Religion has always played a significant role in Los Angeles politics, although just which group has the upper hand has changed a number of times over the years. We’re now in the third “era” of religion as a political force in the city, in which Catholics are once again playing a vibrant role in the transformation of Los Angeles -- and the $660-million settlement in the clergy abuse scandal seems unlikely to alter the situation much.
The first era began with the city’s founding in 1781 under Catholic auspices; its full name was “The Town of Our Lady of the Queen of the Angels.” The Catholic archdiocese was founded in 1840.
But beginning in the 1880s, an influx of white Americans gradually displaced the city’s Catholic community of mostly Mexican-origin residents as the predominant political and cultural force, ushering in the second era. The new Angelenos brought with them a Midwestern Protestant heritage that, by 1900, had become a militant conservatism married to a Progressivism antithetical to machine politics. They wanted to build a great metropolis without what they considered the “vices” -- immigrants, unions, party bosses, liberals, minorities, Catholics and Jews -- of New York and Chicago.
“In 1900,” historian Mitchell Gelfand says, “Los Angeles was about as much a native, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant city as existed anywhere in the United States for its size.” (One notable exception was oil baron Edward L. Doheny, a pillar of the local Catholic church.)
Unlike on the East Coast, L.A.'s Protestant establishment was not overthrown by party machines run by European Catholic immigrants supported by church leaders. While such cities as New York and Boston were governed throughout much of the 20th century by politicians with Irish and Italian roots, L.A. remained under Midwestern Protestant sway until 1973, when a historic alliance of mostly Protestant African Americans and liberal Westside Jews swept Tom Bradley into the mayor’s office. That effectively ended the white Midwestern Protestant conservatives’ stranglehold on political and cultural power in Los Angeles.
When the Bradley administration ended in 1993, Catholics emerged more visibly in city politics, signaling the beginning of the third era of religion as a force in L.A. politics. The post-Bradley period was transitional. The alliance between two Irish American Catholics, Richard Riordan, elected mayor in 1993, and Roger Mahony, elevated to cardinal in 1991, provided a new look at how religion and politics intersected in L.A. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, whose construction began during the Riordan administration, showcased the emerging role of the church in civic life and complemented Riordan’s dreams for a reborn downtown.
But it is chiefly the increasing arrival of Latinos that gives the church new potential as a political force in L.A. politics. Quite simply, as the Latino population grows, so does the Catholic population. According to figures kept by the archdiocese, which covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, there are 4,349,000 Catholics in a regional population of 11,258,000; about 70% of L.A. County’s Catholics are Latino, according to John Orr of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Unions in California and the state Democratic Party have already rebuilt and reinvigorated themselves by incorporating Latinos as members and leaders. The Catholic Church could become a third leg of this progressive alliance because it strongly supports immigrant rights, a higher minimum wage and extending the city’s living wage to businesses that rely on immigrant labor. It is, of course, quite conservative on the issue of abortion and other social issues.
Yet, in contrast to the Riordan years, the church’s political influence today and in the future may be less dependent on its ties to political leaders. In fact, because of the clergy abuse scandal, many local politicians are likely to keep their distance from the church leadership. Despite that, the stance the church takes on public issues can be highly influential, especially if it squares with the needs and aspirations of its adherents. For many Catholics, as well as for many other Americans, religious faith is more direct, credible and immediate than politics.
A church with a social justice agenda in the context of a large and politically dynamic Latino population, coupled with a strong union movement, could make the Los Angeles Archdiocese one of the most important in the world. A generation of popular Latino political leaders, chief among them Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, today overshadows the church. But that could change if a dynamic Latino cardinal were someday named head of the archdiocese. Then Los Angeles, overlooked for much of the 20th century, would command the attention of the 21st century world.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles.”