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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Indeed, in this secular era, it is difficult to recapture the centrality of religion during most of urban history. Religious structures--temples, cathedrals, mosques, and pyramids--dominated the landscape of great cities and the imagination of their occupants. These sacred buildings made visible cities' connections to divine forces controlling the world.

Today cities are dominated instead by towering commercial buildings and evocative cultural and governmental structures. Such sights can inspire a sense of civic pride or awe. "A striking landscape," historian Kevin Lynch once suggested, "is the skeleton" in which city dwellers construct their "socially important myths."

Yet memorable architecture and urban "myths" lack a critical component of urban life that religion provides: It is a source of moral order and spiritual sustenance. The earliest city dwellers confronted problems vastly different from those faced in prehistoric nomadic communities and agricultural villages. Urbanites had to learn how to co-exist and interact with strangers from outside their clan or tribe. This required them to develop new ways to codify behavior and determine what would be commonly acceptable in family life, commerce, and social discourse. In doing so, they drew on their religious heritage--not only in the West but virtually everywhere. The earliest cities in India, China, and Mesoamerica all displayed similar attachment to religious principles, suggesting, as the American historian T.R. Fehrenbach notes, the existence of a common sensibility among early city-builders in all parts of the world.

Perhaps the most enduring expression of that urban tradition today lies in the Muslim world. Mohammed himself was an urbanite, and his legislation was aimed in large part at overcoming the strife and moral confusion of clan-based society in 7th-century Arabia. The mosque, suggests Iranian-born urbanist Ali Modarres, served not only as a center of worship, but also as a community center where city problems were addressed. Among the greatest contributions of Islam, he adds, were rules for dealing with religious minorities, including Jews and Christians, that for centuries were for the most part far more favorable than those in the Christian West.

THE DECLINE OF RELIGION in Western cities represents a break with history. Even before the advent of Christianity, religious faith and culture dominated classical cities--from the Greek polis to Alexandria and Rome--whose central buildings were often temples to the gods. Rome's historic core, noted Livy, was "impregnated by religion. . . . The Gods inhabit it." Jewish Jerusalem was dominated by its own temple, this one dedicated to the one God of Israel.

Many early Christians, including Augustine of Hippo, rejected the classical identification with the polis, which they saw as expressing a detested and oppressive pagan culture. Augustine portrayed Rome as the "earthly city," or civitas terrena, that "glories in itself" and whose wickedness deserved punishment. Rather than propose a program to reform the dying metropolis, Augustine urged Romans to seek entrance into another kind of metropolis, the "City of God," or civitas dei, where "there is no human wisdom, but only godliness."

Yet the church, headquartered in the ruins of post-classical Rome, ultimately nurtured the rebirth of the city. In many decaying towns, diocesan structures served as the basis of urban boundaries and privileges; the bishops, whether in Paris, Rome, or elsewhere in Italy, were usually the only recognized authority. And even as cities grew and overcame their dependence on ecclesiastical authorities, Church spires dominated their skylines through the Renaissance. As Europeans stepped out to conquer much of the New World, missionaries often placed the main cathedral precisely where the native Americans had earlier sited their great religious centers.

The oldest American cities, notes urban historian Witold Rybczynski, including those with a religious foundation such as Boston and Philadelphia, did not develop primarily around great cathedrals and churches. And cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco evolved with commerce, not religion, driving their urban form.

Yet everywhere churches and churchmen played critical roles in the growth of the American metropolis. They were especially important in helping assimilate and educate the growing numbers of immigrants who swarmed into the new country. In addition, religion, particularly Protestant theology, underpinned the reformist impulse in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, and elsewhere that surfaced in the later decades of the 19th century.