Evangelical New Urbanism
Many of the columns in a recent American Experiment symposium dealt with political conservatism and urban areas, so I’ll take a look at another aspect: the return of theologically conservative Christians to cities and what that portends culturally (and, eventually, politically).
Early Christianity radiated out from cities. The apostle Paul began his major ministry activities in Antioch, then the third largest city in the Roman empire. Paul sent his epistles to residents of the empire’s large cities: the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians. The church grew fast in urban areas, while rural areas were filled with pagans. (The word itself comes from the Latin paganus, meaning an old country dweller, one who lives in the countryside, a hick.)
In early America as well, town-dwelling Christians established Harvard, Yale, and many other colleges. Three-fourths of city newspapers and magazines until the 1840s were explicitly Christians. The New York Times began in 1851 as a Christian newspaper. Compassionate church organizations led a 19th century war on poverty.
Today, sadly, the pattern is reversed: Christians are mostly in the countryside, and city-dwelling pagani dominate journalism, education, the arts and so on. A century ago a liberal “social gospel” came to dominate urban Christianity, and conservatives who became known as fundamentalists – later, evangelicals – headed for the hills.
Today, we need Christians who will follow Jeremiah’s famous instructions to Israelites exiled to the great city of Babylon: “Build houses and live in them.... seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We need Christians who will be good neighbors to the Babylonians who dominate American culture.
We’re getting them. For example, Tim Keller, pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, preaches regularly about how Christians should live in cities and become a dynamic counterculture, with the goal of showing how “sex, money, and power can be used in nondestructive ways.” He speaks of avoiding “secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of it,” and of embracing “abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within.”
Keller also speaks of Christians encouraging a “generous commitment of time, money, relationships, and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, and the economically and physically weak.” Redeemer’s Hope for New York organization puts legs to that call for compassion.
Keller and others are not saying that all Christians must live in cities. But they are developing a new Christian urbanism that is radically different from Sosper (Save Our Swimming Pools) religion. The new urban Christians appreciate diversity and desire the advantages in community-building that come when people live in high-density areas rather than wide open spaces where people have to drive to meet up.
In June I became provost of an interesting urban Christian start-up: The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts college with 220 bright students, has its classrooms and offices in the Empire State Building. The college ten years ago owned a beautiful, pastoral campus near the Hudson River north of New York City, but used the proceeds from selling that land to take out a long-term lease in the ESB.
As provost I’m striving to Gothamize the curriculum, which is based on Oxford’s famous Politics, Philosophy and Economics course of study. Students can apply what they’re learning in political theory to the tap dances of City Hall and the United Nations. They can learn about everything from television networks to the garment industry by walking down the street.
Other Christian enterprises in education and social service are growing in cities across the country. In Austin, where I’ll continue to teach at The University of Texas for half of the year, church-led community renewal projects with names like New Start are having an impact, and evangelicals who were escaping to suburbs two decades ago are now infilling parts of Austin.
Where all this will go nobody knows, but the outcome will be religious (and eventually political) change.
Marvin Olasky is provost of The King’s College, a professor at the University of Texas, and the editor-in-chief of World.