While the faith community is not equipped to solve the current economic crisis, to bring about immigration reform solely on its own, or to address all the problems associated with a large natural disaster, it does have a legitimate role to play in both the civic discourse and practical plans of action intended to address the challenges that are facing Los Angeles. For example, the large number of Baby Boomer retirements in the next decade, as well as the numbers of currently unemployed and under-employed, represent an opportunity for the faith community to tap into a large pool of talent that could be used in creative and important ways to meet the challenges confronting Los Angeles. In this, the faith community could take a leading role in organizing retirees, the unemployed and underemployed into an army of volunteers to help provide needed services that the government will find increasingly difficult to offer, from staffing libraries and parks, to tutoring and mentoring young people.
Looking toward the next decade, there are three basic responses that the faith community might make to address the challenges listed previously. The first possibility is that faith-based coalitions remain vital but largely uncoordinated and fragmented. The second possibility is that faith communities retrench and pull back from public engagement and look primarily to the care of their own members. The third possibility is that the faith community could seize on the immense challenges facing Los Angeles and forge creative, coordinated ways to partner together in social policy advocacy, charitable work, and community and civic engagement. Rather than waiting for the next occasion of civil unrest, the faith W42 community could address the fundamental issues that lead to riots and unnecessary bloodshed and destruction of property.
This third option holds the most potential for dynamic and inventive approaches to the problems facing Los Angeles in the coming decade. Beyond any practical approaches to addressing challenges, such as mobilizing retired Baby Boomers and large numbers of unemployed people, perhaps the most powerful contribution that the faith community can make is to the civic discourse of Los Angeles by reframing the challenges that face the region as issues that demand a moral response, rather than simply as political or economic problems. The faith community has the opportunity to provide a moral frame for seeking solutions to important issues confronting our city rather than simply striving for pragmatic shortterm solutions. The reason the great religions have persevered is that their sacred texts and traditions are strewn with examples of moral failure. But it is in the midst of despair that the prophets find their voice. And this is such a time.
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 a commitment to creating a Los Angeles in which all of its citizens can flourish. Moral imagination seems to be in short supply these days. Mayors, governors, and members of congress simply have their red pens in hand, axing programs, cutting budgets, and thinking about survival rather than imagining what this country could and should be. We are in a moral recession, driven by an economic recession, in which people have lost their vision for what is humanely possible. As a result, issues are being framed in extremely limited and defensive ways, and creative thinking about solutions has diminished.
Rising above the current tide of pessimism will not be easy. Many of the leaders we interviewed commented on the difficulty of putting together a coherent approach to addressing important social issues in Los Angeles. Both the geographical and political fragmentation of Los Angeles, and the diversity of the city’s many active faith organizations, offers little hope that the religious community can be unified in its response to current and future challenges. Yet a diversity of opinion about solutions, based on legitimate differences, is the essence of a vital democracy. The role of the faith community then is not necessarily to speak with a unified voice— this only happens when there is state-supported religion—but to be a moral conscience for the different interest groups and policy makers in the city and region.
One practical way to address this fragmentation and diversity of perspectives is to develop a series of “mini-summits” including faith and community leaders, representatives of the business community, and leaders from different public agencies, organized both regionally and thematically around the issues that face Los Angeles. This would result in at least two important developments for the faith community. First this would be an important first step toward developing new relationships and mutual learning within the faith community and between the faith community and important community stakeholders and policy makers. Second, these summits would provide occasions for high-level moral debate between different religiously motivated actors, and between leaders of the faith community, public officials and other community leaders. The summits would be the opportunity for public officials, business leaders, and others who generally have to deal with short-term solutions to acute problems, and the faith community, whose responsibility is to hold up larger issues such as equality and justice, to have important discussions about how to meet the challenges we face. While the social services that faith groups provide are important, and in many ways indispensable, they should augment, rather than come at the expense of theologically and philosophically grounded debate about what constitutes a good society where all can flourish.
However else the faith community responds to the challenges facing the Los Angeles region, it must recover what seems to have been lost—its prophetic voice. Many leaders we interviewed noted that the role of religion in the public square has largely been reduced to addressing issues related to individual rights and personal morality. Similarly, the increasingly popular “prosperity gospel” has limited the scope of religious faith to individuals seeking blessings from God, usually with material rewards like cars, clothing and houses. This is perhaps understandable for people struggling to be a part of the American dream, but it is at root a withdrawal from 44 the public square that serves to enrich religious leaders and their institutions, and impoverish their followers and communities.
Without minimizing the importance of individual rights and the inherent discrimination in initiatives like Proposition 8, or the appeal of the prosperity gospel to those who feel left out of the American dream, the faith community must recapture its collective prophetic voice as it addresses social issues that go beyond debates over individual morality. Given the challenges outlined above, it must demonstrate a more forceful commitment to reduce the extreme inequality in American society, and to remove the roadblocks to upward mobility for immigrants and others. Members of the faith community can speak most powerfully from within their own traditions, but also from common ground across different traditions. At the same time, it is important to remember that religion is an incredibly volatile and powerful medium, and while it has great potential to advocate for good, it also has the potential, and history, of being a force for evil in the world. Thus voices of reason and compassion from within all religious traditions need to prevail in the conversation about the public good.
Ideally, the common denominator linking all of the diverse religious groups in Los Angeles is their commitment to help the poor, disenfranchised and downtrodden. “Speaking truth to power” is a legitimate and time-honored tradition reaching back to the Hebrew prophets, and echoed in Christianity and Islam, who sought to keep rulers and the privileged accountable to the people they served. This is a necessary counterweight to the general call for the individualized spirituality that currently dominates discourse about the role of religion in the public sphere. As such, the faith community in Los Angeles must regain its public voice, with the intention to keep politicians, policymakers, the business community and media accountable to the public and the public good.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Brie Loskota is a contributing fellow and the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.
Donald E. Miller is the director of strategic initiatives with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.