by Lois Ann Lorentzen
A lifetime scholar of religion surveys California spirituality
from Boom Winter 2015, Vol 5, No 4
Making sense of religion in California is a daunting task. California’s religious extravagance is fascinating—Heaven’s Gate, the Crystal Cathedral, Synanon, Starhawk, Harold Camping’s end-of-world predictions, Aimee Semple McPherson, Esalen, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Grateful Dead. Everything is here, it seems, and then some.
Yet, we have to ask, does California really matter in the study of religion? Is there anything special or specific about religion in California? Is religion in California indicative of broader trends in religion? Does what happens in California pose challenges for religion? Does it present opportunities?1 I’d like to offer a few suggestions as to what we might think about when we think about religion in California.
All of California is sacred space.
Ahwahneechee, Chumash, Chilula, Cupeño, Esselen, Hupa, Karok, Maidu, Miwok, Mohave, Mono, Ohlone, Patayan, Pomo, Salinan, Shasta, Wappo, and Yana are just a few of precolonial California’s 200 tribes. An estimated 300,000 indigenous peoples lived in California before European contact in the late 1700s. By 1860 that number had plummeted to 30,000, mainly due to disease.2
Given the great diversity of tribes, too many generalizations about indigenous religions shouldn’t be made. Broadly speaking, however, indigenous religions reflected relations with natural local landscapes and animals, yielding practices, rituals, cosmologies, and myths.
Morro Rock is sacred to Chumash and Salinan. The Medicine Lake Highlands near Mt. Shasta is a site of healing energy for Shasta, Wintu, Modoc, Pit River, and Karuk. Creation took place at Mt. Diablo according to the Miwok, who also consider Mt. Tamalpais sacred.
Rapidly changing social, cultural, and religious landscapes are the norm for California.
A “sacred expedition” of Spanish military and priests was charged with settling Alta California and converting Native Californians in 1769. But Spain had little real interest in colonizing California until Russian fur traders established Fort Ross near Bodega Bay in 1812. By 1833, twenty-one missions had been founded, nine of them by Franciscan Junipero Serra.3 Mexico secularized California’s missions in the 1830s. The Mexican-American War eventually resulted in the 1848 surrender of California to the United States. California’s composition changed dramatically once again with the Gold Rush, its population growing 410 percent between 1850 and 1860 as people from all over the world rushed in.
The point of this abbreviated history is to note how populations and religions change dramatically in very short windows of time. California went from indigenous in 1769 to Catholic by 1833 and to predominantly Protestant by 1860.
The mix of religions in California doesn’t look the same as other states.
More than a decade ago, I began a research project that transformed my relation to California, the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, my academic career, and my life. The Pew Charitable Trusts had charged our research team with analyzing religion’s role in the civic incorporation of new migrants to the Bay Area. We quickly realized that cultural and religious diversity made California a rich field for the study of religious life.4 Roughly 13 percent of the US population is foreign born, and 25 percent of foreign-born people in the United States live in California.5 In 2011, 27 percent of Californians were born outside the United States—53 percent from Latin America and 37 percent from Asia.6
California’s mix of people from around the world is reflected in its religions. Forty percent of all US Buddhists live in California, as do most Hindus and most Muslims—70,000 Muslims in Los Angeles County alone. California is 28 percent Catholic, 20 percent Evangelical Protestant, and 10 percent mainline Protestant. This is in contrast to the United States as a whole, where 70 percent of Christians are Protestant.7
To study religion in California is to study the world’s religions.
Each group of new arrivals has left their religious mark on California as religious traditions, objects, and practices migrated with laborers. The Tin How temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown dates to the Gold Rush. Cameron House, a vibrant social service agency, started as a Presbyterian women’s mission to combat the indentured servitude and coerced prostitution of Chinese women. The San Francisco Buddhist Center is a Japanese Pure Land Buddhist temple founded in 1898. Stockton’s Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded in 1952 when Stockton boasted the largest Filipino population outside the Philippines. The state’s large Latino population has revitalized both California Catholicism and Pentecostalism.
The patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is present in churches, and on candles, murals, and tattoos. Lesser-known saints such as San Toribio Romo (the Mexican patron saint for immigrants) and Jesus Malverde (patron saint for drug traffickers, migrants, and the poor) live here, too. Our Lady of La Vang resides in Vietnamese Catholic Churches throughout the state. Los Angeles has twelve temples devoted to Santa Muerte, a rogue Mexican saint. Veneration of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Guanyin and the goddess Tianhou/Mazu flourishes. San Lorenzo Ruiz, the Filipino saint, can be found in churches, Catholic schools, and homes.
As goes California, so goes the nation.
California’s present is the nation’s future. Where migrants once moved to gateway cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, they now head to rural areas and smaller cities in new destination states—South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Delaware, North Dakota. Fourteen new destination states experienced a 49 percent growth in foreign-born population between 2000 and 2009, twice the national rate.8
California is a place that makes us rethink a religion’s place.
If 27 percent of California is foreign born, what is the “place” of theology and religion? Our globalized world radically changes the meaning of “place” and our experience of it. Religions transported to California change as they migrate; they are not static reflections of practices in countries of origin. Deemed transnational or diaspora, religions change as they become multi-sited.
Followers of Mazu, a goddess bound to a particular region and temple in Taiwan, demonstrate a creative response to leaving one’s place. Pilgrims from San Francisco’s Ma-tsu Temple accompany the statue of Meiguo Mazu (American Mazu) to the “mother” temple in Beigang, Taiwan. The American Mazu regularly needs her spiritual energy replenished by the mother goddess in Taiwan. The pilgrims allow her to remain a territorial goddess by returning her to her place of origin. Yet they also deterritorialize her by replacing her in San Francisco.9
People, religions, and cultures are deterritorialized and reterritorialized in California, often in unexpected ways.
Venerable Master Hsua Hua came to California in 1962 to reform, not replicate, Chinese Buddhism. Monastic training in Taiwan had shifted from large training monasteries to smaller temples resulting in lack of discipline, according to Hua. In California, he founded what eventually became known as the Dharma Realm Buddha Association, headquartered in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas monastery in Ukiah. A traditional, orthodox, and disciplined Chinese Buddhism is taught and practiced there, and most monks in residence are Chinese-speaking. English speakers are encouraged to learn Chinese. Thousands have been trained and prepared for ordination, both Asians and Westerners. The City also offers bilingual education at its elementary and secondary schools. Taiwanese students, American students, and students from around the world study in this remote section of northern California.
The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas sits on more than five hundred acres of meadows, orchards, and forests. Peacocks roam freely and streets bear names such as “Boddhi Way” and “Mindfulness Way.” In our migrant study, we concluded that the transnational activities of the City’s monks and congregants have contributed to an “altogether unique cultural and religious identity.”10 The City of Ten Thousand Bhuddas is a paradoxical transnational phenomenon. The Venerable Master left Taiwan for the United States to establish a place to teach pure Chinese Buddhism. Students from Taiwan travel to northern California to prepare for a traditional Chinese Buddhist ordination. For Chinese immigrants, the City does and does not remind them of “home.”
Religious migrations can also mean political migrations.
Massive internal migration has also altered California’s religious and political landscape. During the 1930s, between 300,000 and 400,000 people from Dust Bowl states arrived in California, with a third moving to the San Joaquin Valley and half to cities.11 Roughly 95 percent of the new migrants were white.
Darren Dochuk analyzed the migration of evangelical white Christians from the 1930s to the 1970s. He argued that they transformed Southern California, and led to the growth of the Christian Right.12
Primarily from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, these mostly conservative migrants established churches, schools, courted politicians, and gave birth to a politically active evangelicalism that promoted links between conservative politics and conservative evangelism. “We are at Ground Zero,” noted political scientist James L. Taylor.13
African American migration to California in the 1940s overlapped with the westward migration of Southern evangelicals. Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had a combined African American population of 50,200 in 1930. By 1950 it was 254,120.14 The first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in Los Angeles in 1872. Its membership grew with the influx of new Californians, and new churches were started. Church leaders such as Reverend Cecil Williams and Reverend Amos Brown became active in San Francisco politics. Williams became pastor of Glide Memorial Church in 1963 and was an early supporter of the Black Panthers, organizing protest rallies with other supporters like Angela Davis.
California is a border state, and religions minister across borders.
California is a border state and home to the largest volume border crossing in the world. Fifty to seventy thousand people cross legally between Tijuana and San Diego every day. Ours is also the world’s most militarized border between non-warring countries. As Senator John McCain has noted, it is the most “militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”15 Over six thousand migrants have died trying to cross the border since 1998.
The border concretely symbolizes global inequality. Religious groups on both sides of the border minister to migrants in transit—providing shoes, food, and shelter; tending to battered feet; and helping organize documents. Summer 2014 witnessed an influx of Central American migrants, many of them young children. The St. Joseph Church in Fontana, in Southern California, provided food and shelter.
Religion and politics are no strangers in California.
Cesar Chavez cofounded, with Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers). Chavez blended religious practices with political activism, consciously modeling himself after Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi.
In September 1965, the National Farm Workers Association met in Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Delano and agreed to join Filipino grape workers in their strike against deplorable conditions, including harm created by pesticide use. Chavez organized a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, with a large banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe leading the way. He deployed religious terms like “pilgrimage” and “penance” to describe the march. Some scholars call this Chavez’s “political spirituality,” claiming la causa was a religious movement.16
Marginalized religions are not marginal in California.
In Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited, photographer Rick Nahmias collected photographs, testimonies, and texts exploring faith communities that might be considered marginal elsewhere, including a transgender gospel choir, a San Quentin Buddhist community, a deaf Mormon congregation, Cham Muslim survivors of Cambodia’s genocide, Miwok and Pomo Indians reinstated as a tribe in 2000, and a Jewish congregation of recovering addicts. Less visible does not mean marginal.
Experimental religions work wonders in experimental situations.
Religion scholar John Nelson writes that experimental religions share five characteristics: positionality (how an individual views her life in complex gender, ecological, and economic social networks); agency; negotiation with a religion; grounding religious practice in daily life; and continual reinvention.17
I was introduced to one of California’s experimental religions, Santa Muerte, known affectionately as the Bony Lady, the Skinny One, and the Powerful Lady, during fieldwork with undocumented Mexican transgender sex workers in San Francisco. Although the press sensationalizes her as a narco-saint, she is the chosen saint of marginalized peoples in Mexico and those who find themselves on the cusp of violence. A skeletal figure, she often holds a glove in one hand and a pendulum in the other. A loose robe hangs from her wrists, exposing her bony arms. A halo adorns her skeletal head. La Santa Muerte, a symbolic representation of death, draws from Catholic beliefs and practices. Santa Muerte was the chosen saint for sex workers in our study. She accepts them as they are, unlike their experience in the traditional church, and protects them.
Worship of Santa Muerte reflects characteristics of experimental religion. Santa Muerte worshippers consider themselves good Catholics. Their practices are similar to traditional rituals, prayers, and altars. Santa Muerte devotees are creating religious practice through an experimental method related to their own lives and problems, which reflects their precariousness. Santa Muerte is a saint relevant to their daily lives.
Santa Muerte “helps me in the street, to stay away from risks,” one worshipper told me. “She exists, she exists, of course; we are all going to die. Death exists and she protects me from all of the dangers around me.”18
Celebrity, consumer culture, and religion come together in California.
Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Pentecostal International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, brought Hollywood glamor to religion. McPherson was not just a religious superstar, she was a superstar period, as famous in her day as any movie star today. Large crowds flocked to her rallies and faith-healing events. Her church, Angelus Temple, held 5,300 people. Services were held three times a day, seven days a week.
The Church of Scientology has self-consciously courted celebrities since founder L. Ron Hubbard initiated Project Celebrity in 1955. Celebrity Centre International was created in Los Angeles in 1969 and has centers in major cities around the world. According to their website, they cater to “individuals upon whom society depends the most. . . the artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world.”19
Celebrity culture goes hand in hand with consumer culture. Consumer culture is not unique to California, yet the state pioneered prosperity theologies and the related theology of self-esteem promoted by the late Robert Schuller. Before its bankruptcy, the Crystal Cathedral, former home to Schuller’s ministry, was a monument to religious celebration of affluence. The cathedral’s soaring opulent glass structure forsakes Max Weber’s austere Protestantism, which encouraged capitalism through sober investing. This is brash, flashy capitalism in a religious guise.
California manufactures new deities.
Celebrity also helps launch new religious movements. Actor Andrew Keegan (Party of Five, 10 Things I Hate About You) cofounded Full Circle Venice as an “open source spiritual community center.”20 Journalists Shyam Dodge and Shanrah Wakefield write, “The shift in Keegan’s ambitions—from stardom to spirituality—shows how the culture of celebrity is not all that far off from religion. Hollywood is an industry focused on manufacturing deities.”21
Keegan says of Full Circle Venice, “We have a creed. We do believe that everything is an expression of the creator and that we coming together create our own destiny, our own path.”22
Keegan and his inner circle see themselves as being “standard bearers for an updated brand of ecstatic California spirituality.”23 Daniel Paul, the group’s operations managers, traces Full Circle’s spiritual lineage to the Esalen Institute, which he visited growing up. “We’re doing something that borrows from what our parents taught but also innovates in a significant way.”24
California saw nontraditional religions emerge from the 1960s counterculture and hippie subculture. By the end of the 1970s, New Age was a big tent that included a range of spiritual practices and beliefs. Difficult to define, it is a decentralized, heterogeneous spiritual movement that includes beliefs in divine energy, pantheism, auras, healing, alternative medicine, and the idea that social change requires deep psychic and consciousness change. Practices include channeling, crystals, meditation, astrology, divining (through runes, tarot cards, the I Ching), holistic healing, and music. Multiple roots or resources for New Age philosophy include Wicca, neo-paganism, Theosophy, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
New religions generate new sacred landscapes.
Mt. Shasta has become a sacred mountain and pilgrimage destination for many New Age groups. Legends exist about the mountain as one of the only homes to the Ascended Masters (enlightened beings who used to be human). St. Germain, an Ascended Master, appeared on the mountain in 1930 to a hiker, Guy Ballard. Ballard and his wife formed the I AM foundation to introduce followers to St. Germain and the teachings of other Ascended Masters. Since 1950, this foundation has held an annual pageant depicting the life of Christ, without a crucifixion.
Mt. Shasta is also believed to be home to Lemurians, beings from the lost continent of Lemuria, who live in a hidden city beneath the mountain. Lemurians occasionally emerge from the mountain and interact with humans. Numerous testimonies and stories can be found in bookstores in Mt. Shasta City, which has become a hub for New Age retreats, workshops, bookstores, healers, and pilgrimages.
Religions can go very wrong.
Thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate killed themselves in 1997 in Rancho Santa Fe. Founded in the early 1970s by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles (aliases “Bo and Peep” and “Do and Ti”), Heaven’s Gate mixed New Age concepts with Christianity. They believed the Earth would be “recycled,” that is destroyed, and that human bodies were mere vehicles to be shed in order to reach the “Next Level.” Applewhite convinced the group that a spacecraft trailing the comet Hale-Bopp would pick them up. Mixing phenobarbital with vodka and covering their heads with plastic bags, thirty-nine people killed themselves in order to leave their bodies and enter the spaceship.
To my knowledge, California is the only state that has been home to groups that ended in religiously motivated mass suicides. We’ve had two, including one of the largest mass suicides in modern history.
The other has alternately been called a mass suicide or mass murder. More than 900 people died in the agrarian commune “Jonestown” in Guyana in 1978, all but two from cyanide poisoning. Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ in Indiana but relocated to California in the late 1960s. During the 1970s, it was located in San Francisco’s largely African American Fillmore district. An interracial congregation, it prided itself on its progressive politics. Jones preached a Christianity that was egalitarian, emphasized social justice, and believed the church could embody a utopian socialist vision on Earth. In the early 1970s after prominent Temple members defected, the press began investigating allegations of fraud, kidnapping, beatings, and misuse of funds, Jones fled to Guyana to create an agrarian, utopian socialist community with full racial and economic equality. In the years that followed, hundreds of Temple members joined him there.
After a group calling itself “Concerned Relatives” brought media and government attention to Jonestown, claiming that all communication with the outside was cut off, an investigative team led by Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana in 1978. Several Jonestown residents asked to be taken back to San Francisco. As the group started to board two planes to return, Jonestown security guards appeared, shooting and killing five people and wounding ten more. Jones then gathered the community together, informed them that Ryan had been killed and claimed they were about to be tortured, raped, castrated, and killed by the Guyanese Defense Force; 907 people drank a cyanide-laced drink and died.
Religions can go bad without ending in mass suicide.
Charles E. Dederich started Synanon in 1958 as a drug rehabilitation program. By the 1960s it became a utopian community. Dederich allegedly coined the phrase, “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” which adorned millions of posters, cards, and coffee mugs from the 1960s to the present. The early iteration of Synanon fit with the 1960s hippie and New Age ethos, but soon took a darker turn. A form of group therapy, called the “Synanon Game,” involved intense and often brutal criticism, in hours-long sessions.
Synanon petitioned to become recognized as a religion in 1974, but the petition was never granted. The more religious Synanon became, the more violence increased, including the physical abuse of young people. In 1977, Dederich declared that men should get vasectomies and women, abortions. In 1978, Synanon members assaulted Phil Ritter, a man who was trying to remove his daughter from the Synanon property in Marin County, putting him in a coma for a week. Imperial Marines (Synanon’s militia) Lance Kenton and Joseph Musico placed a rattlesnake in the mailbox of Paul Morantz, an attorney who was prosecuting Synanon. Kenton and Musico received jail time; Dederich received five years of probation. Synanon closed its doors in 1991.
The University of San Francisco, where I work, generously sponsors writing retreats for faculty at the former site of Syanon, the beautiful Marcone Center overlooking Tomales Bay. As I relish the beauty, the calm, the peacefulness of writing with colleagues and friends in a lovely environment, I sometimes feel haunted as I roam the tranquil grounds.
Gender, sexuality, and religion come together.
In 1979, three men in traditional nuns’ habits appeared in San Francisco’s Castro District. The following year they were joined by twelve others, naming themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters perform street theater, organize protests, and are a charitable organization designed to combat sexual and gender intolerance. Currently, there are orders in all parts of the United States, as well as in Latin America, Australia, and Europe. The Sisters’ website proclaims, “We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency, and guilt that chain the human spirit.”25
Highlights from over thirty-five years of creative political activism include a public exorcism of Pope John Paul II in Union Square during his 1987 visit to San Francisco; Sister Vicious’s posting of demands on St. Mary’s Cathedral doors with her press-on nails (“Martin Luther would have been proud!” she said);26
and the Sisters’ Queer Army’s “holy wars” against homophobia in which pink-camouflaged army members invaded the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, to distribute condoms after being invited by students. The sisters were quickly escorted off campus by police.
Rev. Troy Perry was kicked out of his Pentecostal church due to his homosexuality. After years of struggling to reconcile his sexual orientation with his Christianity, he founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) in 1968. From small beginnings—the first group of twelve met in a living room—the church now has at least three hundred congregations in twenty countries. Perry and MCC have challenged “clobber texts” in the Christian Bible that are used to justify gay-hating attitudes and practices. Currently, UFMCC is the largest religious group in the world serving the LGBTQ community.
I’m not claiming California is the only place with LGBTQ-friendly religious groups. It isn’t. There are branches of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Metropolitan Community Church around the world. Yet MCC, the Sisters, and other groups like the Transcendence Gospel Choir began in California.
Religion is embodied and disembodied.
Religion is an embodied phenomenon, a thing people do, in part, for and with their bodies. Meredith McGuire asks us to consider postures, ways of focusing attention, food, eating, food preparation, and healing rituals. The Ecstatic Dance movement is possibly a too obvious example of California embodied spirituality. Although originating in Hawaii, its popularity took off after Ecstatic Dance events began in Oakland in 2008. Now considered a global movement, California still has more ecstatic dance venues and events than anywhere in the world.
Paradoxically, California has been on the forefront of embodiment and disembodiment. If San Francisco has been a capital for exploration of gender, sexuality, and embodiment, Silicon Valley could be considered the center for disembodied reality. Samuel Loncar writes that the “religion of Silicon Valley” has “a more-or-less orthodox theology, and plenty of rites and institutions to keep its priestly caste employed and relevant.”27 He looks to futurist Ray Kurzwell’s 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, as one piece of evidence supporting the existence of a religion of technology. Kurzewell predicts that by 2045 technological progress will be so great that humans will no longer be able to comprehend or direct it. In the process, humanity will be transformed and no longer limited by biological bodies. According to Kurzewell, “Humans will become functionally immortal as spiritual machines, no longer dependent on our embodied condition.”28 Kurzewell and Peter H. Diamandis founded Singularity University in 2008 “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges. SU is committed to creating positive global impact through the billions of people who benefit from our programs and activities.”29
Nature is religious.
Manuel Vasquez asks how “our embeddedness in a particular physical landscape, a bioregion, is linked with our religious ideas, practices, and institutions” and “how do religious narratives and practices shape our lived landscapes?”30 California is blessed with spectacular, extravagant nature. John Muir called Hetch Hetchy Valley a “sacred temple” prior to its damming. Numerous environmental groups and movements began in California including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Rainforest Action Network, Earth Island Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund, and more. It is no surprise that nature religions and “green” religions also found homes here.
Bron Taylor coined the term “dark green religion” to describe beliefs or ways of life that “resemble” religion, primarily considering groups and practices in North America and Europe emerging since Earth Day 1970.31 The July 2008 Surfing magazine featured Taylor’s ideas in a special issue, “Nature=God It’s Official: Surfing is a Religion.” Here’s a description of surfing as “Aquatic Nature Religion” from the issue’s foreword:
From our first whitewater to our final curtain call, surfing works in mysterious ways. It can serve as a gateway to eternal life (just ask Doc Paskowitz, who will still paddle circles around you). Our daily baptism (“The only thing that washes my troubles away,” says Matt Archbold). Our confessional booth (Nothing is more honest than a 20-footer on the head). And, of course, it can serve as our sanctuary, our church and our connection to the Supreme Being itself.32
Hollywood also entertains this dark green picture. In the movie Avatar, the indigenous Na’vi of paradisiacal Pandora hold ecocentric worldviews and worship their planet as the goddess Eywa. Taylor writes, “I suspected not only that Avatar was a reflection of the global emergence of dark green religions but that it might even effectively advance such spirituality and ethics.”33
Is there anything special about religion in California? As a teenager in northern Minnesota, I fantasized about California a lot; I knew it was special. I wanted it, the mountains, the oceans, the freedom, the diversity, the tolerance, the experimenting. Did I romanticize and essentialize? You bet! But now I am a Californian, with an ongoing love/hate relationship with this place. An academic, I’m still unsure about the answers to the questions I posed at the beginning of this essay. I have concluded, however, that California matters a great deal when we think about religion.
The title of this essay was inspired by Rick Nahmias’s book Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited.
Photographs by Kevin McCollister.