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 christianity.com:
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.
Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/10/07/christine-odonnell-and-witchcraft/