Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pagans, Politics, and Parties

Another election is coming up with all of the passion and intensity that comes with it. This election season has shaped up to be a particularly vicious one with partisans on both sides of the debate accusing the other of wanting to drive America off a cliff and into oblivion. Now by no stretch of the imagination am I anything approaching an objective observer in the process. Like any politically active Heathen I have a dog in this fight. That said there are things that are more important than my dog coming out on top.

This election season, at least in my limited life experience, has evolved into one of the ugliest in recent memory. Unfortunately this is hardly an anomaly, every election since 2002 seemed to be going for the gold in gutter politics and each successive election managed to find new and interesting ways to top the last. This has had a rather nasty effect on our community by forcing all political discussion through a highly partisan filter. The ugliness of political discourse coupled with the hyperpartisan atmosphere of American politics has effectively silenced the most important political conversation we should be having:

What do we, as a community, need to achieve through the political process for the sake of our communities and community?

Listening to the punditry politics has become a life-or-death fight to the finish. The partisans on both sides have consistently painted the other as a dire threat to the American way of life and that their way is THE way to fixing what ails our country. To cross the line, or work with, the other side has become anathema and finding a reasonable compromise is now ideological treason. Even with all the lip service given to “compromise” in reality the only compromise that happens is when one side forces the other to blink. The validity of an idea, based on its merits alone, has been replaced with an obsession with ideological correctness.

This thinking should have no place in our community. We are a polytheistic, pantheistic, animistic group of people. We have room for deity in many forms, not one limited by an old, heavily edited book. Dualistic, black and white theology and cosmology are ideas with very little following in our community. This thinking, a symptom of dualistic spirituality, is one of many things that should be considered incredibly stupid by Pagans and Heathens the world over.

Unlike Christianity we do not slot the world into two broad categories of good and evil. We have many Gods with many different personalities, aspects, and motivations. Instead of leading to internal tension and conflict this multiplicity of Gods has been a uniting force. Understanding these complex cosmologies is part and parcel of modern Paganism and Heathenry as is reconciling the old practices with modern day. If we are able to work with considerable differences in spirituality without a serious problem then politics shouldn't be any less taboo. With our spiritualities we are willing to be mature and respect well-founded opinions. We shouldn't be letting mainstream toxicity do the same with political discussion. It makes no sense on one hand to be willing to take a person for who they are regardless of faith on one hand and on another to make blanket decisions and assumptions about their politics. By making partisan assumptions about fellow Pagans and politics in general we divide and weaken ourselves.

Now I'm not expecting everyone to change their voter registration to the same party and vote in bloc. The odds of that happening are only slightly better than me flapping my arms and getting to the moon. What we can do is move beyond party labels, consider ideas on their merits instead of the sticker next to them, and remember that the Pagan activist on the other side of the party line stands beside you where it matters most. Reasonable people can agree to disagree on matters of opinion. Buying in to the life and death struggle narrative in the media only sets our most passionate, capable people against each other at the expense of our community. Accepting this big lie of black and white politics ensures our community, which neither party has the time of day for, will remain fighting itself instead of standing strong. Our spiritual world is open to many possibilities, why should our political world be cluttered with dualistic baggage?

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Sharia Smokescreen

In the United States today there is a growing fear of Sharia Law encroaching on our liberties. The loudest voice in the media on this subject in the US is Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House during the mid 90s. While the media reports his claims they have yet to look into the ties has with radical religious groups in America. By rallying the fear of foreign takeover he is effectively running a smokescreen for his fundamentalist Christian allies. While advocating for family values and against Sharia encroachment Gingrich works to advance an agenda every bit as radical as jihadi terrorism.

The start of these claims came with the increasing publicity surrounding the Park51 Muslim community center controversy. On July 28th Gingrich posted his condemnation of the project on his website. Part of his denunciation included his assertion that the project was part of a global effort to impose Islamic fundamentalism on the United States and the world. In his remarks he specifically noted, “Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand”. He continued to speak out against the Park51 center throughout the month of August. On September 12th Gingrich released a direct to DVD documentary called America at Risk, a film about the threat Islamic fundamentalism poses to the United States. He then followed up with his call at the Values Voter Summit on September 18th for a federal law banning Sharia law in the United States. Newt Gingrich has continued to put himself out in front on the issue of anti-Sharia efforts in the US with the media reporting his efforts at face value.

The irony is that his crusade against religious fundamentalism in America starts and stops when the threat is any form of religious extremism that isn't Christian. An excellent example of this selective approach can be found in the venue where he called for a ban on Sharia law. The sponsors for the Values Voters Summit include the Family Research Council's political action group, the American Family Association's action group, American Values, Liberty University, and the Heritage Foundation. The FRC and AFA are both groups that are fairly prominent in the Religious Right as major organizations that have long, established standing and reputations. Liberty University is an institution billed as the premier Christian university in America and was founded by the late Jerry Falwell to educate their students in a proper, Christian fashion. American Values was founded by Gary Bauer, President of the Family Research Council until 1999. With the exception of the Heritage Foundation, who attended only to provide issue education, each of these organizations stand for the flagship positions of the Religious Right. Each is highly active in organizing evangelical and fundamentalist Christian activists in and out of government. On the front page is a list of breakout sessions including highlights such as, “American Apocalypse--When Christians Do Nothing, Secularists Do Everything--The Case for Christian Activism”, “How to Reach the Online Generation (Without Losing Your Soul)”, and, “Establishing a Culture Impact Team In Your Church”. Among other things all of these groups are very vocal in their claim that separation of church and state is unconstitutional.

Gingrich is no stranger to Christian conservatives. He worked with social conservative groups extensively under the slogan of Family Values while he was Speaker of the House during the mid 90s. Since then he has remained an active professional speaker and author. One of the more prominent gigs was the 2007 commencement address at Liberty University. During his speech he praised the founder Jerry Falwell and called for the graduates to challenge, “radical secularism.” The themes he covered in his speech were the same that he argued for in his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America. In his book Gingrich argues that advancing secularism is working to drive God out of public life in America. At the Rediscovery of God in America Conference in June of 2009 Gingrich asserted that America is "surrounded by paganism". His next big splash in September of 2009 was the documentary Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage. Here Gingrich again claims that Christianity and God are under attack in America.

These claims, along with his recent call for a Federal gay marriage amendment, are all consistent with the rhetoric and positions of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. They have consistently campaigned for gay marriage bans in all fifty states and have proven successful in twenty-five. Evangelical efforts are not confined to just banning gay marriage. Candidates with their support in school boards across the country have fought for teaching a more Christian curriculum. Their most recent, and largest, success was in Texas. In May of this year the conservative faction on the school board succeeded in pushing for sweeping changes to the history curriculum. Some of these changes included the downplaying of the importance of Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution, the whitewashing of the work of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for religious liberty, and push the “fact” that America was founded as a Christian nation. In August the school board released a decree banning all textbooks that had pro-Muslim or anti-Christian content. Supporters of this measure claim it was necessary to protect Christianity.

Gingrich's claims of a Sharia takeover of the United States are rather ironic considering his own affiliations. If Gingrich and his allies in the Religious Right had their way Christianity, as it is according to them, would be the only religion allowed in the United States. They are not shy about their intentions; at their sites, conferences, and on the campaign trail they openly announce it to the world. Gingrich's campaign against Sharia law serves their purposes ideally. By rallying the public against Sharia law Gingrich provides a perfect cover while Christian fundamentalists quietly make their vision for America reality.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Christine O'Donnell and Witchcraft

Christine O'Donnell's claim of dabbling in witchcraft in her college days has stirred up quite a bit of discussion in the Pagan community and the media at large. Most of the discussion in the mainstream media has been on if this statement hurts her credibility as a candidate, particularly if a candidate who admits to practicing witchcraft is fit for office. As has been mentioned earlier in Cara Schulz's recent article on Pagans and the Tea Party there have been quite a few rocks thrown over the perceived dabbling. What has been missed in the discussion is that her claim is not an isolated incident. There have been several other well-known activists in the Christian Fundamentalist movement who have made similar claims to heighten their visibility and take advantage of the central role the conversion experience plays in Evangelical Christianity. It plays a strong part in reinforcing the narrative of the saving power of Christ and by the same token is an effective way of making a name for yourself in the movement. Far from being a throw-away line to appear “hip” the story O'Donnell told MTV makes perfect sense considering its prior use by other Fundamentalist activists.

On its face, an Evangelical activist claiming that they had a previous history with alleged Satanic practices seems strange. Ironically making such a claim, taking into account the central nature of one's conversion experience to Evangelical Christianity, can bolster an ambitious activist's reputation. In Fundamentalist circles how one comes to Jesus is an important element in establishing one's faith. This is clearly outlined in this article from

So first, you must have your eyes opened. A spiritual blindness afflicts those who have not yet turned their lives over to Jesus Christ, because "Satan . . . has blinded the minds of those who don't believe . . ." (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT).

Second, you must turn from darkness to light. Satan loves darkness. Hell is referred to as outer darkness. If you want to really believe, then you need to come out of the darkness and into the light (Acts 26:18).

Third, you must turn from the power of Satan to God. A lot of people today want to live in two worlds. If you want to be a Christian on Sunday, but want to live the other way the rest of the week, it won't work (2 Corinthians 6:14). You must turn from Satan to God.

The emphasis on willingly turning from Satan to God is very central in how conversion works. If someone claims they were in the power of Satan and actively doing the Devil's work then being converted by salvation is proof of God's supremacy. In another article on the subject of conversion the first of three tests to prove the sincerity of one's conversion is the Lordship Test:

Is Jesus Christ the Lord of your life? Jesus said, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Luke 6:46)” and goes on to say, “As a child of God, His commandments are the stars by which you navigate your life. Is keeping His commandments the burning desire of your heart? It is if you’ve met the Christ of Calvary.

Being saved from the enemy would be quite impressive proof of one's devotion to Christianity. In their mind anyone who does is effectively crossing a spiritual battlefield to join their brothers and sisters in Christ. The notoriety of such claims have been part of the reputation of established Evangelical leaders. These stories use witchcraft and Satanism interchangeably, seeing no difference between the two. O'Donnell, who converted in college in the late 80s and has a long history of evangelical activism, would have understood this and likely known of some more prominent ex-witches.

Two of the more infamous ex-witches are Mike Warnke and Dr. Rebecca Brown who were most prominent during the infamous Satanic Ritual Abuse craze of the 1980s. Both made grandiose claims of having participated and, in Warnke's case, became a high priest in allegedly massive Satanic cults consisting of thousands of people. While their claims were later debunked and the two discredited at the height of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare they were considered to be experts in Satanism. Both Warnke and Brown made appearances in the national media as respected experts in the subject fanning the flames of the Satanic panic. Warnke in particular was no stranger to evangelical activism; during his college years he was an active member of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Since their discrediting Warnke and Brown founded and currently run active ministries. Both relied heavily on their inflated and fraudulent claims of participation in non-existent cults to establish their reputations using similar stories of midnight meetings and blood-caked altars. The deliberate deception both participated in became part of the wider narrative of Satanic cults, a boogeyman common in evangelical and fundamentalist sermons. O'Donnell, in college and becoming active in evangelical Christianity, would have very likely been aware of these two and their history.

This narrative is pretty potent, having spread beyond the United States and in use in other parts of the world. Some of the people who do are influential members of the movement. One great example is Pastor Neville Goldman who has claimed he was once a practicing member of a Satanic cult. Pastor Goldman is a prominent figure. He is on the Executive Committee of SASOL, a South African sports association aimed at Christian youth and evangelism. Goldman and his organization would spearhead the the missionary efforts for the recent World Cup in South Africa. Unlike Warnke and Brown Goldman is not on the discredited fringe; in August he was part of a joint clerical call to end a labor strike in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Goldman's is not the only instance of such claims and is a prominent example of the pervasive nature of this myth in fundamentalist evangelical circles as well as the influence they hold.

Far from being a statement trotted out to pass off as “cool”, Christine O'Donnell's claim of dabbling in witchcraft was intentional. At the time when she made this claim O'Donnell was the head of an organization known as the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, a group that advocated abstinence before marriage and celibacy. She was also a lobbyist to Congress on other moral issues. As the head of an active evangelical political organization getting any kind of publicity would have been a huge win. She likely believed that claiming she had been active in the occult would make her more relate-able considering she was on MTV. Either way the claim would have helped her improve her profile as an evangelical activist which to a degree has been true. Since then her career has mostly gone up. In 2003 she went to work for a conservative educational group in Delaware. From there she stepped into the political area, winning the Delaware GOP Senate Primary in 2008 after a previous failed attempt in 2006. Now she is the GOP nominee for Senator and has drawn considerable attention as part of the current crop of Tea Party candidates. These past two victories have been thanks to considerable evangelical support in the primaries.

Christine O'Donnell's exploitation of a well-known evangelical trope certainly hasn't hurt her in her climb into the national spotlight. The media coverage of the MTV clip has given her considerable free publicity. The coverage, while giving national attention to Pagans, has been working under the assumption that dabbling itself is controversial. The media coverage, along with the negative reactions in the Pagan community, reinforce this fringe cult-like status for Wicca and Paganism. Instead of reinforcing old stereotypes the real issue is why a candidate for the United States Senate is pushing discredited fundamentalist propaganda.

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