University of Southern California

CRCC Civic Role of Religion in Los Angeles


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"Forging a New Moral and Political Agenda: The Civic Role of Religion in Los Angeles, 1992-2010"

by Richard Flory, Brie Loskota, and Donald E. Miller

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Executive Summary

In the nearly 20 years since the 1992 civil unrest, the Los Angeles faith community has significantly expanded its role in the public sphere. The social response to the Rodney King verdict was a watershed moment that provided an opportunity for congregations and other religious bodies to establish relationships across racial, ethnic, and economic divides. Faith-based organizations also launched efforts to meet short-term needs. Since 1992, there have been significant demographic and political events that have altered the landscape of Los Angeles, and of the faith community. While faith groups have always participated to varying degrees in the public sphere, over the past two decades they have become expected partners in dealing with social issues. This has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of faith-based nonprofit organizations and a diversity of approaches to the problems they seek to address.

In the immediate aftermath of the civil unrest, faith groups established programs to address the symptoms and the underlying social issues of a fractured city. Many of these efforts lasted less than three years, but they accomplished the goal of quelling tensions and expanding interfaith and interethnic understanding. Other efforts had the existing organizational capacity to sustain coalitions and bolster community development activity. Between 1995 and 2010, political developments, such as Charitable Choice legislation in 1996, the promotion of faith-based initiatives during the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama, and the increased needs of overburdened public agencies, have served to increase the public activities of the faith community. These expanded efforts mirror the pluralism in Los Angeles and its inherent complexities.

Currently, faith groups in Los Angeles exhibit five primary approaches to addressing the public sphere: 1) Charity in the form of volunteerism and service provision; 2) Organizing efforts intended to nurture community leadership; 3) Advocacy that involves speaking out on behalf of marginalized populations or addressing issues of discrimination or injustice; 4) Community development to improve economic opportunities and well-being of communities; and 5) Interfaith dialogue to foster understanding between different religious traditions. If most of the work by faith groups is directed towards charity, the development of interfaith groups has seen the most growth since 1992. While the level of activity has increased in all five areas, partnership across the religious spectrum remains a key area for growth and opportunity.

The challenges that face the Los Angeles region, including the ongoing economic crisis, immigration, and the specter of a cataclysmic natural or human-made disaster, require responses from all sectors of society, including religious communities. Although the dramatic expansion of efforts by the faith community includes everything from providing for the immediate needs of the less advantaged to developing community leaders and promoting interfaith and interethnic dialogue, perhaps the most powerful contribution that the faith community can make is to change the civic discourse of Los Angeles by reframing the region’s challenges as issues that demand moral rather than purely political responses. Despite its limitations, the faith community, rightly organized around its highest ideals, can be both an example of a principled commitment to the public sphere and the source of commitment to creating a Los Angeles in which all of its citizens can flourish. The faith community must realize the common denominator of helping the poor and the disenfranchised, and regain its prophetic voice to hold politicians, policymakers, businesses, and the media accountable in order to advance the public good.

Download the report. (PDF)