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City of Dignity

Christianity, Liberalism, and the Making of Global Los Angeles

City of Dignity illuminates how liberal Protestants quietly, yet indelibly, shaped the progressive ethics of postwar Los Angeles.
Contemporary Los Angeles is commonly seen as an American bulwark of progressive secular politics, a place that values immigration, equity, diversity, and human rights. But what accounts for the city’s embrace of such staunchly liberal values, which are more hotly contested in other parts of the country? The answer, Sean Dempsey reveals, lies not with those frequent targets of credit and blame—Democrats in Hollywood—but instead with liberal Protestants and other steadfast religious organizations of the postwar era.

As the Religious Right movement emerged in the 1970s, progressive religious activists quietly began promoting an ethical vision that made waves worldwide but saw the largest impact in its place of origin: metropolitan Los Angeles. At the center of this vision lay the concept of human dignity—entwining the integral importance of political and expressive freedom with the moral sanctity of the human condition—which suffused all of the political values that arose from it, whether tolerance, diversity, or equality of opportunity. The work of these religious organizations birthed such phenomena as the Sanctuary Movement—which provided safe haven for refugees fleeing conflict-torn Central America—and advocacy for the homeless, both of which became increasingly fraught issues amid the rising tides of neoliberalism and conservatism. City of Dignity explores how these interwoven spiritual and theological strands found common ground—and made common impacts—in the humanitarian ecosystem of one of America’s largest and most dynamic metro areas.

224 pages | 4 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Historical Studies of Urban America

History: Urban History

Religion: American Religions


City of Dignity is an impressive work of scholarship and an exciting and valuable book. Dempsey’s important and well-conceived argument is that a distinctive religious urban politics of dignity emerged in postwar Los Angeles—a crucial contrast to the simultaneous, and better-known, evangelical movements in American politics.”

Shana Bernstein, author of Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

“In this smart and important book, Dempsey demonstrates that we cannot understand politics and reform in postwar Los Angeles without understanding the contributions of progressive Christian activists. While the suburban warriors of the religious right claimed the headlines, Dempsey highlights the liberal activists who sought peace and justice in the City of Angels.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

“In this illuminating book, Dempsey demonstrates that progressive movements in postwar Los Angeles are significantly linked with ecumenical Christian liberalism. From fair housing, to gay rights, to the Sanctuary City, liberal Christian leaders and laypeople served as significant place-makers across the metropolitan region, even as their efforts have gone largely unnoticed until now. City of Dignity fills a large gap in Los Angeles scholarship.”

Jerry Gonzalez, University of Texas at San Antonio

Table of Contents

Introduction City of Dignity
One Trials by Fire: Father George Dunne and Social Justice in Postwar Los Angeles
Two Prophets of the Secular City: The Churches and the Urban Crisis in 1960s Los Angeles
Three Making the Global Grassroots: Church-Based Community Organizing in 1970s Los Angeles
Four Human Rights and Religious Pluralism in Multicultural Los Angeles
Five City of Refugees, City of Sanctuary
Six Time of Visitation: Social Christianity and Economic Justice in Post-1992 Los Angeles
List of Abbreviations

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