On a bright and raucous afternoon outside Los Angeles City Hall, Cornel West was revving up a crowd at Occupy L.A. As he often does, the prominent philosopher and activist peppered his speech with religious phrases, at one point calling for recognition of “our prophetic Mormon brothers and sisters,” as well as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and “black Baptists like myself.”
The crowd gamely applauded. But the biggest roars came when West called out “the progressive agnostic and atheistic brothers and sisters” — a response that seemed to illuminate the largely secular underpinnings of the Occupy Wall Street movement and a challenge now facing the religious left.
There have been flashes of religious activism, even deeply religious moments, in the protest movement that has spread across the country this past month. Some have suggested that the Occupy camps themselves have some hallmarks of a religious movement, with their all-embracing idealism, daily rituals, focus on something larger than the self.
But as the recent incident involving West suggests, the movement also has served to point out not just the gulf between haves and have-nots in modern America, but between the religious right and not-so-religious left.
Through much of American history, religious forces have been at the forefront of progressive social movements, tugging at the nation’s conscience to end slavery, fight poverty and injustice, extend civil rights to African Americans and end the war in Vietnam.
For more than 30 years, though, the energy in faith-based political activism has been mainly on the right, as conservative evangelicals and others have coalesced around opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, more liberal religious denominations have experienced a loss of membership and what some see as the lack of a coherent social message.
“The problem is — and this is true of the religious left in more general terms — it’s so disorganized right now,” said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University who studies religious involvement in politics. “They have a difficult time articulating a message that’s as clear and bounded and digestible as what the religious right offers.”
Said Randall Balmer, a Columbia University professor who writes widely about evangelical conservatives: “I think part of it is the whole drift of the culture toward a more conservative direction. But I also think the religious left has lost its voice, has lost its nerve, is no longer articulating the principles in the New Testament.”
Some left-leaning religious groups see a golden opportunity in the Occupy movement, whose central message of greater economic equality resonates deeply among faith-based progressives.
“Our tradition and our scriptures are so clear that we’re supposed to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan.... I think that is a rallying cry for faith communities that will unite us even when we have disagreements over other social issues,” said Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, a progressive multifaith organization.
So far, though, Occupy is a predominantly secular undertaking.
“Where are the mainline Protestants? Where are the Quakers?” wondered John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio and a longtime scholar of religion and politics. Although individuals from those groups are participating in the Occupy protests, “there’s been relatively little denominational involvement,” Green said.
That appears especially so in Los Angeles, where the primary signs of spirituality at the protest site have been a meditation tent and a sukkah, a temporary structure observant Jews use for dining during the harvest festival of Sukkot.
“There’s definitely a spiritual base here,” said Stephen Zeigler, a photographer and downtown gallery owner who sat lotus-style on a meditation pillow in front of his tent one recent day. “But not so much a religious base, and definitely not an organized religious base.”
Zeigler said he used to identify as a Buddhist but now finds such labels limiting. He was struck, however, by the dearth of self-identified Christians at the Occupy L.A. site. “Where are they?” he asked.
It is a good question, said Ryan Rice, a 26-year-old who said he left his studies at Chapman University so he could join the “social revolution.” He is helping with a newspaper planned for the Occupy L.A. movement.
Speaking of religious involvement in the protest, he said, “There has been an absence of that outreach so far. And I see that as a negative.”
“We all say, ‘WWJD’ — What Would Jesus Do?” he added. “He would be here. Martin Luther King would be here. The Dalai Lama would be here. What we’re doing is in line with all the major religions.”
There hasn’t been a complete absence of organized religion at the City Hall camp. Aside from the Jewish group that erected the sukkah, at least two churches — All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena and the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica — have sent members to show support. But they have been the exception.
That partly reflects the nature of those drawn to the event: young, skeptical, typically leery of organizations. “There’s a rejection of the establishment,” said Rice, “and that may be why there’s a rejection of religion as an establishment.”
It may also be a reflection of wariness on the part of churches to ally themselves with a movement that is not clearly defined and is more than a little scruffy around the edges.
“It strikes me as a little bit of a gamble for them,” said Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. “I don’t see Occupation having a lot of appeal for the average suburban, evangelical churchgoer.”
Occupy Wall Street has had a more vigorous religious presence than its L.A. offshoot, with support coming from nearby churches and various progressive, faith-based organizations.
Although there have been accusations of anti-Semitic elements in the movement, Occupy Wall Street has also had a robust Jewish presence, including a large outdoor religious service on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
And in one of most resonant images of the occupation, an ecumenical group marched with a golden calf to the camp at Zuccotti Park, turning the Wall Street bull into a biblical symbol of greed and idolatry.
Butler, of Faith in Public Life, participated in that demonstration and said she sees a lot of excitement about the Occupy movement in the faith-based community. She believes it could become a rallying point that will reinvigorate the religious left.
“Like a lot of things … it takes a while for churches to get organized,” she said. “But you are seeing folks get organized.... There’s a natural fit there, in other words. These values are our values.”