Are occultists winning the middle class?

Tonight I helped to co-teach a class at The People’s Forum in NYC on liberation theology and today’s movement to end poverty. I thought it was a very successful course, the second of three weekly sessions. Unlike the historically oriented ways liberation theology is taught at, say, Union Theological Seminary (my alma mater), we decided early on to teach liberation theology as an ongoing, living practice for us today — as something emerging through the struggles of the poor and dispossessed that are breaking out all over our country, including through the Poor People’s Campaign.

One question that came up toward the end of the class was how we could engage those on the other side, as in the reactionary conservative or Christian extremist side, with the radical, liberative interpretations of theology that we were going over in the class. I think the question was asked with some (understandable) skepticism that those folks would ever entertain the theological propositions that we had just presented.

One of our co-teachers responded in a really insightful way that, while we might never win over those people who are already on the far side of the spectrum toward conservative Christian nationalism, there is a great swath of the American public that is actually less clear and certain in their positions on these issues. These people have almost never been approached by so-called progressives with a moral narrative rooted in the Bible and theology that might actually appeal to them — these things having been ceded long ago to the Christian right.

In other words, the great middle strata of the American public is who we really need to reach, and they are potentially persuadable by our theology because their position in American society is currently very fluid. In a different, but related sphere, I think you can see a similar phenomenon at work in electoral districts that voted for Obama and then voted for Trump in the 2016 election (and might now be switching back to Democratic during and after the midterms). These people are not necessarily partisan or ideological. They’re just hurting, and looking for a place to turn. Reaching people like them is one of our tasks both in theological argument and movement-building.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the middle class in our movement-building lately because it was a major theme in a recent publication by the Kairos Center — “A New and Unsettling Force”: The Leadership of the Poor by Willie Baptist and Dan Jones. I was part of a roundtable discussion about the essay and my responses are included at the bottom of the post. In this piece, Willie and Dan describe the role of the middle class in our movement-building in a really clear and insightful way:

Politicians in both major parties fight over who’s really representing the interests of the “middle class” and whose policies are going to “rebuild” it. Both parties, along with other religious and ideological leaders, work on behalf of the rich and powerful to keep the critical mass of the middle from going over to the poor and dispossessed.

On the other side, the poor — through their unity and organization — can win large sections of the middle. This is because most of them are as dispossessed as the poor. They too have no ownership or control over the economy or any security over their livelihood and life. Many in families with middle incomes have once in their lifetime experienced poverty and likely will again in the future. Many are just one paycheck or healthcare crisis away from the plight of the poor and homeless. They’re feeling increasingly insecure about their children’s future.

This is the major strategic significance we see in Rev. Dr. King’s idea for the Poor People’s Campaign. He saw that the poor could lead the rest of the nation through a much-needed “revolution of values,” but only if they could unite across color lines and all other lines of division . . .

Their class position means that the poor have the least stake, objectively, in the status quo. And their current poverty anticipates the impoverishment that is engulfing and threatening increasing sections of the masses of people, especially those in the so-called middle class who are dispossessed of any ownership and control of the economy. Because of this, the poor can and must lead the middle class and others into a clearer understanding of the causes of and solutions to their problems.

I summarize the points made here in my response to the essay by saying that “the middle class is really up for grabs. It can move in a direction where they continue to reinforce the Powers That Be or move towards the struggles of the poor. Where they go depends on whether the poor as a leading force is able to help that mass of people see their future and interests.”

There are 140 million poor or low-income people living in this country. That is nearly half of the population already living in poverty, or living one layoff, one healthcare crisis, or one hurricane away from poverty. We must win those people who previously thought of themselves as destined for the middle class, but who are now living paycheck-to-paycheck, away from acting as enforcers of the 1% and toward the struggles of the poor and dispossessed. Similarly (and I think it’s likely that there is a lot of overlap between these two groups, since both of them are huge), we must win that middle strata that is not fully invested in extremist Christian nationalism away from that reactionary religious expression toward more liberative interpretations of religion and theology.

How does all of this relate to occulture and the American mental terrain? As I said in the introductory post to this newsletter, there has been a contemporary revival of interest in occult and alternative religious ideasespecially among young people. I believe there is ample evidence to suggest that this revival is taking place especially among those in the middle class or formerly in the middle class. One Christian podcast gathered some statistics about this last year (in pursuit of converting this same middle strata of the population to traditional Christianity, rather than to a movement to end poverty). They summarized:

One in five people claim no religious affiliation (the highest since Gallup started polling over 80 years ago).  However, among those polled the same number of people who claim no religious affiliation believe in communication with the dead, witches and reincarnation. More than one in four believe in astrology and clairvoyance.  Approximately one in three believe in ghosts, haunted houses and telepathy. Some of this might smack of counter cultural preening, over-the-top shock movements. Yet this isn’t happening primarily amongst devotees of Tim Burton, Cure cover bands, or backwoods snake oil salesmen. The largest jump has occurred in the belief in witches, an increase of 12% primarily amongst college educated middle class caucasians.  

Though their purposes in writing their piece are very different from mine, I think their conclusions are accurate. They suggest that witchcraft and the occult are a “significant spiritual trend” and that while we have been told that “this is the least religious generation in American history . . . the rise in Occultism might suggest that we are turning a corner from crass materialism and reductionism to a belief that something is out there.”

The major difference in analysis I have to these folks is that they lack any sort of economic analysis. They think the rise in occult religious beliefs is simply because the godless, disenchanted modern world is spiritually deadening and unfulfilling for young people, which leads them to seek alternatives in the realm of occultism. This might be true. But I believe that it is the intense rise in economic inequality and economic anxieties, and the lack of any serious response to these realities on the part of the organized churches, that has caused so many middle class people to seek alternative religious beliefs.

These are the people who, due to their privilege (frequently white privilege) and education, would have expected to easily enter the middle class and upward mobility after graduating from college. For many people (and disproportionally for people of color, though by the numbers there are many more poor white people in this country than poor people of color) this is no longer the reality — insecure employment, debt, a lack of healthcare, and living one emergency away from poverty are more realistic. Many people I know who went to my little radical liberal arts college in Manhattan are facing this reality now.

These are also the same kids who are most likely to be drawn to occult and alternative religious beliefs as an expression of their search for meaning in a world that seems increasingly hostile and meaningless. Occultism and alternative religions have always particularly appealed to the spiritual anomie of the American middle class. The occult industry has always found ways to capitalize on this fact. As this extensive critique of the contemporary neopagan scene points out (and there are many things to talk about regarding this piece, but I’m just focusing on one of them right now), “Neopagans are largely consumers to a capitalist industry they are unaware they’re a part of.” In fact, the “metaphysical/new age industry is worth well over 10 billion a year right now,” including publishing giants like Llewellyn, whose books are available in any suburban Barnes & Noble.

I’m venturing a guess here that the spiritually adventurous millennials who are suffering from massive debt, a lack of healthcare, and underemployment today might have been some of the same middle class kids who maybe enjoyed going to Barnes & Noble more than anything else in high school, and might have already read a few popular occult books or books on Wicca during their Buffy the Vampire Slayer phases (if you can’t tell, I’m talking about myself here).

This is just one segment of the middle strata of the American population, but it a growing one and one I can’t deny makes up a disproportionate number of young people who I went college with and hung out with in Brooklyn bars during my twenties. If these people are being targeted for conversion by that Christian dudebro podcast I cited earlier, and by a multi-billion dollar mainstream publishing industry, we might also want to pay some attention to them as a potential population that could either move toward their traditional role of being enforcers for the economic and political status quo, or for being potential members of a broad movement of the poor and dispossessed. After all, many of them are already members of what we mean when those of us in the Poor People’s Campaign talk about the poor — people who are living in poverty or one emergency away from living in poverty.

And that brings me full circle to how this relates to the theme of this newsletter — providing a vision of occultism that actually moves people toward the struggles of the dispossessed rather than toward the Powers That Be. If occult and alternative religious beliefs are a major part of the mental terrain of a large portion of the middle strata of the American public, especially its younger members (and I think the evidence points to this being the case), then this is another ideological battleground that those of us who are dedicated to winning these people over to the movement must enter, just like we must in engage in the battle for the Bible. Using the same mainline Protestant Christian religious language we usually use will probably not work for these people. We must broaden our theological and spiritual arsenals. Rather than a battle for the Bible, this is a magical battle.