Occupy movement is largely secular

By Mitchell Landsberg

Los Angeles Times

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 1 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

"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."

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