TEXAS FAITH: What does the Occupy movement say about American society?

SMU Perkins School of Theology Dean Bill Lawrence comments on what the Occupy movement might say about American society.

By William McKenzie/ Editorial Columnist 

First, we had the Tea Party movement. Now, we have the Occupy Wall Street movement. Both are citizen-driven efforts to get our leaders' attention.

At this point, though, it is hard to grasp what precisely drives the Occupy movement.  New York Times columnist David Brooks described it this way:

"If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite. Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way."

Here, then, is the question for this week:

How do you interpret the Occupy movement? What do you think it says about American society?...

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

Populist uprisings are evidence that segments of the society feel themselves to be struck voiceless or to go unheard by the forces they perceive to be in control.

It is one thing to participate in a political process, to engage in debate, to cast votes, and to lose. When one is heard but does not manage to persuade the majority, one does not feel powerless even though one does not prevail. But when people decide that they have been deprived of opportunities to speak or to be heard, other channels are sought. Movements like the "Tea Party" and the "Occupy" gatherings seize space for such populism to exist.

Some of the most important populist uprisings in American society involved similar actions to seize space. Consider the sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. That effort claimed space and insisted on being served, with the eventual result that a law regarding public accommodations was enacted.

Or consider the creation of "Hoovervilles" during the Great Depression. Such residential communities--or homeless encampments or populist squatting--demonstrated that economic conditions were desperately bad for millions of people and led to a political transformation within America.

The Occupy movement clearly shows that a large and widespread segment of the American people feels disenfranchised from access to the American dream. It shows that an impressive portion of the electorate feels deprived of access to the political and economic mechanisms that can create social change. It shows that trust in the social systems of the nation has almost completely eroded for them. It means that an opportunity exists for benevolent, malevolent, or manipulative leaders to seize the space that now exists in the inchoate imagination of the populists.

This could be a pivotal moment for America's social and political systems to show whether they still can function for all people.