Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been slowly creeping into the news cycle since it began in New York City in mid-September. As the protests begin to gather steam and spread to other cities, the OWS movement appears to be striking a chord with Americans who are nervous about the struggling economy, and concerned about increasing social inequality. If economic opportunities remain few and government is unable to address the ongoing economic malaise, Americans may be increasingly willing to speak out – or even take to the streets – over the issues of corporate ethics and accountability. And blame may fall on both Wall Street and Washington.
More and more journalists and advocates are trying to parse out what role, if any, religion is playing in the OWS protests:
- Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization, has been active in its coverage of the OWS protests. The communications director traveled to New York to report about who, exactly, the protesters are. When asked about religion, one concluded: “God is here. It might not be as direct as you are looking for but God’s here.”
- Just in time for Yom Kippur, which begins tonight, Sarah Posner interviewed Daniel Sieradski, who is coordinating a Kol Nidre service for New York City’s OWS protesters. Sieradski explains how the Jewish Day of Atonement relates to the protests: “Today, as we think about how commitments must be contemplated in the context of right and wrong, of earth and heaven, we know that…it’s time for the bankers to abandon their claims on everyday people’s futures….But those of us protesting economic injustice should look to ourselves as transgressors as well. As participants in capitalism…are responsible for the present state of the economy and its inequities and iniquities.”
- At the CNN Belief Blog, Marisa Egerstrom argues that there are Christian themes in the OWS movement. She writes: “The US Day of Rage website, one organizational hub for the protests, says we’re “fighting a war for the soul of our nation.” Such language is unmistakably religious and reveals how deeply this popular discontent reaches.”
- Bold Faith Type, the blog for the advocacy group Faith in Public Life, posted a video of an OWS participant who explained that he and other OWS protesters “would like to see a little more economic justice or social justice–Jesus stuff–as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.”
To contextualize all of this, here are just a few of PRRI’s findings on Americans’ perceptions of capitalism, Christian values, and financial misconduct in Washington:
- Among Christians in the U.S., 46% believe capitalism and the free market are not consistent with Christian values while 38% believe the two are compatible, according to the April PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey.
- A majority of Americans believe that the economic crisis was caused by “greedy” corporations (38%) or government that neglected its duty and allowed unethical business practices (31%), according to PRRI’s annual American Values Survey.
- More than 6-in-10 (62%) Americans believe that one of the biggest problems in this country is that more and more wealth is held by just a few people.
- More than 6-in-10 Americans say that elected officials should be held to higher moral standards than people in other professions, according to the June PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey.
These numbers plainly show discomfort with the current economic climate, and provide a backdrop for the anger and disappointment that so many OWS protesters are expressing. Keep an eye out for more analysis at the PRRI blog in the coming days.