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."

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.

Chicago's Jane Addams, for example, struggled with formal religious belief, but viewed the life of Christ as her model of behavior and an inspiration for her work in dealing with problems of the urban poor. Many political reformers and progressive builders of modern sewers, transit systems, and parks, like the abolitionists before them, were similarly motivated by their religious faith. "One great purpose" of New York's Central Park, noted Frederick Law Olmsted, was "to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers . . . a specimen of God's handiwork."

Today, the decline of religion in cities around the world, particularly in the West, can be traced to the moral and economic crises that followed the First World War. The rise of radical socialism, bohemian social mores, and an admixture of cynicism and materialism undermined the traditional role of religion in cities far and wide.

In the rapidly urbanizing Soviet Union, religion was deliberately excised, root and branch, at the dictate of Communist ideology, irrespective of Russian tradition. Nazi Germany allowed most non-Jewish religions to survive, but promoted an amalgam of pagan mythology and scientific amorality. Mussolini's Italy maintained cordial relations with the Vatican, but embraced and elevated pagan Roman values.

American cities rejected these extremes, but nevertheless have drifted increasingly toward secularism, particularly the intellectual classes. In the years after the Second World War, historian Siegel observes, the grassroots also dried up, as "the religious middle class" fled to the suburbs. This shift in American cities pales in comparison with what has happened in the cities of east Asia and Europe, where faith has been reduced almost to a historic artifact. After nearly 3,000 years of religious identity, the bonds between cities and faith have been almost totally severed.

This is not surprising, given the state of popular opinion in Europe. Notes professor Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College, rates of agnosticism or atheism in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, and France reach upwards of 50 percent. Accordingly, the final text of the pending European constitution mentions neither Christianity nor God. In Japan, with its very different religious background, atheism reaches a staggering 65 percent. In comparison, just under 10 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists.

To Zuckerman, the Europeans' rejection of religion reflects the continent's high level of social development, low crime rate, and welfare-state protections, which have undermined the traditional need for religious institutions. Conversely, he points out, religion flourishes in beleaguered and insecure environments present in Third World cities. He also attributes the relative religiosity of Americans to the higher levels of uncertainty and individual risk they live with. "The United States, compared to Europe, does not enjoy all the benefits of modern civilization," says Zuckerman, who is finishing a book on secularism in Northern Europe. "We have more crime, more to worry about. In contrast these other societies have their act together."

YET DESPITE HIS OWN self-described "anti-religion" orientation, even Zuckerman sees some dangers in accelerating secularism. Perhaps the most obvious is the plunge in European birth and marriage rates, which he connects with the decline in religious interest. "Religion seems to be critical to people's decision to raise children," he notes. "People in these advanced industrial societies see children more and more as a liability. Some realize that this life is better without children. And you don't even need to get married since there is no legal advantage to doing so."

This failure to reproduce, Zuckerman notes with alarm, contrasts sharply with the high birthrates of the rising Muslim minorities within Europe. These already make up at least a quarter of the residents of Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Malmö, and 15 percent of the residents of Brussels, the Euro-capital. Demographic trends suggest that in the next few decades some European cities will acquire Muslim majorities.

Zuckerman fears that his secular European idyll will be destroyed by a rising tide of Muslim "fundamentalists." In a half century, much of Europe could be under the dominance of those whose faith and commitment to the sanctity of the family more than make up for their disadvantages in education and training.

The threat to America's cities may not be so dire, but it is still serious. As Siegel's "religious middle class" continues to opt for the suburbs, some cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, see their once proud churches and synagogues left abandoned alongside other remnants of the proud industrial past. Even the black church, that bulwark of the African-American urban middle class, has begun to head out to the suburban periphery.

The situation in some of the more favored cities--Denver, Manhattan, Boston, Washington, D.C., Portland, Seattle, San Francisco--is somewhat different. With relatively few children, these cities tend to have among the lowest rates of religious affiliation, but attract sufficient numbers of the nomadic rich, gay, and single to flourish as urban playgrounds--and as homes for the working poor who serve them, along with a sizable underclass.

Native son and California historian Kevin Starr describes contemporary San Francisco as both "a theme park for restaurants" and "a cross between Carmel and Calcutta." Fewer than 50,000 people attend mass in a city of over 700,000. In Manhattan, one quarter of all Catholic churches fall short of the diocese's basic benchmarks for vitality. The borough has a quarter of all New York City's Catholic churches but barely 17 percent of its weekend Mass-goers.

In the secular cities, real estate is too valuable for churches to be left standing derelict. Instead, some are being converted into stores, restaurants, condos, or even nightclubs. Churches are a favored venue for carpet stores in Scandinavia, reports Zuckerman, a trend some hip city developers might want to note. Others have been converted into concert halls, museums, or art galleries, appropriate symbols of an urban culture that worships at the altar of the arts and adult entertainment.

Such baubles may be attractive additions to the urban scene, but they are no substitute for living religious institutions. In smaller cities, like Fargo, where religion is still vital, people are connected by what businessman Howard Dahl calls "the secret truth that they all share." And they act on it. Either out of personal religious commitment or as members of churches or other religious organizations, they contribute thousands of volunteer hours to the good of the community. In Fargo, they are unpaid teachers providing moral instruction for local youths; and they are retired people, housewives, and school children aiding in the integration into the community of refugees from Africa, Vietnam, and Bosnia, to give just two examples.

In bigger cities, churches of various persuasions--including the growing and increasingly heterogeneous evangelical movement--still supply hope for the improvement of neighborhoods through community economic development corporations. They also provide some relief from the generally awful educational culture of bigger cities, in the form of religious schools that offer not only better instruction but also coherent moral guidance to a generation of urban youth too often growing up in an ethically confused and relentlessly adult environment.

Without the force of religion, as a driver of self-improvement and moral order, cities in America, Europe, and elsewhere cannot flourish. These places may own the name and inhabit the space of the great cities of the past, but without faith and family, they cannot be the vital centers of civilization that cities have been for the last five millennia.

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The City: A Global History, just released by Modern Library.

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