had not added the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Chapter Four - Indianapolis. The capital of the Hoosier state is neither the oldest of my five case-study cities, nor the largest among them.  As indicated above, I present it first because, as the subject of the companion volume, it is the city about which more is known than any other with respect to how religion fits into urban culture and vice versa.  Providing an excellent basis for comparison and contrast, Indianapolis is a good place to start for additional reasons.  It was called into being ex nihilo, identified on the map of Indiana as the center place where the administrative business of the new state should henceforth be carried out.  It had no religious reason for being.  As people came to the nascent metropolis for secular purposes, they brought their religion with them.  Examining the pattern of religious development in this city reveals that the general make-up of religion is reasonably representative of religion in many American cities except for the fact that a smaller percentage of the city's church adherents are Roman Catholic than is the case in most American cities outside the South. 

In Indianapolis, the numbers of adherents to churches in the Protestant mainstream in Indianapolis has been, and (as of 1990) remained greater than the numbers of adherents to institutions in any of the other institutional categories.  But as throughout the nation, the Protestant mainstream has experienced decline in the Hoosier capital both in numerical terms and in influence in the public square.  As a result, where once religion was “centered,” it was “de-centered” before being "re-centered" in a variety of alternative centers—Roman Catholic, black Protestants, and a conservative Protestant combination of fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentecostals that challenge mainstream dominance.  The numbers and even the influence of groups outside the Judeo-Christian family of institutions, especially Muslims, are more visible as they gradually increase.  All this means that the city’s organizational patterns as well as the themes drawn from its historical and contemporary experience satisfy the need for a baseline that can be used as a point of contrast.           

Chapter Five - Providence.  The oldest of the five case study cities, religion was the reason for Providence’s founding.  Moreover, because it is now, in terms of the percentage of its church adherents, the most Catholic city in New England, religion continues to be one of its defining features.  Like Indianapolis, Providence has been reasonably successful in rebuilding its urban core.  But the centering followed by de-centering pattern does not fit the history of religion in the Rhode Island capital nearly so well. Practically a city-state, Providence was a mainstream Protestant stronghold until virtually the end of the nineteenth century.  In the new century, it was overwhelmed with immigrants from Canada as well as Europe, almost all of whom were Catholic.  Yet the Protestant elite maintained its political dominance until well past World War II, while a recent outstanding study of the creation of the middle class in Providence reveals nothing so much as the fact that, for a surprisingly long time, being middle class meant being Protestant. 

Even now, moreover, with a popular Catholic mayor and a state legislature dominated by members of the most intensely Catholic diocese in the nation, Providence’s Catholic population often appears to think of itself as a minority, still in cultural if not numerical thrall to the Protestants who symbolically preside over the city from the heights of Brown University and the “First Baptist Church in America.”   A consequence of this perception is that while conservative denominations have gained ground vis a vis mainstream Protestantism, through the agency of the Church Federation the latter maintains a much more central place than it does in many of the cities of the nation.  This does not mean, however, that religion has not moved away from the public square into the more private realm of congregations and into the province of families.  It does mean that this move is more difficult to track in Providence than it is in Indianapolis.  

Chapter Six - Lynchburg.  Unlike Indianapolis, Providence, and Salt Lake City, Lynchburg is not a state capital, and unlike Seattle, it is not the largest city in the state in which it is located.  In fact, nearly the reverse.  Lynchburg is not only one of Virginia’s smaller urban areas, it is said to be the smallest city in the nation not touched by any part of the U.S. interstate highway system.  Yet it is now, and was from its very beginnings, a metropolis that has nearly every urban characteristic except population density and sheer size.  Founded as an entrépot for the transshipment of tobacco from the western regions of the state to its eastern seaports, Lynchburg’s status as a commercial center has held despite a decline in tobacco warehousing which started during World War II and continued in the post-war period. 

This city’s religious history is of particular interest for this study because it is a city in which, in spite of its being the site of Lynchburg College, an important Disciples of Christ institution of higher learning, a single Protestant denomination is dominant.  Even though a member of the religion faculty of Lynchburg College is fond of remarking that Lynchburg has “more Baptists than people,” upon close examination the large Baptist population of the city is subdivided into several different denominational forms: black Baptists, American Baptists, Independent Baptists, and several other Baptist groups.  By far the most visible religious institution in the city is the Thomas Road Baptist Church pastored by the well-known televangelist Jerry Falwell.  The significance in the city of this congregation and its leader is considerable.  But the leaders and adherents of other mainstream and traditional non-mainstream congregations as well as a large and active Roman Catholic congregation also exercise significant influence. This chapter will make it clear that Pastor Falwell’s presumptive standing as the premiere religious figure in the city is more rooted in his presence on television and on the national political scene than it is in the urban reality that is Lynchburg.  The chapter will also show that this is a city with alternative religious centers, one of which is based in the Thomas Road Baptist Church and the other is an ecumenical gathering of both black and white Protestants and Catholics. 

Chapter Seven - Salt Lake City.  While Latter-day Saints, i.e., members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, make up only half the population within the Utah capital’s city limits, in this urban situation, city limits mean very little.  If the entire metropolitan area is taken into consideration, Salt Lake City is at least as Mormon as Providence is Catholic.  The city is--and always has been--a Mormon municipality.  Still, things have been changing there in recent years.  In order to take care of the ecclesiastical and temporal business of one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the nation, one that is becoming a significant presence on the world scene, the LDS Church constructed a huge Church Office Building.  This structure now stands taller than the Mormon Temple, the structure that stood watch over the city from the time of its construction in the 1890s till the mid-1970s.  In addition, an explosion of office buildings of considerable architectural distinction reflects the city’s emergence as a commercial metropolis, and a huge new LDS Conference Center dwarfs the historic Mormon Tabernacle, the secular “Salt Palace,” and even the Delta Center where the Utah Jazz play basketball.  Urban sprawl appears to be inexorably expanding to cover the  inter-mountain valley floor east and south of the Great Salt Lake.  But the urban landscape is still physically dominated by its religious center. 

The city is likewise virtually dominated by Mormonism in every other way.  Other religious bodies are present in surprising numbers with growing membership bases, but no alternative centers have emerged.  As tolerated bodies relating to an establishment, substantial Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant organizations flourish.  Yet all seem satisfied to, in the words of more than one of their leaders, “circle their own wagons.”  Even organizations of non-Mormon pastors are weak and short-lived as each denomination--even each congregation--defines itself individually over and against the Latter-day Saints.  This chapter will describe the impact on civic culture when a religious institution is effectively organized into geographically bounded stakes (dioceses) and wards (parishes).  In it, the place in Salt Lake City’s civic culture of the citizens who are a part of the LDS majority and those who are not will be assessed.  Finally, since this book will appear at about the same time the 2002 Olympic Games are held in Salt Lake City, this chapter will measure the impact of such an event on a city whose identity is not, as is the identity of Indianapolis, tied up with sports, but with religion.

Chapter Eight - Seattle.  When I went to Seattle to get some on-the-ground sense of the city’s religious ambience, I asked some local residents where I ought to begin.  One advised me to look for “the Sierra Club at prayer.” Several others, implying that coffee is the city’s eucharistic substance of choice, said that “Starbucks is where this city worships.”  A third not entirely facetious suggestion was that the best place to start would be a visit to REI, the city’s mammoth outdoor gear emporium with its huge artificial waterfall and tall glass steeple enclosing an ersatz mountain on which climbing equipment could be tested.  That, said this helpful Seattle citizen, is “our cathedral.”

Although such recommendations were made in jest, that they were made at all reflects the reality of the virtual invisibility of traditional religion in this beautiful mountain metropolis that is currently undergoing a transformation from mid-size to mega-city.  Despite the beauty of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral that stands on a bluff above the freeway, the absence of eye-catching religious architecture on the urban landscape is striking.  But this invisibility is not simply a matter of religion’s insignificance in the built environment.  In 1990, only a third of the city’s inhabitants were counted as adherents of some reporting body in the Judeo-Christian institutional array.  (That proportion may be even smaller now in view of the population growth in the past decade.)  Another indication of organized religion’s cultural status in Seattle is that while it is not absolutely missing from the news, the Saturday religion sections of both local newspapers are diminutive.  This reflects the fact that the religion beat is not the primary assignment of any of the reporters in town.

Religion’s virtual invisibility means that the story of religion in this city must be teased out of what appears to be an essentially secular urban milieu.  The underlying argument of this chapter will be that what is found in Seattle is only surface secularity.  Hidden underneath is an underlying sense of the sacred that is expressed in the following ways:  unconventional forms (nature and New Age religions, seeing to the health of the environment, and so on); concern for the common good (which includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless); organized religion’s development of ministries to people on the cultural periphery, most especially to newly arrived immigrant populations and to the gay, lesbian, and transgendered community.

Because the centering-decentering story takes such an interesting turn in this city’s history, comparison with the Indianapolis archetype becomes a good vehicle for carrying this argument. Seattle is composed of many residential districts built on the hills surrounding the bay and Lake Union, Lake Washington, and Green Lake, all of which are within the city limits.  But even though the city was essentially a conglomeration of quasi-independent neighborhoods, many of them with their own churches, during the first half of the 20th century, not only the Catholic cathedral, but also Protestant congregations in the downtown area often attracted members from all areas of the city.  Indeed, in the late teens and early 1920s Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church had as many as 10,000 members and was said to be the largest Presbyterian congregation in the country.  Its minister, Mark A. Matthews, a strong and effective proponent of the Social Gospel, became an important player in the civic arena between 1900 and 1930. 

Although he achieved personal prominence in the politics of Progressive Era Seattle, to a significant degree Matthews’ attempts to spur the members of the church he led and members of the members of other Christian churches to transform Seattle to a “city on a hill” foundered as the distinction between being Protestant and being middle class was obscured.  If not entirely obliterated, the blurring of that distinction led to the creation of a social order in which religion’s formal role was diminished. But since Seattle was at the very heart of the Pacific Northwest and since, before the 1960s, being middle class in the area carried with it a tendency toward being liberal rather than conservative, the urban center took on a liberal cast that was by no means limited to racial and ethnic minority populations.  Although the decentering represented by the growing importance of evangelical congregations had important organizational dimensions for religion, the story is incredibly complicated by the development and success of Microsoft and other companies which are part of the electronic revolution, most of which are located in Redmond and elsewhere outside the city limits.  A new class, young, successful, and very wealthy, has complicated the Seattle situation to such a degree that, as the chapter will reveal, existing theory about religion, class, power, urban geography, and so on that will underlie explanation in the other four city chapter, will not have much explanatory power here.


Part Three - Larger Questions 

Serving as a segue from the urban profile chapters, the short introduction to this final section of the book will begin with the observation that while the Providence, Lynchburg, and even Indianapolis profiles are more revealing of religion in 20th century urban culture, the Seattle chapter points to the future.  Shifting into the electronic mode has altered far more than the city’s economy.  It points in new directions for religion as well, new directions that are complicated by the presence of many organized bodies that are not Judeo-Christian, as well as many bodies which, at best, have a quasi-organized character.    

Chapter Nine - Regional Patterns.  Having raised the matter of temporal patterns in the introduction to the section, this summary chapter will turn to regional patterns.  It will rest on general reading about American religion and on the statistical profiles of religious institutions in all 77 cities on which data have been gathered.  The extent to which the case study cities are or are not representative will be a starting place for a general but tentative analysis of religion in the urban areas of different parts of the United States.  The chapter will not answer so much as it will pose questions about the extent to which religion reflects and is affected by its urban context and the extent to which religion in the urban context reflects and is affected by its regional context and character.     

Chapter Ten - What Difference Does Religion Make?  As indicated by its proposed title, this concluding chapter will suggest some very tentative answers to the question of what impact differing levels of church adherence might normally have on urban life.  For the most part, the chapter content will rest on general impressions gained as this study has proceeded.  But as it is always useful to check impressions against any hard data that might be available, this chapter will include a summary report of an effort made with the help of Tom Pollak, assistant director of the National Center for Charitable Statistics, to correlate church adherence levels and institutional profiles of religion in American cities with the giving patterns of the city’s residents that are revealed in IRS data.