Is #OccupyWallStreet a "Church of Dissent"?

Janine Giordano Drake

Last week, political blogger Matt Stroller penned an article about #OccupyWallStreet that I can't get off my mind. First, he introduced the movement as a groundswell of frustration. Said he,’s obvious that this isn’t just about Wall Street, nor is it really a battle of any sort. There are political signs there attacking Fox News, expressing anger about Troy Davis, supporting the Iranian revolution, urging the Federal Reserve be reigned in, and demanding rich people pay their taxes. There are personal signs about debt, war, and medical problems. And people are dressed in costume, carrying lightsabers, and some guys are driving around a truck with a “Top Secret Wikileaks” sign on the side. I asked if they were affiliated with the site, and one of them responded with “That’s what the Secret Service asked”. Most of all, people there are having fun.

However--that, of course, sounded just like the reports I have been getting from friends involved in the movement in New York City. The provoking part was the sentence that followed. He went on,

What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter”. (emphasis mine)

Stroller explained, quite eloquently, "the act of politicization" and the way that such public protests build the cultural infrastructure of social movements. However, he said that this movement "is a somewhat different animal than other politicized gatherings," because many protesters participated and carried on not because of a common political goal, but "because it feels meaningful." I gather what he means is that "the 99%," as the protesters call themselves, find meaning in the act of gathering; together, they recognize that regular people without much money or relative power are ubiquitous, and together can gain the attention that they cannot as individuals. The movement's website, "We are the 99 percent," certainly affirms this claim.

"Meaning is a fundamental human need," the author went on, and #OccupyWallStreet is beginning to provide a moral community for people in search of one. In the call and response character of chants, the "consensus-based 'general assemblies,'" the fear of official spokespeople, and the high importance of caring for and appreciating one another, he said, this movement is quite similar to a dissenting religious body. He invited readers, too, to understand the movement not as a success or failure, but as an attempt of frustrated people to find meaning through community.

I would argue that this characteristic makes #OccupyWallStreet not unique among American political movements, but absolutely commonplace. What political movement has ever been accomplished in this country (or any country) without a groundswell of moral (or so-called moral) indignation to get its name on the map? I find Stroller's boldness in dignifying this protest as a "church" both unusual and refreshing.

All week long I have been asking myself, What does it do for historians and journalists to label such a movement moral, or religious? Why have so many historians been hesitant to recognize/ identify the moral/religious characteristics of "people's movements" to date? And, of course, Is #OccupyWallStreet a "religious" movement, even if it is a moral movement?

Perhaps part of what happens when we label this a "Church of Dissent" is dignify the movement for what it is not. It is *not* a rioting group of people bent on destruction for its own sake. A moral community has a goal and cares as much about process as it does about outcomes. But, what do you think-- does the term "church" have too much baggage to be used here?


Cindy Solomon said…
I am both hopeful and frightened of the term "church" in this context. As a Christian I long for the same community that the #occupy movement is building because I sense in it an authentic practice that Jesus would surely have recognized. People coming together to care for one another not only in the simple acts of feeding the protesters, but in the the longer-term sense of truly standing up for one another and with one another to affect change for the benefit of "we the people." This is a beautiful thing.

Yet I am also full of trepidation as 'church' has come to have so many negative connotations. I don't want to see this swelling tide of change swept away because people begin to associate it with a force that has too often - and too recently - been used to foster hate and greed. If naming this 'church' prevents people who have already been damaged by religious messages to stay away or go away then please let us find another word.

At heart is the fervent prayer that we could reform church in such a way that Christians who believe in the progressive (in the more modern sense) gospel are no longer afraid of being lumped in with our crazy, right-wing church cousins. But that is the NEXT movement. For now let's all #occupy and create a more equitable and loving world. That might just open the possibility of finding authentic church once we're done with this first task. Or maybe we'll find that they are, after all, the same thing.
Carol Faulkner said…
Great post Janine! Your question about the reluctance of historians to label movements "moral" or "religious" suggests a difference between those who study the nineteenth century (historians have no qualms talking about anti-slavery, temperance, social purity as moral) and those who study the twentieth century. But even in the nineteenth-century, such labels have a negative connotation. To use an example, historians often criticize the Garrisonian wing for its commitment to an exclusively moral opposition to slavery.

Some nineteenth-century reformers (Lucretia Mott among them, of course) might have viewed "church" as implying establishment and hierarchy. She might have preferred something like "congregation."
Janine Giordano said…
That's a good point about the difference between historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and perhaps also how "we" see the difference bewteen these centuries). My sense is that there's this assumption that nineteenth century Anglo-Americans are much more naturally inclined toward religion and morality as a motivating factor for politics and organizing, while the immigrants and their descendents after that are not. What strikes me, of course, is how much this history comes from the sources--of Anglo-American Protestants (newspapers and magazines especially)--which are written by people who don't see Catholics and Jews and religious others as having a religion that mattered to them.

You're right-- the historians who don't recognize the "people's movements" that I'm referring to are mostly the ones who see socialism and syndicalism and the various kinds of Marxism and unionism as simply political/economic collaborations, unrelated to religion. Even though I'm finishing a dissertation on this subject, I'm honestly still, continually surprised at how religiously-motivated so many of these immigrant working classes and their children (and non immigrant working classes) are. (I assumed anarcho-syndicalists generally cared more about economics than religion--until I did more research this summer, and shocked myself.)

And--even more--I keep on noticing how many of these protesters have wanted their religious/moral sentiment to be known, but found that the greatest tactic at shutting them up has been to write their religious sentiment out of the newspaper accounts.
Tom Van Dyke said…
"What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent."---Matt Stoller

"It's pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counterculture is, in reality, just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness."---Jerry Garcia
PCarino said…
If not "church" (I agree, too much baggage comes along with that word) then how about simply "community"?
Anonymous said…
I don't think that the movement or its detractors would want to attch any religious undertones to it. For one it would make the movement seem more conservative, which those in the movement would not want. Also, it would help to give the movement some legitamousy, which detractors would not want. This group of reigiously diverse people coming together for a single goal reminds me of Eck's "A New Religious America." This coming together of a religiously diverse group of people is exactly what she advocated.