It has proved hard for reporters to get a handle on whatever is happening in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street and in other parks across the United States this week. Is it a movement? No, say many–despite the fact that the impulse that began in lower Manhattan has quickly spread across the country through social media networks. Without concrete demands and without an official leader or spokesperson, Occupy Wall Street is a challenging thing to cover. It doesn’t want to fit into the usual social and political categories, much less the categories that news media usually assign to social and political phenomena.
Given this confusion over terms–and the simultaneous public and journalistic question of whether Occupy Wall Street is the beginning of “something bigger” or merely a piece of minor political theater–it is perhaps not fair to complain about religion coverage. But complain I will, given what I see as two larger issues that Occupy Wall Street has exposed in broader reporting on American religious politics, particularly progressive politics.
While there has not been much media interest in probing the religious dimensions of Occupy Wall Street, the few article that have ventured in this direction generally rely on one of two well-worn storylines. The first looks for the involvement of mainstream liberal religious groups and finds it lacking. Raising the “where are the clergy?” question should not stand in for asking “where are the religious people?” but it does. Harking back to coverage of the civil rights era and other religiously inspired political movements, this angle suggests that without the involvement of institutional religious organizations, there is no “real” religion at the occupation.