The Role of Religious Leaders

By: Rev Karen Speicher







    The role religious leaders and institutions have taken and/or been given in the examination of the proposed San Fernando Valley secession from Los Angeles is very narrow at best.  This might be explained as a sign of our times.  The theory of our modern age that knowledge can only be acquired through scientific methods rather than through metaphysics and theology has led to a change in authority wherein the expressions of theologians and philosophers are counted as just another “opinion” among many.  In truth, the expressions of religious leaders are often seen as less valuable than other opinions because they do not adhere to the method of acquiring “facts” in a detached “objective” way.  They are seen as “judgments” about society and therefore deemed “subjective”.  Our current cultural mode of reducing all ethical statements to mere reflections of feelings and preferences eats away at the validity of religious and moral assertions.


            Even when participants in the Valley secession debate employ the language of morality, a severely stunted discourse results.  Much of the moral and ethical conversation that is taking place is taking place behind closed doors.  A study of the ethics and morality of Valley secession is being done by an Interfaith Council of Religious Leaders, called together by Cardinal Roger Mahony at the urging of former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who are hearing from Valley Vote leaders (those advocating for Valley secession), opponents, ethicists, and research analysts.  There has been a decision on the part of religious leaders involved to keep the content of the roundtable discussions closed to the public, to offer no comment on the proceedings and even to keep the names of the ethicists with whom they are meeting a secret.


            It seems that religious leaders themselves have fallen into the trap of allowing usefulness to become the measure of the value of their thought.  Religious input presents itself, as one of a host of “opinions” made available to politicians for their consideration in regards to immediate and practical policy decisions.  “Religious council member Bishop Paul Egertson of the Southern California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said when the council agreed with Mahoney to create this group, it was careful in saying it doesn’t want to take a position on secession but to raise ethical questions to help political decision-makers.”[1]  Statements and sentiments like these expose the utilitarian role religious leaders have adopted.  In this venue, we often hear moral issues tied to technique and couched in the discussion of questions of efficiency and effectiveness.  The current discussion of the morality of secession highlights such things as the size of government, administration of city services, amount of volunteerism in respective areas, salaries of city council members and economic costs.  While these are areas of interest to residents, religious leaders and policy makers alike, and they can have elements of moral importance they skirt around key issues involved when faced with one group of people wanting to separate from another.


            The major moral assertion used by opponents of Valley secession is that secession is “white flight” and “abandonment of the neediest in the city by the rich”.  For example, director of the University of Southern California’s School of Religion, John P.Crossley, said “I would say it’s essentially a selfish move…it’s designed to not care about those who need the greatest help, and to care about those who need the least and who want out of being obliged to help the more needy.”[2]  This has also been the argument of former mayor Riordan against secession.  The major moral assertion used by proponents of secession is that  “The secession movement came to life out of a generation of neglect of the neighborhoods of Los Angeles by City Hall, the failure to respect the values and interests of ordinary residents and the denial of their fundamental rights to self-determination.”[3]


            In a society that believes that knowledge saves, there is little room for “wisdom”.  The general assertion is that if the policy makers could just do enough research and know what the outcomes, results of secession would be on the poor; on the city etc then, an effective, practical decision could be made.  Wisdom on the other hand is a knowing from within not dependent on piles of research.  Wisdom comes through experience and tradition and leads to a recognition and embracing of the mystery of life.  When wisdom is absent from the discussion as it seems to be from the Valley secession debate there is a disorder that develops.  A language of morality is used but it lacks substance and coherence.  A contemporary writer, Alasdair MacIntyre, asserts the root of this disorder lies in using a moral language made up of fragments detached from their theoretical contexts.[4]  Therefore, we lack “unassailable criteria” on which to found and by which to judge moral arguments.  Because of this our arguments become “interminable” and “there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness”…there is instead an inevitable disintegration into “assertion and counter assertion” with a certain “shrill tone”.  We can find evidence of this in the following quotes from Valley residents:


                        “As the secession pot begins to simmer, our feckless mayor has run over to the cardinal asking him to shake his finger at the Valley and call us naughty, immoral children…This from the man who sits atop the compost pile we call city government…So, Mayor Riordan, don’t bother to poke your nose over the hill sniffing out immorality in the Valley.  You guys have darn near cornered the market within spitting distance of city hall.”[5]


“Pardon me, what are the religious leaders doing getting involved in the secession issue that confronts us?  Isn’t there supposed to be a separation of church and state…Being a Catholic, I want to know, on Saturday night when I go to confession, do I see a priest or go to City Council?”[6]


“Cardinal Roger Mahony has been invited to shove his nose into the secession debate.  The excuse is that secession might be “immoral”.  A vampire, encouraged to remove his fangs from a victim’s neck, might protest that doing so would be immoral, since his sustenance depends on a continual flow of fresh blood.”[7]


Though it has experienced resurgence in the past couple years, people in the area remember the argument over Valley secession going back 20 years or more, during which there has been continued moral and social decay in Los Angeles and the Valley.  Kevin Roderick traces the discussion of Valley secession back to 1941[8] and there is still little to no basic agreement on the common good or moral grounds for making a decision.            Our current culture would answer that the moral arguments are incessant because no moral arguments now, in the past or in the future can be resolved.  It is the nature of moral arguments to be irresolvable because they are merely expressions of individual preferences.  The only way of convincing another is to manipulate their feelings and attitudes.  Moral discourse would then just be about one person (or group) trying to get another person (or group) to align their will with his without rational grounds.  Moral discourse might as well be held behind closed doors or in passionate “assertion/counter assertion” articles in the newspaper if the claims of our current culture are true.  But the claims are not true therefore even with the difficulty of living in a time when we have a fragmented and mutated language of morality and relativism saturates our culture, we have an obligation to try to deepen and expand our moral discourse.


            Humans, human relationships, and morality are far too intricate, far too complex to reduce to the simplistic notion of preferences.  This is true as well in regards to the Valley secession debate.  The debate reduced to the preferences and wills of current residents and government, eliminates the opportunity to discuss deeper, more meaningful questions and options.  Religious institutions and leaders should be at the forefront of raising moral issues without concern over their immediate, practical application by politicians.  For instance, some in the Valley want freedom from Los Angeles (i.e. some of the arguments in resident quotes above) but what do they want freedom to, freedom for?  What will be the purpose of this new city?  Why will people come together in the creation of this new city?  A leader in the Valley (though one that has not taken a position on Valley secession) is The Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, California.  The Alliance began after the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and they have done a great deal to bring together business, governmental and civic leaders along with residents to work on economic development of the San Fernando Valley.  They have been the forerunner in Valley Vision 2020 Project, forming groups to discuss the San Fernando Valley Community Indicators.  “Community Indicators are based upon shared values, and track the overall ‘Quality of Life’ in a given region.”[9]  Listed are the Indicators in order of priority:


  1. Education, Graduation & Test Scores

  2. Transportation & Commuting

  3. Employment & Jobs

  4. Crime & Public Safety

  5. Population & Density

  6. Housing Affordability

  7. Air Quality

  8. Water Quality & Availability

  9. Residential real Estate Trends

  10.  Commercial Real Estate Trends

  11.  Health Care Availability & Disease

  12. Income Distribution/Equity[10]


Though the Economic Alliance’s work merits applause and it is clear from meetings with them they do not claim to be the full or only way to a better quality of life in the Valley, I use their existence and structure to make a point.  In creating a new city, will people come together in the manner of an alliance?  In other words, will they organize themselves (loosely or through contracts) around interests they have in common, creating a public life for the purpose of making possible a private life in which they can pursue their individual goals free from the problems associated with the above mentioned indicators or will they ask “what makes a city good?”


            Aristotle contended that a good city is comprised of political partnerships of good men who discern moral things, display prudent judgment, and have an understanding and appreciation of such things as truth and beauty.  He saw the city as the structure through which one’s life is lived out and ordered.  The private life was for the purpose of making the public life possible not vice versa.  Ancients such as Aristotle offer a valuable way of broadening the moral discussion around public policy issues such as Valley secession.  One must ask the question, “What is good?” in order to meaningfully create a new city.  Asking the question opens up the possibility of people coming together because they are constructing a whole by means of shared concepts of “the good” that the society will try to achieve.  The people of the Valley could discuss their most cherished ideas and values and plan to build a city around those very ideas and values rather than around the problems they want to fix.  They could discuss virtues of citizenship relative to the regime they create.  Instead of identifying the greatest evil (Los Angeles which many residents of the Valley see as a Hobbsian type of Leviathan)[11] and trying to run away from or avoid it, the people of the Valley could vision the greatest good and try to move toward or achieve it.


            One difficulty pointed to in regards to creating a new Valley city is that there is already something there, a big something-345 square miles with a racially, ethnically, socially and economically diverse population of more than 1.6 million people comprising cities and unincorporated county areas.[12]  According to Barry Smedberg, Executive Director of The San Fernando Valley  Interfaith Council, many religious institutions in the Valley (especially mainline churches) have gone through dramatic changes in the ethnic makeup of their congregations.  These changes have brought with them new cultural traditions.  Throughout the Valley the situation has arisen where several congregations of different languages, denominations, and sometimes faiths share facilities for worship, education, and social services.  Churches and synagogues in the Valley (of which there are at least 1500[13]-it is difficult to pinpoint the number due to the rapid growth of store front churches which are harder to identify because they are not part of a denominational structure and because they tend to go in and out of existence or at least buildings often) play a major role as social service organizations in the community.  The community asks the churches to do so much they begin to feel “everyone is after their money”.[14]  Social services provided by the church stretch their finances and their pastors to the limit.  “Other religious leaders spoke about the stumbling block of diminishing resources.  They see shrinking charitable dollars coming to their communities and wonder if they are not ‘raising money every week just to keep the place open.’  One young minister said in a tone of exasperation, ‘I didn’t go into ministry to become a fund raiser.’  …  All across this Valley, there is great religious diversity.  People are all over the spectrum.  Change is the one constant that confronts us all.  There are many stumbling blocks facing our religious leaders and their communities of faith.  Tested daily by the pressures of their vocation and external forces of culture, they continue to serve, give and to celebrate.”[15]  It is no wonder discussion amongst the majority of religious leaders in the Valley in regards to the morality of secession does not happen often if at all.

            What wonders might occur if during this time religious leaders and institutions freed themselves up to discuss the virtues, the goods, and the prohibitions of the community (communities) they want to create.  What if Valley residents founded a Valley city with a common good in mind, praising those “qualities of mind and character” needed to reach their common goal.[16]  What if in the midst of this founding, individuals came to find connection again with their own unique stories, narratives and purposes while recognizing and embracing their roles within the larger context of community?


            Religious leaders and institutions of the San Fernando Valley have an awesome opportunity, responsibility, and challenge before them.  It is incumbent upon them to raise the questions that would expand the dialogue about the morality of Valley secession.  In all fairness, maybe some of the questions and perspectives posed in this paper have been the subject of the “roundtable discussions” of the Religious Council headed by Cardinal Mahony.  However, having the discussion behind closed doors does not lead to significant change in the larger discourse about secession.  It does not allow for a thorough public examination of the moral issues of purpose and identity facing Valley residents.  Interestingly enough, it is not religious leaders but rather Kevin Roderick, a journalist and native of the Valley, who offers insights into current Valley identity by plumbing a history of the Valley in pictures and prose.  His new book The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb tells many stories of the people of the Valley.  Roderick presents narratives that are critical to the Valley understanding itself (the people of the Valley understanding themselves) and any future action taken.  In regards to Valley secession he says “It would face most of the problems of a large concentrated urban area…But a new city also would begin its life with impressive strengths and assets, and perhaps most important with a shared history and lore that define the Valley as a place unlike anywhere else.”[17]

Religious leaders ought to take a page from Roderick’s book and his attention to the Valley’s “stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources”[18] and reclaim their role as ones who listen with anticipation, tell with conviction and interpret with an eye to the divine, the stories of our lives and our communities.  How can the Valley know what to do about secession without first seeking to know its own story? As Alasdair MacIntyre said, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?…Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”[19]


            Deprive the San Fernando Valley of a deeper and broader discussion of the morality of secession led by religious leaders and you do the same.


[1] “Mahoney ethics input welcomed.”  The Daily News Los Angeles. May 5, 2001.  Url:

[2] “Archdiocese to examine ethics of Valley secession”.  The Daily News Los Angeles.  May 4, 2001.  Url:

[3] “Inquiry or inquisition?”.  The Daily News Los Angeles.  May 6, 2001.  Url:

[4] MacInytre,Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory Notre Dame: Indiana, ed.second, 1984,p.8.

[5] “Colossal arrogance”.  The Daily News Los Angeles.  May 8,2001.  url:

[6] “Involving religion”.  The Daily News Los Angeles.  May 8,2001.url:

[7] “Secession morality”.  The Daily News Los Angeles.  May 7,2001.  url:

[8] Roderick, Kevin.  The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb  Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times, 2001,p.185.

[9] Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley and the Civic Center.  San Fernando Valley Indicators 2000 Van Nuys: California, 2000 p.3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] In reference to the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1558-1679) and his work entitled Leviathan, 1651.

[12] “San Fernando Valley Almanac 2000”. Url:

[13] Currently there is no comprehensive list of religious institutions in the San Fernando Valley, however, the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council estimates the number at 1500 and hopes to have a directory available in 2002.

[14] Interview with Barry Smedberg, Executive Director of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council.  November 15,2001.

[15] Degges, Rev. Ronald J. “Relationships That Enhance Our Living” Chatsworth: California, San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, 2000 p.12.

[16] MacIntyre, p.151.

[17] Roderick, Kevin. The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times, 2001, p.192.

[18] MacIntyre, p.216.

[19] ibid.


Bio: Rev. Karen Speicher

     Rev. Karen Speicher is currently a full time Master of Public Policy Candidate at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu, CA.  Rev. Speicher is an ordained United Methodist pastor and full member of The West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.  She serves part-time at Malibu United Methodist Church.  She has a B.A. from Wittenberg University and a Master’s of Theological Studies as well as a Master’s of Divinity from The Methodist Theological School in Ohio.  Prior to moving to California Rev. Speicher served as Campus Pastor at Summit United Methodist Church at The Ohio State University and as the North Central Jurisdictional Representative on the National United Methodist’s in Campus Ministry Committee.  She also pastored urban churches and was co-president of B.R.E.A.D.  (Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity-an inter faith organization of 32 congregations addressing issues of social justice in the city) in Columbus, OH.  Before going into the ministry, she worked in the areas of homelessness and mental health.