This article examines the liberal Protestant encounter with the urban renewal programs that remade U.S. cities after World War II. Suburbanization had punishing consequences for cities and threatened the already tenuous presence of liberal Protestants there. The concept of renewal—in both its religious and secular dimensions—promised a solution to these problems. Many renewalists, those clergy and laypeople who viewed deteriorating urban neighborhoods as an opportunity to restore Church unity, initially embraced urban renewal as a secular corollary to their work. But the interaction among ecclesial organizations, government, and inner city parishioners over its implementation exacerbated tensions within liberal Protestantism. Many who initially supported urban renewal came to conclude that its results did not match their own objectives. By supporting challenges to redevelopment from African Americans, Latinos, and other urban residents, renewalists criticized the Church for what they believed to be complicity in the degradation of Christian culture and the urban environment.
This history demonstrates the mutual influence of culture and organizational structure within liberal Protestantism and the impact of those changes on secular society. Renewalists grappling with urban renewal programs interpreted both theological and secular concepts through their own experiences with city populations, Church bodies, government, and redevelopment agencies. Their subsequent actions prompted mainline denominational leaders to support, for a time, at least, ministries geared more towards to indigenous community development. Such ministries reflected a more pluralist conception of society and the Church’s role in it. Eventually, renewalists’ opponents turned this pluralist conception on its head, decentralizing the church bureaucracies that had funded their ministries. An analogous process took place in the urban renewal programs themselves, underscoring the ways in which religious and urban histories intersect.
- Liberal Protestantism
- Urban Renewal (and/or Redevelopment)
- Urban Crisis
- Church and Social Problems
- © 2015 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture