The Magazine

Sects and the City

The new urbanists have forgotten thousands of years of history.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By JOEL KOTKIN
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WHEN FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA, businessman Howard Dahl boards a plane for the East Coast or flies to Europe and beyond, he is often struck by the views of the people he encounters, especially their preconceptions about his part of the country. "There's a lot of condescension. You'd think no one here ever read a book," Dahl says, "or ever had a thought about anything. They think we're religious fanatics."

To Dahl, a successful international exporter of agricultural technology, this contempt is sometimes hard to understand. A devout Christian who spent three years at a Lutheran seminary, he comes from an increasingly sophisticated urban community of nearly 200,000--where religion's role in daily life, public and private, is accepted almost without question.

"In Fargo, businessmen easily see themselves as people of faith," he notes. "Religion plays a huge role, but, because of our Nordic heritage, it is very quiet. It sets people's ethics and how they work and relate with each other."

Oddly enough, places like Fargo, a booming high-tech city on the Great Plains, are more in sync with ancient urban tradition than are supposed paragons of American city life like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, much less the classical centers of Rome, London, and Paris. In these cities, for the most part, religion--with the notable exception of Islam--is on the decline, as churches and religious schools close and attendance dwindles often to minuscule levels.

This retreat from religion is one of the least understood and discussed aspects of the relative decline of the great cities of the West. To be sure, there are many other, more tangible causes--the rise of the Internet, the generations-long flight of the middle class to the suburbs, fear of terrorism. But the decline of religious community may reflect a deeper malaise that could weaken the very spirit of urban culture.

Churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques provide critical ballast for cities. In an often impersonal and challenging environment they offer a place of refuge and solace, a means of gradual assimilation for the newly arrived, and, perhaps most important, an alternative setting for the inculcation of values in the new generation.

Yet it is clear that religion is losing its hold on American cities. This can be seen in New York, where the Catholic archbishop stood as a powerful force for well over a century. Today he is an increasingly marginal player. By the time Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York, notes historian Fred Siegel, author of a forthcoming biography of the former mayor, "the gay community was more important than the Catholic archbishop."

Much the same can be said of most big American cities. Many have either chosen to bar, or been forced by courts to bar, nativity scenes from their parks and other public land. "Merry Christmas" is now routinely replaced with the generic "Happy Holidays" on anything remotely public at the end of the year. Several California schools have banned the singing even of secular Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells," and others have removed colored lights as potentially offensive.

Perhaps the most perfectly emblematic instance of the displacement of religion from urban culture occurred in Los Angeles in late 2004. The mere threat of a lawsuit by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union persuaded the County Board of Supervisors to remove a small cross from the county seal. The cross, which stood for the role of the church and the Spanish missions in the settlement of California, was a detail, not the central motif of the seal, and its removal prompted widespread public protest and a petition drive to restore it. On the redesigned seal, there is a cross-free mission building that looks rather like a Taco Bell.

The ease with which the supervisors wiped out the cross (though they couldn't quite excise the angels from the county's name) reflects the degree to which modern cities, not only in America but throughout the advanced industrial world, have cut themselves off from their religious roots. Even contemporary accounts of urban history--including such notable works as Sir Peter Hall's Cities in Civilization--are mostly deaf to the role of religion in cities. Religion is not exactly a hot topic among new urbanists, who seem to think that good design, coupled with good intentions, is a substitute for a grounded sense of moral order.

Instead, the contemporary urban environment emphasizes faddishness, style, and the celebration of the individual over the family or the community. The postmodern perspective on cities, dominant in much of the academy, even more adamantly dismisses shared moral values as mere detritus of what one German academic labeled "the Christian-bourgeois microcosmos."