Occupy: "Fundamentally Christian"?
By Heath Carter
In an op-ed in today's Independent British writer Tom Hodgkinson calls the OccupyLSX protest "fundamentally Christian." This comes a day after the Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral offered his blessing, marking the latest turn-of-events in a dramatic negotiation between the protesters - encamped on the Cathedrals grounds since Oct. 15th - and the Anglican Church. More on that in a moment...
First, we jump back to this side of the pond, where labor scored a major victory in Ohio last week with the resounding defeat of "Issue 2," which would have dramatically scaled back public employees' collective bargaining rights. As in Wisconsin earlier this year, many mainline ministers buoyed the unions' cause. The pastor at Columbus' First Congregational Church - Washington Gladden's one-time pulpit - cited his fabled forebear in a September Plain Dealer editorial that called for the clergy to join the fight against the law. The Ohio Conference of Catholic Bishops remained officially neutral throughout - arguing that faithful believers might reasonably disagree - though a number of priests and a well-known Dayton University theologian joined prominent Jewish and Muslim leaders in opposing Issue 2. More striking than all this: the absence of a public, religiously-motivated argument on the other side. A May poll found that a remarkable 51% of evangelicals sympathized with the unions on "Issue 2" and it appears their support may have held all the way through to election day. Don't get me wrong - one would surely find many religious persons in the 39% that voted for the measure. But it's noteworthy that, in this fight at least, labor's friends invoked God more often than its enemies.
A parallel trend seems to be developing across the nation with respect to the Occupy movement. To be sure, there are naysayers. Last month a blogger at Christianity Today argued that the protests are misguided, and that believers should cut-back on their personal consumption before they go banging down Wall Street's door. Pat Robertson has found a way to blame Occupy on Obama, accusing the president of "inciting the people to revolt." Meanwhile, Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy - founded by Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, et al - has characterized Occupy's redistributive mission as "a utopian dream, not based on the Gospels, always monstrous when attempted, and premised more on resentment than godly generosity."
More eye-catching than Tooley's heated rhetoric, though, is the varied list of Protestant leaders he indicts for supporting the movement. These include the predictable mainliners - Episcopals, Presbyterians, UCCers, Methodists - as well as evangelical left stand-by Jim Wallis (see his declaration of support here). But Tooley also brings several less familiar (to the general public) and yet no-less-influential evangelical voices under judgment, including emerging church guru Brian McLaren and "new monastic" Shane Claiborne. In doing so, he inadvertently suggests the kind of progressive groundswell that E.J. Dionne heralded nearly four years ago. Lending further credence here is the fact that, beyond the aforementioned, it is difficult to find much in the way of an articulate religious opposition to Occupy. Meanwhile, it is not only the movement's supporters that claim God is on its side (Tooley fails even to mention Interfaith Worker Justice). So do many of the protesters themselves. Consider the case of Baptist minister William G. Britton - who staked out a spot in Zuccotti Park, holding a sign that read, "'Occupy Til I Come' - Jesus" - as well as the others mentioned by NY Times' columnist Mark Oppenheimer last Friday. I will admit that when Dionne published Souled Out back in 2008, I was amongst the skeptics, but maybe he was on to something after all.
Now back to the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. If you haven't been following this story, you've been missing out. There's a longer summary here, but I'll attempt to sum it up: on October 16th, the day after the protesters first hunkered down in the church's shadow, the Canon Chancellor - the Reverend Dr. Giles Fraser - welcomed them. But then the very next day the Cathedral's Dean and Chapter began to express concerns about the protest's impact on the church's daily life. On October 21st St. Paul's closed - for the first time since WWII - due to worries about security and by the 25th the bishop of London was calling for the Occupiers to leave. On the 27th, Fraser - the protesters' champion - resigned, even as a former Archbishop of Canterbury published a scathing editorial in the Daily Telegraph condemning the Cathedral's closure as a failure to promote "gospel values." The Cathedral reopened on the 28th, even as the Dean and Chapter threatened to pursue legal action if the protesters did not leave. The blowback proved so severe that, on the 31st, the Dean, too, resigned. With things seemingly spiraling out of control, current Archbishop Rowan Williams intervened, issuing a statement supporting the spirit of Occupy (here are links to this and more). The situation has stabilized somewhat since the Cathedral's decision not to pursue legal action, though tensions persist, with protesters chafing against poor treatment and critics worrying that the church's ties to the economic elite will preclude any real partnership with the movement.
Amidst all the hullabaloo, archbishops past and present have not been the only ones to pronounce God's favor upon OccupyLSX. Last week Terry Eagleton wrote in the Guardian that the protesters are "true followers of Jesus." Yesterday the Canon walked among the protesters and prayed a blessing over them, a remarkable turn-about from where things stood two weeks ago. Then today Hodgkinson publishes his piece claiming the movement is "fundamentally Christian."
Move over, Gilded Age - the present moment is bursting with intrigue when it comes to the relationship between religion and class.