The Demise of the Crystal Cathedral

It’s June 2011, and I’m sitting in one of the movie-theater style seats of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Orange County. Southern California sunshine pours in through the soaring glass above me. But even as the sheer quantity of blue sky inspires awe, others features, like the strategically placed water fountains that bubble to life at key moments in the service, seem a little dated. Pastor Robert Schuller’s sermon finishes and the images of his daughter (and co-pastor) fill up the Jumbotron. She is appealing to church members to give more.

The Crystal Cathedral is in trouble, and it needs donations. I look around and see while many seats are filled, most the of the megachurch’s pews are empty. It appears that the days of the Crystal Cathedral, a landmark of late 20th-century American Protestantism, are numbered. And sure enough, less than a year later, it goes bankrupt. Historians of evangelical Christianity and the American Right have pointed to Orange County as the ultimate expression of white, evangelical and Republican suburbia.[1] So what does the demise of Crystal Cathedral tell us about Orange County in the 21st century?

Interior of the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, ca.1980
Interior of the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, ca.1980. Photo courtesy of the Library Exhibits Collection, USC Digital Library, USC Libraries,

The story of Crystal Cathedral, and its founder Robert Schuller, begins in the 1950s. An Iowa transplant, Schuller first began preaching to L.A. motorists at a converted Garden Grove drive-in movie theater in 1955. He couldn’t have picked a more promising spot. The newly built Santa Ana Freeway ensured easy access to the region from Los Angeles. Nearby theme parks Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland not only drew tourists to the area, but also celebrated a vision of all-American, wholesome family life that complimented the social ideals of evangelical ministries like Schuller’s. Most importantly, the agricultural land of northern O.C. was rapidly being filled in with housing. Developers eager to cash in on the postwar economic prosperity of the region were constructing vast suburban tracts. They were filled by thousands of white families, first-time homeowners eager to enter the middle class.

By the late 1950s, Schuller’s constituency had outgrown the original Garden Grove Community Church and he commissioned noted architect Richard Neutra to design a larger building. With a firmly evangelical theology but an uplifting, positive style, Schuller promoted a message of spiritual salvation and self-help. It was a package that resonated with Southern Californians and, ultimately, with the entire nation. In the 1970s Schuller’s “Hour of Power” broadcast became America’s most watched religious television show, marking his rise as one of the top televangelists in the country. He was also a prolific writer, and published numerous books on spirituality and positive thinking.[2]

​Schuller set about creating the Crystal Cathedral adjacent to his existing church. If his previous drive-in churches had paid homage to the car culture of Southern California, the Crystal Cathedral was a worship space that captured the zeitgeist of a new era. Designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson, Crystal Cathedral exhibited an aesthetic that seemed poised somewhere between striking postmodernism and shopping mall.

Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, ca.1980
Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, ca.1980. Photo courtesy of the Library Exhibits Collection, USC Digital Library, USC Libraries,

The 128-foot glass-and-steel structure was a bold statement of thriving evangelical community amidst the suburbs and freeways of northern O.C. Able to seat over 3000 (and to accommodate thousands more in the adjoining parking lot) the Crystal Cathedral combined consumer culture with Christ.[3] The completion of the Cathedral in 1980 was timely: it coincided with the election to the presidency of former Californian governor Ronald Reagan and the emergence of evangelical Christianity as a vocal and influential constituency in America. Schuller’s ministry, and the Crystal Cathedral which housed it, were carefully constructed products of an ascendant conservative Southern California culture, economics and politics.

However, while the Crystal Cathedral drew support from the large local community of white evangelicals in the 1980s and ’90s, by the new millennium Orange County was changing. Census data shows that between 2000 and 2010, the O.C.’s demographics started to undergo significant szhifts. The white, non-Latinx population of the county was aging and diminishing; at the same time, the proportion of non-white residents was increasing. This happening all over the region, but it was particularly pronounced in the parts of Orange County like Anaheim and Garden Grove that surrounded the Crystal Cathedral.[4] While the Crystal Cathedral was not an exclusively white space (when I visited in 2011, the Spanish-language service seemed to be a lot more popular than the English version), broadly speaking, the experience offered by Schuller’s ministry was not what these newer residents wanted.

With membership rolls dropping off, donations to the ministry also declined. This meant that despite the upbeat messages of its leader – Schuller had regularly published titles like Success is Never Ending, Failure is Never Final – the debts incurred by the Crystal Cathedral grew to be overwhelming. Schuller’s ministry filed for bankruptcy, and in 2012 the complex of church buildings were purchased by the local Catholic diocese and rechristened Christ Cathedral. But the demise of Crystal Cathedral Ministries was not the only rupture in Orange County’s image as the bastion of conservatism. As much as the area has been renowned as a stronghold of conservative Christian churches, organizations and colleges, it has also been reliably Republican. So reliable in fact, that ever since the Great Depression, the county has gone for the GOP in every presidential race. This changed in 2016, when Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton carried a majority of Orange County voters.[5]

Service marking anniversary of introduction of Protestantism into Korea at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., 1984
Service marking anniversary of introduction of Protestantism into Korea at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., 1984. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

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So has there been a fundamental transformation behind the Orange Curtain? On the one hand, the answer is a firm yes. Demographically, no single racial or ethnic group now dominates the county’s population. The frequency of Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese Sunday Mass services that the rebranded Christ Cathedral offers reflects a far more diverse population than Schuller encountered in the mid 20th century.[6] On the other hand, there are continuities as well as changes. While Crystal Cathedral is no more, other successful evangelical megachurches in Orange County remain, like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.[7] A majority of O.C. voters might have rejected Donald Trump, but this last election might not have been (to put it mildly) typical. In other words, the 2016 returns may have signaled a protest against Donald Trump, rather than an indication that Orange County had turned solidly blue.

Political and religious conservatism have deep roots in this part of the nation. Decades before Schuller exchanged Iowa for Garden Grove, Southern California religious and business leaders played a decisive role in creating the evangelical movement itself.

Parts of Orange County remain staunchly wealthy, white, and Republican. And before any assumptions are made about how the millions of suburban Latinx and east Asian voters (many of whom have traditionally leaned Democratic) might shape future elections, it is worth considering that demography isn’t destiny. The links between political affiliation, racial identity and religious beliefs are not immutable. How might the county align itself politically in the future? Perhaps it will become a reliable regional base of the Democratic Party, albeit socially conservative as well as racially and ethnically diverse. Alternatively, constituents might find a home in a future iteration of the California GOP. The cultural and demographic realignments of the recent past have fractured the 1950s-era image of Orange County as a bastion of white conservatism. What will come to replace this image, however, is not yet (crystal) clear.

Exterior of Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., 1980
Window washing the Crystal Cathedral shortly before its first service in 1980. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
They Moved Mountains


[1] For more on Orange County’s post-WWII conservative suburbia, see Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 20014) Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001 and Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt To Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots  Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011)

[2] Stuart Lavietes, “Rev. Robert Schuller, 88, Dies; Built an Empire Preaching Self-Belief,” The New York Times, April 2, 2015

[3] William Lobdell and Mitchell Landsberg, “Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who built Crystal Cathedral, dies at 88,” The Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2015

[4] For Orange County population statistics see “Orange County Jurisdiction Demographics,” Cal State Fullerton Center for Demographic Research. Accessed November 1, 2017 http://www.fullerton.edu/cdr/demographics/

[5] Chris Haire, “For first time since Depression, Orange County goes blue in presidential election,” Orange County Register, November 10, 2016

[6] Information on Christ Cathedral services taken from https://www.christcathedralcalifornia.org/worship/mass-times/

[7] For an overview of the megachurch phenomenon in Southern California see Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism Justin G Wilford (New York: New York University Press, 2012)

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