Liberal Protestants and the Occupy movement’s critique of inequality: a cultural gap?

By Paul Lichterman

Courtesy of the Occupy movement, journalists and social critics in the past year have been talking a great deal more than before about a stark divide between the super-rich and the ninety-nine percent. For religious or religiously literate people it is hardly a new topic. We might suppose that in the U.S., today’s mainline Protestant inheritors of the late-nineteenth century social gospel have powerful theological resources for thinking about the growing economic divide and its effects on the social fabric. Mainline Protestant denominations are the ones more likely than their theologically conservative Protestant counterparts to affirm efforts to change the social world rather than see social change as a distraction from personal piety focused on the next world. Theologically liberal Protestantism, strong in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Congregationalist traditions in the U.S., do not lack for text on economic justice or the primacy of people, and God, over profits.[i] Yet it is not clear that the politically progressive voices of mainline Protestants are prominent in America’s vexed, current conversation about money and power. This is not the place to tally up how many mainline congregations may have heard a sermon about economic inequality in the past year, nor determine the proportion of mainline Methodists or liberal Presbyterians that agree with progressive-leaning positions voiced by their denominational leaders.[ii] Rather, I want to use the question of mainliners’ relation to this public conversation to propose that some special challenges—cultural gaps—face the efforts theologically liberal Protestants do make to bring a distinctive voice to the debate about wealth and inequality. All “challenges” are relative and I think of these in relation to the conditions for political claims-making that theologically conservative, evangelical Protestants have experienced in the U.S. the past forty years.

Mainline denominational statements have the language ready to frame the large and still-growing gap between haves and have-nots as a profound moral problem for people of God. That sounds like a promising start. Yet, social researchers who put a lot of emphasis on the power of framing recognize that the publics who receive a message may agree with it yet not care that much, or want to do anything about it.[iii] I would elaborate: Liberal Protestants who hear a critique of economic inequality may not hear it as religious people. They may care mainly as citizens, political progressives, or employees. For mainliners, Protestant identity is one identity—if an important or special one at least sometimes—among others, and it need not be the one that hears the message.

Contrast evangelical Protestants. As Christian Smith has argued[iv], evangelicals make their Christian identity the center of their existence. Working to keep that identity foremost whenever possible is part of what it is to be an evangelical. Put simply, evangelicals and mainline Protestants don’t inhabit their religious identities in the same ways. Proponents of a mainline voice in progressive discussions of economic inequality need to give mainline Protestant publics an additional reason for speaking and listening as religious people, a reason that evangelical Protestants don’t need.

One of those reasons could be that many Americans associate a Christian identity in political life with loud religious conservatives. Soon after the drastic welfare policy reforms of 1996 became law, I spent several years observing and participating alongside an educational outreach group made up of church representatives who wanted to publicize to their congregations the dangers of welfare reform. They hosted long discussions of neoliberalism. Some talked about how political tourism in poor villages in Central America woke them up to soulless American materialism.  I asked at a meeting one night why they did not talk more often in religious terms about what was wrong with welfare reform. One replied (in this group of church-going activists) “that’s what fundamentalists do.” Over two years’ time, the group—mainline Protestants and two liberal Catholics—mentioned several times but never made good on a plan to devote one night’s meeting to discuss the religious grounding of their work. The churchgoers seemingly most committed to criticizing the politics of wealth and poverty were not so comfortable, or interested, in discussing distinctly religious reasons for caring.[v]

If evangelical publicists and a few television fundamentalists have taken over the meaning of speaking as a Christian in the U.S. today, then progressive, mainline Protestant activists will need to work at widening the public’s imagination for “Christian” political activism. Memories of mainline Protestant participation in the civil rights movement a half-century ago will not be enough. Nor will it suffice to refer the curious to position papers or websites. Founded on the sense that Christian faith ought to be the driving force in life, conservative Christian political advocacy against abortion rights or gay marriage wants to speak to Americans in general. It does not engage so much as try to de-legitimate progressive readings of social issues as un-American as well as un-Godly. The first task for progressive Protestant activism, in contrast, seems to be to speak back to other Christians before speaking to Americans in general. The discursive force-field in which progressive Protestant activism finds itself[vi] may force it to pursue “countermovement” strategies, apart from trying to leaven a broader, national discussion on the economic divide with subtle religious reasoning.

Finally, by “subtle” I venture to suggest that the communicative styles of mainline and evangelical Protestant claims-making are different—quite apart from the claims themselves—in ways that matter for political activism. Evangelical Protestantism continues to communicate a message of certainty and clear boundaries. Whether or not this means that religiously conservative leaders are transferring a heartfelt sensibility to the political world, or exploiting it cynically to make “ordinary Americans” fear and disdain other Americans,[vii] the language the public hears is striking: There is one (right) way and we know the one. Social activists, in turn, learn to “frame” claims simply, telegraphically, and mark off the claims-making “we” clearly from one or more kinds of “they.” We certainly need not discount decades of sophisticated evangelical theology to observe that there may be an affinity between popular evangelical language and social movement leaders’ perception that they need “framey” communication in a competitive market of political ideas.

In contrast, mainline or liberal Protestantism prefers to speak more “quietly” and subtly about religious authority.[viii] It prefers more permeable boundaries between “we” and “they.”[ix] An anecdote might help: Not long ago the progressive United Church of Christ congregation on my bike route to work hung a banner over the church entryway, announcing “God is still speaking.” The passing bicyclist might recognize the critical allusion to conservatives’ biblical literalism, but it is not exactly a simple, world-ordering statement about the problem, the protagonist and the antagonists. It sounds like a counter-move in a field of Christian advocacy still heavily weighted in favor of theological conservatives; it is clever if you can decode it. Put colloquially, and at this point only anecdotally, conservative Protestantism may offer more “framing-friendly” language for social advocacy than do mainline Protestantism’s distinctive forms of inclusivity or universalism. Some commentators on the Democratic victories in the recent U.S. elections are guessing that conservative Protestant certainties about moral boundaries have become less compelling as political guides for more Americans at large. Whether or not liberal Protestant leaders are able to offer an enticing, distinctively Christian alternative route to social movement arenas may depend partly on navigating cultural gaps.


[i] See, for instance, Brian Steensland, 2002, “The Hydra and the Swords: Social Welfare and Mainline Advocacy, 1964-2000,” Pp. 213-36 in The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism, edited by Robert Wuthnow and John H. Evans, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press).

[ii] For recent examples of mainline views on the Occupy movement, see (accessed 13 November 2012) or (accessed 13 November 2012).s

[iii] On this point, sociologists often read David Snow and Robert Benford, 1998, “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization,” International Social Movement Research 1: 197-217.

[iv] Christian Smith, 1998, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[v] Paul Lichterman, 2005, Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Divisions (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[vi] For an illuminating case of how political or religious claims become meaningful, communicable, only in a larger, historical field of competing claims, see for instance Geneviève Zubrzycki, 2006, The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[vii]For an argument about why we should study public religion without making strong inferences about private motives, see Paul Lichterman, 2012, “Religion in Public Action: From Actors to Settings,” Sociological Theory 30: 15-37.

[viii] Jody Davie, Women in the Presence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press); Robert Wuthnow and John Evans, eds., 2002, The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[ix] See, for instance, the argument between evangelicals and liberal Christians about a local multicultural festival, in Lichterman (2005).


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

3 responses to “Liberal Protestants and the Occupy movement’s critique of inequality: a cultural gap?

  1. What a great article – thank you Paul. Really thought-provoking stuff for me as a British Quaker. How do we frame what we have to offer to make it clear and immediately appealing, without compromising our valuable non-dogmatism and inclusivity? We need to get better at this – or become increasingly irrelevant.


  2. K. Estep

    The idea of “cultural gaps” is helpful for understanding why mainline Protestants don’t use more explicitly religious rhetoric. I wonder if the same concept can be applied to help us understand why socially progressive evangelicals have remained a small and relatively isolated segment of theologically-conservative Protestantism. I’m thinking of course of groups like Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action. The gap that these groups face is not manifested as hesitance to use religious language—pick up any copy of Sojourners magazine and you’ll see religious motivation and framing coming through quite clearly. Instead, the challenge for them is that they don’t fit comfortably with either liberal mainliners or conservative evangelicals. Being theologically conservative (at least in comparison to most mainline Protestants) but socially and politically progressive (compared to evangelicals) separates them from both groups. Anecdotally, my impression is that the most comfortable partners for them have been Catholics. So, why is there not a stronger religious critique of inequality? One answer, as Paul has convincingly shown, is that the segments of Christianity most interested in pursuing this social agenda attribute the activist impulse more to their civic/political identity than to their religious one. Another potential answer is that those adherents whose Christian identity is the core of their existence, but who also care about economic justice, have had a difficult time gaining momentum. They tend to find themselves culturally isolated within American Christianity.


  3. Pingback: Why I left Protestantism… « A Robin Hood's Musing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s