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date: 19 October 2019

Urban Space and Religion in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Religion has always been a contextually based phenomenon, particularly in urban space. Cities of every size, in every period, and in every region of the country have been defined by the towers and spires of faith traditions. They have mapped cities, providing anchors to religionists who worship there, and contributing to the construction of civil society and a sense of place. Communities of faith have drawn migrants and immigrants to settle in a particular place and provided resources for adaptation and integration. Houses of worship have often defined neighborhood identities and become progenitors of social capital beyond their walls. Increasingly the physical and social forms of religion are becoming more diverse—different accents, practices, music, dress, and even scents pour into and out of houses of worship that may not be grand old structures but more modest structures built for other purposes, blending into the cityscape. Still, religion is influential in shaping its context both spatially and socially.

But the relationship is reciprocal, as context acts on the questions, meanings, and practices of faith groups as well. The city has occupied the religious imaginations of many traditions as an ambivalent symbol, seen as both the locus of depravity and of redemption. Out of these imaginaries religious questions, meanings, practices, and forms of engagement have been shaped. Further, the economic, political, social, and institutional dynamics of the urban space impact the practice and understanding of religion, and how it is expressed and lived out in everyday life.

The interaction of religions and urban space—what can be described as a dynamic synapse in a human ecology—is emerging as a focus of exploration in understanding how cities work. Although religion is often overlooked by many urban theorists, researchers, planners, developers, and governments, it is gaining fresh attention by scholars. Drawing on major schools of urban theory—particularly the modernist Chicago School and the postmodern L.A. School of Urbanism—the spatial dimension of urban religion is being analyzed in research projects from a growing number of contexts. Theoretical and empiric work is enabling a deeper understanding of the relationship of religion and cities; they cannot be considered in isolation. Religious agency cannot be exaggerated or romanticized but should be considered as what two researchers have called “one of the ensemble of forces creating the new American metropolis” (Numrich, Paul D., and Elfriede Wedam. Religion and Community in the New Urban America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.). In the same way, faith groups of all traditions and dimensions do not exist in isolation of their context as bubbles in city space. The intersection of space and urban religion is complex, especially as both religion and cities are in the midst of great change in the 21st century.

Keywords: spatial theory, urban planning and development, Chicago School, L.A. School of Urbanism, immigration

When considering urban religion, space matters—and always has. Organized rituals and beliefs reflecting transcendent reality have never been decontextualized in their origins, and the consideration of religion in highly individual terms, rather than as a social and spatial construction, has been a relatively recent development. More specifically, historically religion has been largely an urban phenomenon: religion and cities have been inextricably related throughout human history, mutually dependent in their development. Human civilization moved from agrarian settlements to more densely populated centers where commercial trade of crafts and services wove together communities of exchange. Since the first cities emerged in 3200 bce in southern Mesopotamia,1 the more densely populated space, with its markets and residences, was organized around a centralized temple. The cultic institution served a number of purposes including generating shared meaning and social coherence among the population, social control, and facilitating the development of language. As these early cities developed, societies organized hierarchically, and power became centralized and sacralized. Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah has described the consolidation of political power and the relationship between god and king, arguing that power was mythologized so that it might be maintained.2 Religion, power, and the places of power were intricately interconnected in symbiotic relationships—in cities.

This pattern of the co-production of religion and urban life has continued throughout much of history. Consider the design of medieval cities in a Christocentric pattern. As the maps from this period represent, the organization of urban space itself reflects and reinforces religious meanings.3 In the Hebrew scriptures, there is an identification with finding peace in self and community with seeking the peace or welfare of the city where one resides—even if one is an exile in that city.4 During the Reformation period in Europe, this urban vision informed John Calvin’s reorganization of Geneva. Although his theology affirmed the sovereignty of God and the immutable election of individuals predestined for salvation, it was in the city that these theological convictions were to be manifest. The centrality of cities to the organization of religion is also reflected in Islam (Mecca) and Roman Catholicism (Rome). A number of cities are shared by religions that consider them sacred, such as Jerusalem for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and Varanasi for Buddhists and Hindus. Sacred cities provide a gravitational center for religious traditions, enabling their corporate, ideological, and political development. Romanian historian Mircea Eliade contributed to theoretical understandings of sacred space as places of “divine irruption.” By delineating space as sacred or profane, he argued that the sacred spaces bring order to the world (as opposed to chaos, the profane) and access to the divine. The design of space essentially reflects and reenacts the creation of the world.5 His theories have been widely contested. Jonathan Z. Smith argued, in contrast, that religion could function to reinforce social order through a “locative” view of its place in the world, or to challenge, through “utopian” religions that transcend boundaries.6 For these and other scholars, religion is in negotiation with space at the deepest levels of ascribing meanings to place both inside and outside the tent.

More specifically, “the city” as metaphor has occupied a significant if ambivalent place in the religious imagination representing both blessing and curse. The “New Jerusalem” is prophesied in the book of Revelation as the symbolic culmination of human history and perfection of all creation. “Babylon,” on the other hand, reflects the depths of human sinfulness and self-destruction. In the 5th century ce, Augustine of Hippo further explored the two dimensions of city as place of redemption or of ultimate damnation in City of God. In this influential work, the church and state both contribute to the ordering and progress of human community. Ultimately, however, the allegorical City of Heaven leads to salvation, but the City of the World leads to damnation. In the theological and intellectual history over succeeding ages, the city has persisted as a compelling metaphor for humanity itself—representing both its highest potential and lowest depravity. This ambivalence about the city is not just limited as a religious imaginary but has been reflected more broadly in culture, politics, and the academy, as will be seen. Augustine’s City of God was part of the theological legacy inherited by the Puritans as they established a new society.

In short, religion has been spatially oriented in the theological imaginations of the faithful, as well as in the geographic and physical organization of traditions. More specifically, urban space has defined much of the development of religion. Even when the accent is otherworldly (as Augustine’s salvific City of Heaven was finally a spiritualized reality), religions are often dependent on urban space in order to construct meanings, communicate their message, and establish themselves corporately.

Religion and the American City

From the beginning of the American experiment, religion has been a central dynamic in the development of the vision and establishment of the country, and the city a central metaphor. Since the Puritan preacher John Winthrop exhorted those who would be settling the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 to see their new community as a “city on a hill,” the biblical reference entered the vocabulary of American civil religion. The “shining city on a hill,” as used by President Ronald Reagan, connoted a society that was exceptional in the global community, providing a beacon from a lofty perch. But the city as metaphor and in reality was not always “shining,” but has also been perceived as a place of chaos, terror, and depravity. In theory, theology, public policy, and public perception, “the city” is considered with ambivalence, both sacred and profane, the place of redemption or alienation.

As well as the recurring theme identifying city with salvation within civic consciousness, the identification of the city with sinfulness, depravity, and condemnation has been equally, and at times predominant, in the public imagination. Urban centers are defined by density of population, enabling the creation of anonymity and the lack of social controls. Since the Puritans, the city is seen as a haven for breeding all manner of excesses, bringing out the worst of humanity. Religious traditions have often viewed the city in pathological terms and religious institutions as standing over-against the city. The boundary between sacred and profane has been considered absolute. The church or temple, if it stayed in the city, considered itself as judge and source of redemption for those who escaped, or were rescued from, the stench of urban decay. Urban scholar Robert Orsi describes how the popular evangelist Billy Sunday reflected a prevalent social perspective on the “moral contaminations of urbanity,” and that God should “wear rubber gloves when dealing with city folk.”7 Lest we believe that this mythologizing of the city as the locus of depravity no longer has resonance, consider the ethnographic findings of Omar McRoberts in his 2003 study of African American churches in Boston:8

The street becomes a religious trope, alternately embodying notions of irredeemable evil and combatable sin. The street is an evil other, against which the church is defined. The world of the street supplies the raw data about the nature of evil that gets incorporated into moral teaching. So the church and street ultimately cannot be separated here. But the form that the street takes in the religious imagination discourages direct engagement with the immediate neighborhood. And this further discourages many churches from developing a sense of neighborhood identity.9

McRoberts found that the communities of faith he studied needed to maintain the urban depravity imaginary for their construction of their own religious identities. Ironically while the sacred/profane boundary was inviolable in their thinking and they did not engage their context, they were still bound to it for their own sense of identity. Without sinful cities, evangelists like Billy Sunday would have preached to empty houses and the congregations like those in McRoberts’s study would lack a coherent sense of identity and mission.

Even so, the promise of opportunity has led people from many shores to make the often treacherous journey across seas and borders to the U.S. cities from the early 17th century to the present. To study U.S. cities is to study the history of immigration, and to look at immigration is to consider the role of religion as being at the core of the urban dynamic over time and space. As waves of immigrants have established themselves in American cities over generations, the dynamic religious pluralism seen today has resulted. Currently, the United States is the most religiously diverse place in human history.10 In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Europeans transplanted their cultures and religions first in cities in the eastern, midwestern, and southern regions of the country. City space became patchworked as immigrants staked out territory bounded by ethnic identity and organized around a church or synagogue. The towers and spires of sacred places were often at the geographic and cultural center of these urban neighborhoods. Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Lithuanian, and other peoples were pushed by poverty and persecution from their home countries and pulled by the prospect of economic opportunity and of political and religious freedom to American cities. As “strangers in a strange land,” they established religious institutions to enable them to claim space and construct spatial identity. For Catholic immigrants, the identification of the “parish” area mapped a geographic space identified with the central church. In some urban areas, such as New Orleans, neighborhoods are still referred to as parishes.

The social processes involved in the construction of these cultural boundaries is generated from within and from without. Robert Orsi’s seminal volume of ethnographic research on urban religion in the United States described the role of those outside a neighborhood in the construction of identity as “constructions of terror and desire among those who live elsewhere, including elsewhere in the city.”11 There are a number of examples of religiously based conflicts between neighborhoods in American urban history that served to solidify religious and spatial identity. The sensationalized ascription of depravity and threat incited outsiders to avoid and isolate, or even attack, neighborhoods of another ethnic and religious identity. “In the feverish imaginations of antebellum anti-Catholic literary provocateurs, city neighborhoods appeared as caves of rum and Romanism, mysterious and forbidding, a threat to democracy, Protestantism and virtue alike.”12 In Philadelphia in 1844, Protestants attacked Irish Catholic neighborhoods for days over the issue of which version of the Bible to use in schools. In the end, twenty-nine people were killed, many more were injured, and three Catholic churches were burned to the ground. The “Nativist” movement also incited violence against Catholic immigrants in Boston, New York, and Louisville. These conflicts were not about abstract theological ideas and individual beliefs, but rather about turf and power. Urban space was being mapped and remapped by religiously infused social forces. As a political and cultural force, antireligious counterforces reinforced spatially embedded religious identities.

The same social processes of feeling pushed out of an original homeland and pulled to a new home brought African Americans to cities and were at work within cities in the construction of neighborhoods. There was a huge relocation of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in two distinct waves in the 20th century.13 Almost seven million black Americans were compelled to flee from the threats to their livelihoods (due to the boll-weevil invasion that had decimated cotton crops and the mechanization of cotton picking) not to mention threats to their very existence through racial hatred and violence. Besides these push factors, northern cities pulled with the possibility of jobs and promise of freedom. In 1910, nine out of ten African Americans lived in the rural South, but by the 1960s the distribution of the population had reversed, with 90 percent living in cities, mostly in the North. The goal was not just to cross the Mason-Dixon line, but to settle in places that could have a sense of familiarity as well as opportunity. The individual and familial decisions about where to locate were informed, therefore, not only by job prospects but by a perception of neighborhoods as being hospitable. Through a social process known as ethnogenesis, migrants choose destinations because of the social and cultural capital they offer—kinship networks and institutions. For African Americans, particular communities of faith drew them to specific urban neighborhoods. In many cases, whole congregations would relocate to northern cities, reconstituting their rural southern religion in a context that might otherwise seem alien.14 In cities such as New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, black religion provided identity, social cohesion, and care.

The dynamics of race, as of ethnicity, cannot be underestimated in shaping the spatial organization of cities. As black neighborhoods were established, their boundaries were constructed by those outside in the same way that the Irish Catholics had experienced—except to a greater degree and more sustained over time. Public policies, economic forces, and social dynamics have conspired to define and often isolate African American neighborhoods. Residential segregation patterns in cities are often identifiable by racial demographics. Realtors and bankers historically exploited racist perceptions to sell properties along mono-racial lines (practices called redlining and block busting). The spatial dynamics of race are well documented by William J. Wilson15 and other urban scholars. Curiously absent in most such analyses is a consideration of religion as a variable in these social and spatial arrangements. As a key factor to the racial and ethnic construction of neighborhoods, religion had agency in residential segregation, by reinforcing racialized identity through its institutions and by its complicity in “white flight” migrations of people out of communities. There are also examples of religion providing counternarratives to community homogenization and contributing to diversification of racial/ethnic mapping.

The movement of diverse peoples into and out of American cities has accelerated in recent decades for various reasons, from the changes in immigration law in 1965 to global economic and technological forces. While urban demographics have changed, the dynamics that bring new citizens to our cities and contribute to the establishment of spatially defined communities remain the same: push and pull factors, ethnogenesis, and the construction of neighborhood boundaries. The dramatic difference between recent immigration and that of earlier periods of high immigration is that the doors have been opened to more geographically diverse populations. In 1970, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States was 4.7; by 2010 that had increased to 12.9 percent, representing 40 million people.16 Although that is still below the peak year of immigration in 1890, when 14.8 percent of the population was foreign born, the demographics had shifted dramatically. The earlier waves of immigrants came from Europe, but currently they are predominantly from Mexico, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Middle East.17 These new immigrants, like so many before them, bring their religious traditions with them, establishing communities of worship as a way of staying connected with what is familiar and creating a sense of identity in their new homeland. Often, their religious identity is intensified. Describing this phenomenon in Flushing, New York, religion scholar R. Scott Hanson writes, “Because of the separation from their countries of origin, new immigrants are sometimes even more conscious of authenticity in replicating and transplanting their religious traditions than they were before they emigrated.”18 Flushing is a unique case, Hanson concedes, as the most religiously diverse county in the most religiously diverse country. Within a mere 2.5 square miles, he documented

half a dozen Hindu temples; two Sikh gurdwaras; several mosques; Japanese Chinese and Korean Buddhist temples; Taoist temples; over one hundred Korean churches; Latin American evangelical churches; Falun Gong practititoners; Jehovahs Witnesses Mormons … as well as some of the oldest churches and synagogues in the city—in all, over two hundred different places of worship densely concentrated in a heavily populated and busy urban neighborhood.19

Despite it being an extreme case of religious pluralism, perhaps Flushing enables us to glimpse the effects of increased diversification of immigrant-born faiths. The many immigrant groups represented in this condensed urban space represent a wider variety of geographic and religious representation than in earlier eras when immigrant groups, coming largely from Europe, were often in conflict in American cities. Flushing is remarkably free of conflict, which suggests that “there is no limit to how much pluralism a pluralistic society can stand.”20 Hanson’s research credits the lived tolerance of difference in densely populated space on the maintenance of privacy by urban selves as notably described by urban analyst Jane Jacobs in the 1960s.21 Further, the multiplicity of religions suggests a democratic principle that no one faith will become dominant—unlike a binary demographic might.

Recovering a Spatial Analysis

Urban space has been mapped and defined by the religious traditions that have planted themselves there. And yet—there are curious blind spots among those who engage the city, including scholars, policy makers, and religious practitioners. This inhibits cities from “seeing” religion as well as limiting practitioners of religion, and those who study it, from developing a spatial analysis.

First, it seems that despite generations of being based in urban contexts as necessary to their identity and survival, and notwithstanding the experience in Flushing, religions themselves have lost a sense of spatial awareness. Like Augustine’s otherworldly City of God, city as place has been removed from religion’s consciousness of itself. The house of worship is perceived as providing a portal that transports the human spirit to the divine. Context is then relegated to insignificance, at best, or that which is to be transcended. It could be argued that the decontextualizing of religious experience is a result of the deep individualism that pervades so much of religious faith—the proverbial piety of “Sheilaism” described by Robert Bellah.22 The daily interaction with religious others in places like Flushing, even while preserving a sense of privacy within public life, creates the possibility of spatial awareness, as urban space is constantly negotiated among religions and ethnicities. But individualism works at cross-purposes with such spatial awareness.

Urban religion began to become more conscious of its context in the 1960s through the surprising contribution of a theologian from Harvard, Harvey Cox. Cox offered a different imaginary of the city, countering the predominant negative image of it in the religious imagination. The city should not be understood as a metaphor of depravity, nor considered in reality to be a place that is defined by sinfulness, temptation, chaos, and danger, and therefore a threat to the body and soul of the religious. Cox’s book, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (1965), appropriated a counternarrative. He wrote it at a time when theological constructions of urban space were encouraging people—especially white Christians—to leave the city in droves for an imagined idyll of the suburbs. His central question was theological: where is God? Rather than escaping what is seen as the godless city, Cox argued that God could be found in the very secular mores of the urban context. The city should be embraced—the divine could be encountered in new ways here. This first book by a young theologian sold over a million copies, generating debate and igniting controversy.23 Reflecting on the many changes in the world over the ensuing fifty years, Cox wrote in the introduction to the 2013 edition of The Secular City,

Secularization is a theory now somewhat in disarray. Urbanization is an unavoidable fact of life. It will continue to play a determinative role in the spiritual complexion of the world but obviously not as the breeding ground of secularization. Rather, cities will provide the context for an emerging multicultural world.24

Cox is no more uncritically romantic about the city than he is about religion—both are ambivalent variables. But he offers a spatialized theological frame that is grounded in the diversity of the city: “(The city) must be a place where both the sacred and the profane jostle and interact.”25

It was not just religious practitioners who had been blind to urban context, but the phenomenon was reflected in the approach of much study of religion as well: the research gaze was not on religion in situ. Instead, research focused on aggregated trends and quantifying individual beliefs and patterns of belonging—the changes in patterns of religious affiliation, practices, and affirmations of doctrines. Much of the research was generated by religious denominations, concerned about their institutional survival, which monitored trends of growth and decline. Another source of data was religious histories, also coming largely from within the religious groups themselves. But neither the historic narratives nor the quantitative data captured the spatial dimension of religion—the interaction in the environmental contexts between urban space and religious phenomena

Why might researchers of religion have largely ignored the contextualized study of religion, especially its rich dynamics in cities? Social research in all fields has been dominated until recently by quantitative methodology, which has been focused on tracking large social trends and monitoring changes in individual beliefs and opinions. This has not just been the case with the study of religion. The impact of postmodernism on social theory and research since the 1970s cannot be underestimated. The very foundations of objectivity in quantitative methodology were called into question; all research is finally “the search for self” rather than an objective analysis of “the other.” This in turn redefined social research methodology to look more closely at the local subject, developing, in the familiar phrase of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the “thick description.” Rather than generalizing social theories out of large samples, the focus on local cases could enable more nuanced understandings of the dynamics of social processes. Through ethnographic research methods, what was lost in generalizability was more than offset by a deeper insight into social dynamics, which could be suggestive of an interpretive or theoretical paradigm. Just as Harvey Cox had given urban religion a consciousness of the value of its context, so too did the development of ethnographic methodology stimulate researchers of religion to critically consider the role of context in analyzing religious dynamics, privileging a spatial approach.

A second blind spot has existed among those with vested interests in cities themselves—urban planners, politicians, developers, the media, and academics.26 Religious groups are considered a benign presence (at best), having little agency to impact the urban ecology. They are perceived to have minimal social value and, because they are tax exempt and are not (usually) large employers, to have minimal economic value as well. In some cases, the veil of invisibility is lifted when houses of worship that occupy former commercial space (“storefront” churches) are considered a sign of blight and efforts are made to limit their prevalence through zoning. Such was the case in the city of Evanston, Illinois, in 2010. In defending a proposed ordinance aimed at limiting the establishment and expansion of houses of worship in that city, one alderman explained the logic of urban development:

Seven of anything is too much in one block. It’s anti-diverse. It’s anti-economic development. It makes no sense … The problem is that they’re not vacant, and the fact that they’re not vacant won’t allow for retail and commercial uses that will liven the street … We have to start thinking about economic development … why would you want to rent when there is no activity on Howard Street or any other street that is chocked a block full of churches, mosques or synagogues?27

The logic of development does not recognize the agency of religion in the very construction of space, adding social value to a community that is not easily monetized. Further, religious groups are generally ignored by politicians as having no real political capital to bring to the table. Contributions to the quality of life in urban space through art, education, human services, and community identity are not constructive of power and therefore not included in the political calculus. The media similarly has limited inclusion of religion, often ignoring the religious dimension of news, relegating faith to stereotypic images or perhaps “bad news” when religious people behave badly (as in the sexual-abuse scandals).

The irony, of course, is that American cities have been established and remapped by waves of im/migrants, bringing their increasingly diverse religious traditions with them. These religious groups have shaped cities, and also been shaped by them. As described, a spatial analysis of urban religion had been largely ignored by both religious practitioners and researchers as well as by those who exert power in the design and governance of urban space. As there is a turn in religious research as well as in theological consciousness of urban space, there is an increased possibility of impacting urban policies inclusive of the religious presence.

In the mid-1970s, an initiative based at Hartford Seminary shifted the focus of research from meta-trends of patterns of belief and affiliation to the congregation as object and subject of study. Congregations had been largely ignored by researchers but clearly had been changing in size and reflecting a social resilience not evident in other organizations. It is at the local level that most people of faith engage their religion, yet so little was known about the inner workings of the local religious communities. An interdisciplinary team of researchers was brought together to design a new methodology for studying communities of faith. As well as employing traditional methods of social research, both quantitative and qualitative, congregational studies also drew on other disciplines, including theology and history. The initial efforts resulted in the publication of a case study28 with the various disciplines contributing analytical chapters. Wanting to encourage religious groups to engage in self-study, a Handbook for Congregational Studies followed a few years later (1986).29 This was revised and updated in 1998.30 Over forty years later, the Congregational Studies Team has continued to work together, revising and updating their methodology. New scholars have been added bringing perspectives and experience from a widening spectrum of research interests in more diverse religious contexts: a few of the original members continue. The Congregational Studies Project has influenced a generation of religious researchers, generated many other publications, impacted the ways religious groups engage in their own research, and found its way comfortably into the curricula of graduate schools and seminaries.

The basic methodology in the handbooks proposes five lenses to focus the gaze of researchers (often coming from within the congregation). Four of the lenses look at the religious group itself, analyzing its culture and identity, resources, theology, and social processes. The fifth lens looks at the community or neighborhood context. For many consumers of the material in the earlier years, researching the context (through both quantitative data and ethnographic interviewing and observation) was a means to learning how to “reach out” to the community, particularly to gain new members. In other words, there was a delineation between the individual church (later synagogue or mosque) as a bounded subculture and the context as “other.” Religion was generated from within, drawing on the “great tradition” of the religious movement and the “little tradition” of the congregation. The source of identity came from the history, rituals, characters, and norms of the local group rather than from the community or neighborhood that ethnographic methods could tease out.

By the updated Handbook in 1998, the “Context” chapter had been renamed “Ecology: Seeing the Congregation in Context,” signifying a critical shift toward an ecological approach. The two authors, Nancy Eiesland and Stephen Warner, were sociologists who had worked with ecological analysis in their studies of urban religion in Atlanta and Chicago, particularly. (Nancy Eisland’s career was cut short by an early death. Warner continued as a noted scholar of new immigrant groups and the religions they bring to American cities.) Their contribution represents a turn in perspective for this important research movement. “Context” moved from being a separate entity from the congregation that the religious practitioners could choose to engage (for service or recruitment) to the spatialized environment that interacted with the community of faith in subtle but profound ways. The congregation, therefore, was not be considered in its own bubble but was dynamically in relationship with the economic, political, religious, and cultural forces within their contextual space.

This development was influenced by the Chicago School and the work particularly of sociologists Robert Ezra Park, Louis Wirth, and Ernest Burgess in the 1920s.31 The Chicago School represented a foundational attempt to understand the rapid growth of cities (particularly Chicago) and to account for how they came be to be organized into the “social worlds” of neighborhoods, slums, and ethnic enclaves. Through qualitative methods, they analyzed cities as systems of actors (collective and individual) in dynamic, symbiotic relationships. The biological metaphor of ecology was appropriated, adapted from Darwinian theory as an analytical model for understanding how cities then were organized. Physical space interacted with human experience in producing relationships that were both interdependent and competitive. What resulted was that these dynamics produced different patterns of mobility and spatial segregation. The Chicago School (particularly through Burgess) became best known for the “concentric zone theory,” which was a targetlike map of urban space that resulted from the interaction of cultural and social groups with socioeconomic forces. In this human ecology, systems of transportation, communication, and institutions (of religion, education, media, health care, cultural, etc.) engaged symbiotically, generating social mobility from the core to the periphery.

This concentric zone theory, and the Chicago School, has been consistently critiqued as being deterministic in drawing on the biological metaphor. But the influence of the Chicago School has been deep and wide, echoing to the present generation of urban researchers. They contributed an understanding of urban reality as an ongoing, dynamic construction of interdependent social webs and processes. Yet social processes exist in space and in fact produce spatial organization. Louis Wirth was the major member of the Chicago School to research the role that religion played in mapping the city.32 Actors are engaged in shaping and being shaped by their environment; religious phenomena were no different. Wirth’s research portrayed the symbiotic relationship of religion (Judaism) and neighborhood in coproduction of urban space.

The legacy of the Chicago School has continued to be critiqued, adapted, and reformulated. Decades after the initial class of the Chicago School, Robert J. Sampson, also at the University of Chicago at the time, produced a study of that city that focused on the same processes and phenomena: the creation and re-creation of communities and the impact of place.33 Although he has been referred to by reviewers as a contemporary of Robert Park, he does bring a fresh analysis that does not consider neighborhoods to be as bounded as his predecessors had done. Neighborhoods are not necessarily insular, but social interactions that transcend particular physical space, even as they are producing it. Examples of this are not only the forces of the global political economy, but the social capital of new immigrants, and religious and voluntary groups that are engaged simultaneously in the production of local space.

The ecological paradigm has continued to influence research in urban religion as a situated phenomenon. The influence has not just been on the theoretical spatial perspective on religion but on methodology as well, especially valuing qualitative methods. Robert Orsi’s edited volume of ethnographic studies of religious groups in urban communities from New York to Seattle included Haitian Vodou, Cuban Catholicism and Afro-Cuban religions, Japanese Presbyterians, Russian Jews, and Indian Hindus. The studies particularly focus on how religious experience and ritual are shaped by, and shape, the social spaces in their urban contexts. In an extensive introduction to the book, Orsi describes the dynamics of reciprocity in urban religion:

These specific features of the urban (and perhaps post-urban) landscape, which differ from city to city, are not simply the setting for religious experience and expression but become the very materials for such expression and experience. City folk do not live in their environments; they live through them. Who am I? What is possible in life? What is good? These are questions that are always asked, and their answers discerned and enacted, in particular places. Specific places structure the questions, and as men and women cobble together responses, they act upon the spaces around them in transformative ways. This is the architectonic of urban religion. Religion is always, among other things, a matter of necessary places, sites where the humans and their deities, ancestors, or spirits most intimately communicate … We examine how religious practice in the cities recasts the meanings of the urban environment as the city re-creates religious imagination and experience.34

Here Orsi raises the question of agency: in what ways is religion shaped as communities of faith “live through their environments,” and in what ways do they “act upon the spaces around them in transformative ways?” The studies in Gods of the City are suggestive, portraying city religions as being adaptive to their urban space as well as contesting it. In some cases new im/migrants can threaten and enclose the religious community, in some cases they expand it, and in still other contexts the religious space becomes the ground where urban conflict is played out.

This same question of religious agency was taken on by the research project, Religion in Urban America Program, which conducted ethnographic studies in 105 congregations in Chicago throughout the 1990s. After the publication of the findings in Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City,35 Lowell Livezey continued his research in Boston (Metropolitan Congregational Studies Project, 2002–2004) and New York (Ecologies of Learning Project, 2005–2007). He significantly contributed to the advancement of a spatial and ecological approach to understanding urban religion before his death in 2007. Following up on the Chicago project, team members Paul D. Numrich and Elfriede Wedam continued the research, gathering more extensive data on fifty-five of the original sample during the early 2000s.36 Their sample represented geographic and religious diversity (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu), as well as different sizes of congregations. Their goal was to measure the “urban impact” of these congregations: in what ways were they shaping the urban environment and under what conditions? They found that some communities of faith impacted the racial diversification of their immediate context through engagement by their own diverse memberships that produce a counternarrative to the social forces of homogenization. Religion can have agency not only in reproducing social mapping through inclusion and exclusion, as has been described, but also in resisting the sociopolitical forces of expulsions.

The impact of the Chicago School and its contribution to spatial understanding of urban religion cannot be overstated. It has provided fertile conceptual soil for the growth of scholarship that redirected the gaze of diverse religious practitioners in cities and those who are studying them. Urban theory from the fields of sociology and even planning (Jacobs) provides the basis for understanding religion as having agency in the production of the post-modern metropolis.

Spatial approaches to urban religion have more recently drawn on another school. The center for this theoretical movement has been generally identified with Los Angeles and the work of UCLA political geographer and urbanist Edward Soja. The L.A. School of Urbanism is concerned with understanding rapidly evolving cities that are decentralized, fragmented, deindustrialized, and reproduced by global capital, communications, and larger forces transcending their boundaries. It can be argued that the postmodern theory is reflective of Los Angeles itself, much as the Chicago School was developed in the context of that modern city. Not surprisingly, the L.A. School has focused much of its research, as well as theory development, in Los Angeles.

Soja was greatly influenced by the work of French Marxist social theorist Henri Lefebrve, particularly his publication, The Production of Space.37 Here Lefebvre argued that space was socially constructed through myriad social processes engaging meanings and political economy. Soja identifies Lefebvre’s work with “the Spatial Turn,” which brought a spatial awareness to “every discipline.”38 He summarized Lefebvre’s contribution in his own groundbreaking work, Thirdspace: “We are first and always historical-social-spatial beings, actively participating individually and collectively in the construction/production—the becoming of histories, geographies, societies.”39 His gaze, with that of Lefebvre, was on lived space, where the contradictions and multivalent intersections of spaces, ideologies, economics, cultures, power, and experience exist and move. Rejecting binary constructions (such as black/white, male/female, city/suburb, subject/object) as confining and not representative of lived space, Soja then developed his concept of what he called the “trialectics of spatiality.” The first-space way of knowing (epistemology) is based on that which is perceived through mapping, planning, and the material environment. This mode of engagement with space is a social production, as was seen in the earlier planning movements (such as the Garden City and City Beautiful movements, which emphasized design that brought spatial arrangements of social control to the city). Secondspace ways of engaging space are in reaction to firstspace—they are concerned with meanings, symbol, history, and interpretation. Thirdspace deconstructs the first two, looking for a spatial balance that can accommodate the complexities of postmodern cities and societies, creating “hybridities” of meanings. This invitation is to the imagination, moving beyond previous urban theories. Consider the impact of events in the Middle East on European and even American cities. Geopolitical forces both economic (oil interests) and political (the balance of power between the United States and Russia, Israel/U.S./Arab countries) created an explosive situation that shattered former allegiances and commitments. The result was a messy civil war and the massive migration of peoples from Syria. There were also migrants from African areas who were displaced by climate change and repression. Cities became hosts and citadels, both welcoming and fearing the others. Their boundaries, geographic and cultural, were (and are) contested. Cultural identities of migrants were being challenged and reconstructed (e.g., Syrian-Swedish-pauper-terrorist-religious other). While no one theory holds complete explanatory power of urban religion, the thirdspace approach is particularly useful in that it invites exploration of the simultaneous interaction of forces, from global to local, at physical, cultural, and economic levels, that are acting on postmodern cities. The intersection of processes creates cities and religions that are continually being reproduced.

Theologians are beginning to reimagine the city beyond the binary of the place of redemption or condemnation. As such, the perspectives of the modernist Chicago School continue to be influential, but the resonance with postmodern urban theorists has opened up theological imagination. Edward Soja, Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells, and Mike Davis have been influential in emerging work by British urban theologians Christopher Baker40 and Chris Shannahan,41 who described the need for more expansive urban theologies:

However, if urban theologians are not to be dismissed as blinkered, one-dimensional analyses of oppression must be discarded. Creative but critical partnerships with progressive voices in social theory and cultural studies can enable the re-fashioning of existential liberation in a manner that is both rooted and intellectually viable.42

There is a recognition of a “new urban landscape”—city space has changed and become more complex and dynamic. Forces both global and local (“glocalization”) impact urban space. The question asked by the postmodern urbanists, “Who owns the city?,” defies simplistic analysis. Increasingly, sociologist Saskia Sassen argues, globalized forces through the logic of capital create a series of “expulsions”43 that redefine “lived space.” Not just the literal expulsions of peoples (such as the waves of immigrants out of Syria), but the expulsion of the peoples from land ownership through financial policies and practices. The expulsions impact the most vulnerable—the poor and the incarcerated are relegated the margins and then to invisibility. This complements Soja’s understanding of injustice, which becomes spatialized,44 but in the thirdspace. Here history, place, and social processes and meanings interact, and there is also space for perspective, critique, and social action.

It is also in this space where religion has agency, although religion is often missing in urban analysis. There are many ways that the urban context has shaped religion, and continues to do so. For example, gentrification can redefine a neighborhood’s economy, architecture, and demographics. The bulldozers of urban renewal might no longer be employed, but the results can be equally dramatic. How then does religion have agency in the contemporary urban context? Historically religion has been a key factor to the racial and ethnic construction of neighborhoods, both through anchoring community identity through religious institutions and by its complicity in “white flight” migrations of people out of communities. But Numrich and Wedam also found in their study of communities of faith throughout Chicago that they could present a counternarrative to the social forces of homogenization.45 Other researchers have also found the agency of religion in a thirdspace that can resist the expulsions and narratives of postmodern metropolises. Theologian and ethicist Sigurd Bergmann asserts that the “Postmetropolis also offers a set of dynamics where change is privileged over continuity and where progress is superior to preservation … Dismantling buildings as artefacts of a population’s sociocultural memory, and violating remembrance of the suffering of foregoing generations, appear as characteristics of late modern urban space.”46 Religion, particularly, resists this expulsion of memory. In this thirdspace, it can engage in the pursuit of justice that is spatial.

There is a need to “lift the cloak of invisibility” off religion as subject in urban space. The curious blind spot of those who study, design, govern, and engage urban realities of the presence of religion in that space needs to be interrogated and challenged. Whether considering the “urban ecology” or the “postmetropolis,” the agency of religion needs to be recovered. This is not to overstate or romanticize the role of religion, however. The presence of religion in the urban systems should be neither exaggerated nor ignored, but considered as “one of the ensemble of forces creating the new American metropolis.”47

Review of the Literature

In taking up consideration of religion in urban space, one might start by looking at spatial approaches to the development of cities. The dominant paradigm has been that of the Chicago School from the 1920s, coming out of the University of Chicago. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess introduced an understanding of cities in terms of being a human ecology, drawing on the biological paradigm. Here, neighborhoods and economies developed in symbiotic relationships. This model has been critiqued, but has remained robust. It has been most recently developed by sociologists Robert Samson, Paul Numrich and Elfriede Wedam, and Lowell Livezey. Another prominent approach to understanding urban space is the L.A. School of Urbanism. This approach incorporates postmodern dynamics as impacting the shape of cities, which are increasingly decentralized, fragmented, deindustrialized, and reproduced by global capital, communication, and larger social forces. Geographer and urbanist Edward Soja, in his influential work, locates religion within “thirdspace” that engages physical space, cultural forces, and the possibility of social justice.

Sociologists of religion were primarily focused on quantitative, aggregated research until the 1970s. Only then did local faith communities become subjects of research. The Congregational Studies Team, based at Hartford Seminary, developed an interdisciplinary model for studying congregations in the 1970s. Carl Dudley, David Roozen, William McKinney, Jackson Carroll, Nancy Ammerman, Barbara Wheeler, and others collaborated in publication and trainings to disseminate what became an influential model for studying congregations. In their later work, they began to incorporate a more contextual approach, particularly drawing on the Chicago School.

Congregational studies and academic urban sociologists began to overlap. Robert Orsi edited a critical collection of ethnographic studies of urban religious groups in 1999. The studies reflect the wide diversity of religions that are found in cities, and describe the subtle ways in which they map and shape their urban context, even as they are shaped by it. Orsi’s long introduction theoretically frames the study of urban religion within the larger fields of schools of urban planning and sociology. This influential work has encouraged a growing field of ethnographic research on urban religion that describes the agency of urban religion in the reproduction of urban space: see works by Omar McRoberts (Boston), Paul Numrich and Elfriede Wedam (Chicago), R. Scott Hanson (Queens, NY), Katie Day (Philadelphia), Richard Flory (Los Angeles), and Christopher Mele (Chester, PA).

Further Reading

Ammerman, Nancy, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney. Studying Congregations: A New Handbook. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998.Find this resource:

Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Day, Katie. Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Hanson, R. Scott. City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens. New York: Empire State Editions, 2016.Find this resource:

Livezey, Lowell W. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. New York: New York University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

McRoberts, Omar. Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Numrich, Paul D., and Elfriede Wedam. Religion and Community in the New Urban America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Orsi, Robert A., ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Park, Robert E., Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie. The City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1925.Find this resource:

Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.Find this resource:


(1.) Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 215.

(2.) Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, chs. 3, 4.

(3.) Sigurd Bergmann, “Making Oneself at Home in Environments of Urban Amnesia: Religion and Geology in City Space,” International Journal of Public Theology 2 (2008): 77–78.

(4.) Jeremiah 29:7 (New Revised Standard Version).

(5.) Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask, New York: Harvest, 1957.

(6.) Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions, ed. Jacob Neusner (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1978).

(7.) Robert Orsi, Gods of the City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 31.

(8.) Omar McRoberts, Streets of: Glory Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

(9.) An Interview with Omar M. McRoberts,” University of Chicago Press, 2003.

(10.) For a definitive analysis of religious pluralism, see Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian County” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

(11.) Orsi, Gods of the City, 6.

(12.) Orsi, Gods of the City, 6.

(13.) Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).

(14.) Katie Day, Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), ch. 7 (“Urban Flux”).

(15.) William J. Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); The Truly Disadvantaged (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

(16.) What Percentage of the U.S. Population Is Foreign Born?Brookings Institution, 2013.

(18.) R. Scott Hanson, City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (New York: Empire State Editions, 2016).

(19.) Hanson, City of Gods, 153.

(20.) Hanson, City of Gods, 153.

(21.) Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961).

(22.) Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985).

(23.) Daniel Callahan, The Secular City Debate (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

(24.) Harvey G. Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), xxxvi.

(25.) Harvey G. Cox, The Secular City, xxxvii.

(26.) Katie Day, Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(27.) Evanston Tribune as quoted in Day, Faith on the Avenue, 61.

(28.) Carl Dudley, Building Effective Ministry: Theory and Practice in the Local Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

(29.) Jackson Carroll, Carl Dudley, and William McKinney, eds., Handbook for Congregational Studies (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1986).

(30.) Nancy Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney, Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998).

(31.) Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie, The City. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925); and Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921).

(32.) Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928).

(33.) Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

(34.) Orsi, Gods of the City, 44.

(35.) Lowell W. Livezey, Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

(36.) Paul D. Numrich and Elfriede Wedam, Religion and Community in the New Urban America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(37.) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); originally published in French: la production de l’espace, 1974.

(39.) Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 73.

(40.) Christopher Baker, Hybrid Church in the City: Third Space Thinking (New York: Ashgate, 2007).

(41.) Chris Shannahan, Voices from the Borderland: Re-imagining Cross-cultural Urban Theology in the Twenty-first Century (London: Equinox, 2010).

(42.) Shannahan, Voices from the Borderland, 23.

(43.) Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2014).

(44.) Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

(45.) Numrich and Wedam, Religion and Community.

(46.) Sigurd Bergmann. “Making Oneself at Home in Environments of Urban Amnesia: Religion and Geology in City Space,” International Journal of Public Theology 2 (2008): 83–84.

(47.) Numrich and Wedam, Religion and Community, 282.