Dec 082010

I was reading a post today in PoliticusUSA about the legal battle over Proposition 8. The author, a fellow writer of mine there, takes the position that Christian bigotry is behind opposition to same-sex marriage and I have no argument with that; I think it is self-evident. There is no reason beyond religious objections – nor were lawyers for Proposition 8’s supporters able to muster any – when the case went to court. The battle lines are clear. Opposition to same-sex marriage is based on Christian biases (real or imagined) originating in their holy scriptures, the Bible.

There is no cogent reason to object to total equality in the marriage sphere. All other objections that have been raised have been proven myths, as I argued the other day at A Heathen’s Day, where I named Bryan Fischer a nithing for misrepresenting research to make these myths look like truths.

These myths dismissed, we are left with religious bigotry as the cause, and that is what I wish to address here.

It must be understood by those of us who are endeavoring to revive or reconstruct ancient forms of religion that our polytheistic ancestors did not have the most enlightened view of the matter either, with the proviso that their views were informed by cultural prejudices and not religious. To that extent, arguing over whether our polytheistic ancestors were tolerant or intolerant of homosexuality is problematic.

It is rendered meaningless once we understand that we can’t even talk about homosexuality in an ancient context, because the ancients did not have the same attitudes we have today, either of homosexual acts or of gender. I say this, and I believe it is an important point, because there are Pagan groups today that object to LGBT equality. Such objections, I argue, are misplaced.
Homosexuality has not been universally seen as immoral; it has not even always been seen as homosexuality. As often happens, the truth is much more complex than the simple black and white model offered modern Western audiences.

We claim to live in an enlightened age yet we are trapped by our own understanding of gender roles and categories. We are brought up to believe that there are boys and there are girls. Boys have penises and girls have vaginas. This is known as dimorphism (the belief that anatomy defines women and men). According to this view there is nothing in between and it is obvious how the pieces are supposed to go together. And no surprise: we are brought up to see the world in this way. But is this an accurate reflection of how things are? Is gender to be understood as biological or as a social construct?

Archaeologist Joan Breton-Connelly speaks of “presentist” assumptions – arguments based on or colored by “late twentieth -century political sensibilities.”[1] With regard to genders as “fixed” categories Breton-Connelly appeals to Judith Butler’s questioning of “woman” as a fixed category in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) in which she “exposes the ways in which traditional feminist constructs decontextualize individuals from their historical, political, and cultural settings and identities.”[2] The same can be said of homosexuals as a fixed category.

Few people realize that homosexuality is a modern concept. The pathology of the 19th century created the category from the male/female conceptualized as abnormal.[3] Ancient ideas about sex and sexuality are far more ambiguous.[4]

To claim therefore that modern distinctions and prejudices are simply continuances of ancient Pagan feeling on the subject is to misstate the case. As Marilyn Katz puts it, “the nineteenth-century notion of sexual pathology was unknown to antiquity.” As she goes on to say, “[T]here is a radical discontinuity between the ancient and modern discourses on sexuality.”[5]
But what if gender was based on gender roles and not strictly on plumbing?

Take for example my own Norse ancestors. While a boy might be born with male sex organs, that simple fact did not in itself make him a man. Gender categories were not fixed and manhood was something that had to be earned – and maintained – through the activities normally associated with that gender category. This meant that while a boy and his penis could aspire to manhood, so could a woman. By laying aside one set of gender roles and embracing another, a woman could “become” a man. Conversely, a man could “become” a woman.

“This is a world in which ‘masculinity’ always has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman,” writes one scholar.[6] It was “a society in which being born male precisely did not confer automatic superiority, a society in which distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others.” Because women had no theoretical ceiling and men no theoretical floor, gender categories were flexible and movable.[7]

Like the Norse, the Romans and Greeks lacked a modern understanding of “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” Once again, it was not what a Roman “was” but what a Roman “did” that determined things. A Roman male was supposed to be a penetrator, the “active” partner in sexual activity. It was manly to penetrate; it was feminine to be penetrated.

For example, a man would brag about penetrating another man, like Sinfjötl in the First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbani:[8]

On Sága’s Ness full nine wolves we
Had together – I gat them all.

He is reminding Gudmund of how often he has “had” him sexually. One attempt to convert Iceland floundered on such accusations made against the Saxon bishop who had been penetrated by Thorvald, and Icelandic Christian working for him.

The bishop gave birth to nine children,
Thorvald was father to them all.

The Norse understood things in the same terms. “Anal penetration constructed the man who experienced it as whore, bride, mare, bitch, and the like – in whatever guise a female creature.”[9]

The evidence suggests that for the Norseman’s “character was not either male or female, but lay on a spectrum ranging from strong to week, aggressive to passive, powerful to powerless, winner to loser.”[10]

To be called a man was the highest compliment a man could pay a “woman,” as we see in Laxdaela Saga when Snorri of Helgafell says of Gudrun the Fair, “Now you can see what a man Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us.”

To be a man was to be hvatur – bold, active, and vigorous – and this was to be admired, whatever sort of plumbing you had. Likewise, to be blauður – soft and weak – was to be despised, whatever sort of plumbing you had.[11]

We who seek to revive the religions of the past should not bring into the present the attitudes of our ancestors towards gender and especially not something as historically nebulous and indefinable as “homosexuality.” We do not share cultures with our ancestors even if we seek to share their religions. And we certainly cannot base our objections on religious grounds; the Christians can claim their god told them homosexuality is wrong (debatable) but our gods have told us no such thing. There is no real reason not to be open-minded and tolerant about gender and sexuality because there are no real arguments to be made against doing so.

[1] Joan Breton-Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton University Press, 2007), 19-20.
[2] Breton-Connelly (2007), 22. See also Cynthia Eller, Am I a Woman?: A Skeptic’s Guide to Gender (Beacon Press, 2004).
[3] Marilyn Katz, “Ideology and ‘The Status of Women’ in Ancient Greece,” History and Theory 31 (1992), 92. With regard to “homosexual” or “gay/lesbian,” and the effect of using one term over another see Steve Williams, “Gay and Lesbian or Homosexual? What’s in a Word?”
[4] See Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (Continuum, 2009), 84-86 for a discussion of views of “homosexuality”in the Roman world.
[5] Katz (1992), 92.
[6] Carol Clover, “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe,” Speculum 68 (1993), 372.
[7] Clover (1993), 380.
[8] Robert Ferguson, The Vikings: A History (Viking Penguin, 2009), 234.
[9] Clover (1993), 375.
[10] Nancy Marie Brown, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007), 74.
[11] Brown (2007), 74.

Oct 072010

It’s hardly a secret that certain elements in the United States desire to overturn the Constitution and bring America to a theocratic form of government, in the process turning the clock back on the European Enlightenment and re-writing the history of the past thousand years or so.

The process has already begun. The United States dodged a bullet during the Bush administration, when dominionists came closest to controlling the government. It was a near thing and while one would think the election of a left-leaning centrist president would put the brakes on the drift, it has not. The Religious Right is as potent a force as ever.

Though Evangelicals comprise only about 25% of the population, and extremists/fundamentalists only about half that, their influence is all out of proportion with their numbers thanks to their wealth and their positions in government. Eight years of owning an administration did not hurt their cause at all, however much they might complain after the fact.

Today, xenophobia and Islamophobia have become central to the conservative platform. We are told that Sharia Law threatens to overturn our Constitution, but it is not Sharia Law that we are threatened with but Mosaic Law, which to all intents in purposes is identical, save for the name of the god involved, and who will be calling the shots.

For those who are either irreligious or follow spiritual paths other than Christianity, one is as bad as the other, and neither of these essentially Bronze Age law codes has any place in a modern liberal democracy which enshrines ideas of diversity, pluralism, and individual human rights. It must be remembered that the Old Testament enshrines none of these things. The Mosaic Law is not about rights but about obligations and restrictions; it is not inclusive but exclusive.

Where does this drift leave those belonging to alternative religions, minority groups like modern Paganism, which itself is a diverse collection of spiritual paths? Clearly, a theocracy – Christian or Islamic – is not to be desired. Pagan religion was suppressed for many centuries. As late as the 18th century, some American colonies had law codes as repressive as the fifth century Theodosian Code. A prison term awaited anyone who denied the Trinity or the Scriptures.

The American Revolution and the Constitution that was its aftermath, that was the highest development of the European Enlightenment, changed all that. State sponsored religion, that scourge of the Old World, was banished from these shores by liberalism and its victory over the status quo.

So modern conservative Christians want to turn the clock back, and to a period that left Paganism – or any other religion, even other monotheisms – outlawed. Do not forget that in the early days of the colonies both Catholicism and Judaism were outlawed. Do not forget that some of these prejudices remained so ingrained that the United States did not get its first Catholic president until John F. Kennedy in 1961. He remains our only Catholic president.

The religious landscape of America has changed greatly since the 18th century, when most Americans were Protestants of one denomination or another. We have more Catholics (of many varieties) and more Jews and we have Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and others, including Pagans. That this religious diversity did not emerge until state-sponsored religion was banished is no accident and no mystery.

Historian A.H. Armstrong relates for us the legacy of Christian intolerance:

The choice of the way of intolerance by the authorities of Church and empire in the late fourth century has had some very serious and lasting consequences. The last vestiges of its practical effects, in the form of the imposition of at least petty and vexatious disabilities on forms of religion not approved by the local ecclesiastical establishment, lasted in some European countries well into my lifetime. And theoretical approval of this sort of intolerance has often long outlasted the power to apply it in practice. After all, as late as 1945 many approved Roman Catholic theologians in England, and the Roman authorities, objected to a statement on religious freedom very close to Vatican II’s declaration on that subject.

If this is not damning enough, Armstrong goes on to say,

In general, I do not think that any Christian body has ever abandoned the power to persecute and repress while it actually had it. The acceptance of religious tolerance and freedom as good in themselves has normally been the belated, though sometimes sincere and whole-hearted, recognition and acceptance of a fait accompli. This long persistence of Theodosian intolerance in practice and its still longer persistence in theory has certainly been a cause, though not the only cause, of that unique phenomenon of our time, the decline not only of Christianity but all forms of religious belief and the growth of a totally irreligious and unspiritual materialism.

Conservative Christianity has driven people away from traditional religion but it has not forgotten them, and has in the process created a whole new group of non-believers known as atheists who find religion reprehensible. By religion, of course, they mean religion in the Christian sense. But alternative religions – unfairly – share the fallout. Religion in the modern sense has become the problem. In the ancient world, religion was the solution, transcending cultural and ethnic barriers and bringing people of diverse beliefs together. It can be that way again. There is no reason religion has to remain defined solely by one restrictive group of believers.

But only if theocracy is kept at bay. The threat is real. More than a few Republican candidates belief that the Ten Commandments should be legislated into law. They speak openly of bringing prayer back into school, and of making social work the sole domain of Christian groups, which would make all needy Americans victims of unwanted proselytizing, of re-writing school textbooks to bring them in line with conservative ideology, of teaching Christian creationism in our public schools. In ways large and small, all over America, the First Amendment of the Constitution is under attack.

It is essential, I think, for Pagans of all religious minorities in this country, to remember their history, and if they do not know it, to learn it. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain by a rightward turn in matters of religion. We can argue about conservative and liberal politics and until conservative politics became so closely tied up with conservative Christianity, these did not matter so much where the First Amendment is concerned. But until the Republican Party divorces the Religious Right, religious minorities must remain on their guard.

Oct 032010

Over at the Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters writes about the recent violence and bullying directed towards young people in the GLBT community, and the culture of suicide and self-hate tolerated and perpetuated by many mainstream faiths often in subtle, unnoticed or unacknowledged ways.

In the end, it comes down to theology. Not, as Sanders points out, the easily defeated cartoon hatred of Westboro, but the more subtle belief systems that make even “accepted” GLBTQ individuals the “other”. A theology that, even if unspoken, privileges a certain kind of person over another. [...] While defenders of these theologies talk of tradition and incremental change, more die, and are harassed, every day. It is for this reason, among many others, that I think we not only have to reassure kids that “it gets better”, but we also have to reject theologies that empower hatreds of this kind and replace them with something else.

His point is well-taken, as is his observation that the Pagan movement is just one of many alternatives striving to offer that “something else,” engaged in the difficult work of challenging and dismantling traditions of systemic intolerance. The modern spiritual traditions that make up modern Paganism have drawn for many decades from the political and philosophical streams of feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, pacifism and social activism. All these movements seek, in different ways, to expand the conversation and complicate our understanding of “other” and “self,” demanding that we bring our attention and our care not only to those “like us” but to those we might otherwise overlook, dismiss or ignore.

However, I think it is a mistake to view this work as solely concerned with social hierarchy and the mechanisms of domination within the mainstream. As feminist philosophy notes, “The personal is political.” While we quite rightly find sympathy and solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed by the mainstream culture of today, I find myself disturbed by the frequency of arguments that declare: “We as Pagans should care about this cause because we, like the GLBT community [or other minority group], are also a minority and so what happens to them could happen to us.” Such an argument recognizes, sure enough, the themes of intolerance and hatred in the mainstream that unite us as a religious minority with other marginalized communities (whether they be racial, ethnic or sexual-preference minorities, women, the lower class and impoverished, or the other animals, plants and ecosystems who share this planet with us). Yet such reasoning encourages us to continue to care for and sympathize only with others “like us” — even if they are like us primarily in their socially-defined otherness. It implies that our responsibility to concern ourselves with the problems of the marginalized lasts only as long as we ourselves feel the threat of that marginalization. The ethic of privilege remains unchallenged; we’ve merely succeeded in exchanging one privileged group (the mainstream or majority, conceived as the Western (Christian) white male) for another.

The real challenge, I believe, is to continue to engage in social movements that reject and dismantle the hierarchical, patriarchal and hegemonic systems that give rise to intolerance and hatred towards “the Other,” while at the same time bringing this challenge home to ourselves in a very personal way. It is not enough to identify and care for those groups whom society has ignored, dismissed or overlooked. As individuals, we also have a responsibility to examine our own social and interpersonal relationships, in order to discover those communities and individuals that we ourselves are inclined to dismiss or marginalize.

This may be a difficult task for some Pagans to embrace. In more than a few modern Pagan traditions, an emphasis on local community and a reverence for the kindred and ancestors can too easily give way to a kind of tribalism that defines concepts such as honor and courage in terms of defense against the threat of “outsiders,” or asserts that care for “my” family and “my” in-group takes precedence over more universal social concerns. The joyful celebration of diversity can too quickly devolve into a rejection of anything that connects us or seems to obligate us to our fellow human beings — especially if those fellow human beings come from the “Judeo-Christian” mainstream.

Still, the traditions of modern Paganism also offer a unique opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this continuing conversation about acceptance and otherness. Unlike many social movements of today, the Pagan movement — precisely because it is a spiritual movement — speaks to deeply personal and intimate aspects of our relationships with the world and with each other. From a Pagan perspective, we can take this commitment to healthy community and thriving diversity not only as a socio-political philosophy but as a personal, spiritual imperative, enshrined in the heart of our earth-centered and/or polytheistic religious traditions.

Already we see this attitude at work in many aspects of various Pagan traditions. Our appreciation for history and heritage in a society of shrinking attention spans and an ever-growing obsession with the new-and-shiny not only informs our views on how communities can be organized and nurtured, but connects us with our ancestors and the dead in personal ways through rituals of honor, commemoration and conversation. Similarly, the common Pagan reverence for the natural world and the ecosystems of the earth shape our social and political lives, influencing everything from who we vote for to where we shop, to what we eat and wear; yet our personal relationship to nature is also fostered through meditative and ritual practices that put us in touch with the “spiritual side” of our animal, physical selves and challenge us to discover our own ways of relating to and living with(in) the natural world. While some of us engage in social activism and political protest in support of civil and gay rights, many also worship gods and goddesses who transcend, defy or redefine gender boundaries, who celebrate sexual intimacy as a sacred act, or who have their roots deep in the cultures of non-white, non-Western religious traditions of the past. By entering into relationship with these deities, we transform the cause of equality, diversity and mutual respect from a political platform into a intimately powerful expression of our being. In these ways, and in many others, modern Pagan traditions often bridge the gap between the personal and the political, the spiritual and the social.

I hope that one day Pagans will be just one more diverse and complex community in a manifold, thriving global society. But when that day comes, we will need to have a better ethical standard in place than “we should care about oppressed people because we are oppressed.” While I agree that silence in the face of bullying and violence is unacceptable, neither is it enough to stop with a critique of social trends and larger political patterns in the mainstream, venting frustration that “others” have done nothing to stem the tide of hatred and abuse. Pagan spirituality opens up for us the potential to bring our commitment to social justice, peace and diversity all the way home to the heart of our spiritual practice and our interpersonal relationships. Perhaps one day we can move from an ethic that privileges those who are “other-like-us” to an ethic that embraces and upholds the sacredness of relationship and connection in all its myriad forms. An ethic that says not “we should care because we, too, are different” but one that proclaims, “We should care because we are all, after all, in this together.”

Aug 272010

Islamophobia has been on the rise since 2001. The latest cause célèbre of conservative opponents of Islam is the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center. The extent of this opposition is shown by the intentional mislabeling of this project as the “Ground Zero Mosque” despite the by now well known facts – that it is not at Ground Zero but two blocks away (it is not even visible from Ground Zero) and it is not a mosque, cut a community center with a prayer area. Imagine a hospital with a chapel. Do we call that a church?

I don’t. I go into a hospital quite frequently which has not only a chapel but pictures of Jesus on a little table by the door.

Things have gotten so out of control that it is being suggested by some on the right that great Americans “give up their rights” and that Muslims ought to forfeit their Constitutional guarantee of free exercise and go somewhere else, or that Islam is not really a religion at all but a cult, and is therefore not protected by the Constitution. Qur’an burnings have even been announced; an act of violence by Christians somehow meant to demonstrate “once and for all” that Islam is a violent religion.

What is a Pagan to think about this feeding frenzy of angry monotheists? One possible response would be to say, “Well, it’s between them; it doesn’t concern me.” I am here to argue that such a response would be mistaken. It does concern us. It concerns everyone because it concerns a Constitutional guarantee that is under attack by the dominant culture.

Conservative Christians have constructed a new narrative for America, a Mythic America that was founded by and for Christians, an America in which free exercise applies only to Christians, and in which the wall of separation is a myth. The First Amendment ensures that all Americans can practice their religion of choice – or none at all. When the dominant culture – in this case Christianity – takes it upon itself to decide to whom Constitutional guarantees apply, it is time to worry.

Naturally, anyone who defends Islamic rights is accused at worst of being a terrorist, or of being somebody who is “soft” on terrorism. Islam has become the communism of the new millennium, and we should all be searching under our beds for Islamofascists, one of the wonder new terms the right has gifted us. I have been attacked myself, and just recently, for defending Islamic rights in this country. For it is not just conservative Christians who are up in arms and misinformed, but Pagans too. The hysteria is widespread.

But I am not here to defend Islam. My own views on monotheism are hardly a secret to anyone who has read my pieces over the past few years. But my views on monotheism in general or Islam in particular are hardly applicable to this case, for this case is not about Islam but about the Constitution. And the Constitution says that a Muslim group can build a community center wherever they want. There is nothing illegal about it. They did not steal the land. They made a deal with a developer and they are using the site of an old coat factory in the same way that some Christian-oriented group might.

The only difference is that they are Muslims.

And it was Muslim terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The thing is, it wasn’t THESE Muslims. And mis-characterizations of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a man with a reputation as a progressive interfaith leader, as an agent of America’s destruction are simply character attacks aimed at creating at atmosphere of fear and resentment. Fear is the coinage of Republican politics and has been since 2001. Fear of minorities, fear of immigrants, fear of non-Christians, fear of feminists, secular humanists, atheists, the LGBT community – and fear of Islam. It is easy to rally people around fear-inspiring causes – Irish immigrants, Germans in WWI, Japanese in WWII, communists in the 50s, Muslims today.

The situation gets very confused – as it’s meant to – fear mongering inspires neither calmness nor rational thought. Fear demands that people respond on a visceral, atavistic level, from the gut, in the same way that George W. Bush ran the country for eight years, from the gut. It is an anti-intellectual stimulant, fear is, and it brooks no argument.

For a Pagan, to get back to my original point, such attacks should resonate on a level invisible to most monotheists, who have a long history of being the persecutors rather than the persecuted. Once upon a time it was the witches who were being sometimes literally fed to the fires of hate. It isn’t all that long ago that being a Pagan was against the law, or that being a Pagan could cost you your job or your home. Rather than jumping up and joining those who would tear down freedom of religion, we ought to be defending those whose rights are under attack. Because next time, it could be us.

Can anyone forget the words of Jerry Falwell or the agreement of Pat Robertson in the aftermath of 9/11 on the 700 Club?:

JERRY FALWELL: And I agree totally with you that the Lord has protected us so wonderfully these 225 years. And since 1812, this is the first time that we’ve been attacked on our soil and by far the worst results. And I fear, as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, said yesterday, that this is only the beginning. And with biological warfare available to these monsters — the Husseins, the Bin Ladens, the Arafats — what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact — if, in fact — God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.

PAT ROBERTSON: Jerry, that’s my feeling. I think we’ve just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven’t even begun to see what they can do to the major population.

JERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.


JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”

PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.

Can we so easily forget that it was Pagans Falwell blamed first, and not Islam? Does anyone seriously think that if they succeed in depriving the world’s second largest religion of their Constitutional rights that they will hesitate to do the same to Pagans?

The threat to the Constitution is very real. Conservative Christians, religious zealots known as dominionists, wield a degree of power in this country far out of proportion to their numbers. Study right-wing Christian theocracy; study the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Study Sarah Palin and her witch-hunting pastor. People like to scoff, but then, people scoffed at Hitler too.

And look where they ended up.

No, I don’t have to think twice to know where I stand. With religious freedom and with the Constitutional guarantees I was born with, and not just for me, but for everyone.

Jul 302010

A pluralistic and diverse society is not easy to manage. One would think with several centuries of ethnic mixing, particularly in a country as diverse as the United States, that people would be used to getting along, or at least tolerating the differences between one another. But that does not seem to be the case. Our society seems to be fragmenting rather than blending.

There are many factors which give rise to antagonism: religion, nationalism, ethnicity, political ideology, and the old Marxist bogeyman, economics. And while we think of ourselves as a melting pot, the degree of mixing which has taken place has recently been called into question. We may co-exist to a degree but inter-marrying is less common.

Daniel T. Lichter recently reported on CNN that “According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, one of every seven new marriages in 2008 was interracial or interethnic — the highest percentage in U.S. history.”

One in seven.

That isn’t a lot. About 14%. And “seemingly overlooked in the Pew Report is the finding that less than 5 percent of all married whites have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. The vast majority of whites today — as in the past — marry other whites” (The Supreme Court ruling that outlawed state prohibitions against interracial marriage did not come about until 1967).

Keep in mind too that some people marry only within the “tribe.” It was widely believed that Swedes and Norwegians couldn’t live together and many European ethnic groups arriving in the United States clustered together, out of need or desire. So even among “whites” there were limitations on the mixing taking place.

Of course, some whites feel differently, seeing even that miniscule amount (because it is rising) as a threat to white America. “Their concerns,” Lichter goes on to say, “are heightened by recent Census Bureau projections that the U.S. will become a majority-minority society by the middle of the century.”

Will the rising tide of immigration and immigrant birth finally complete the process of mixing?

In what can hardly be called a surprise, CNN recently reported that a new poll “indicates Americans have complicated views towards immigrants.”

The poll, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national survey, shows that “the vast majority believe that most immigrants are basically good, honest people who are hard-working. However, nearly seven in ten say that immigrants are a burden on the taxpayer, 62 percent think they add to the crime problem, and 59 percent believe they take jobs away from Americans.”

Ouch. From the descendants of immigrants. Sounds like today’s immigrants are getting the same treatment once meted out to the Irish.

This poll is not referring simply to immigrants from south of the border, though I would be surprised if such thoughts did not influence the respondents. Instead, the poll, released Wednesday, “asks about all people who have immigrated from other countries in the past ten years, and not just about illegal immigrants in the U.S.” Doubtless far fewer immigrants today are “white” Anglo-Saxon compared to when our ancestors arrived from the Old World. Probably, far fewer of them are Protestants.

“The results may explain why most Americans think that the policies that made the U.S. a ‘melting pot’ strengthened the country a century ago but do not make the country stronger today,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

CNN asks whether, taking the “melting pot” metaphor a bit further, do Americans think that immigrants should maintain their own culture, or blend into the existing culture in this country?

The answer: “Two-thirds of whites say that immigrants should give up some important aspects of their culture to blend in; only about four in ten Hispanics, and an equal number of blacks, agree with that view,” adds Holland.

When my great-grandfather Tollef arrived in the Unied States, he did not speak any English. He wrote his letters home in Swedish. Wrote from the ranks of the Union Army during the Civil War. Was he less of an American because he kept elements of his native culture?

And how about Pagans? Paganism is and always has been a diverse phenomenon; all sorts of cultures, all sorts of ethnicities. This is as true today as it was in the ancient world. The common denominator was polytheism. This is not always the case today, but despite a broader interpretation of religion and spirituality, there is still a rejection of the Judeo-Christian idea of monotheism. There is the inclusion of nature, the inclusion of the feminine. There is a lot of inclusion and a lot less exclusion.

But even this rejection of one world view and the adoption of another does not have as a goal the destruction or negation of what is rejected. It adds a voice to the harmony; it does not remove one. It is more a matter advocating an acceptance of alternative forms of religion. The view of Judeo-Christian monotheism is, on the other hand, that all alternative forms of religion are inferior, wrong, and must (and will eventually) give way to the “True” religion.

Of course, we have three competing Abrahamic faiths all insisting they have possession of that exclusive Truth so the religious issue is problematic, especially when the sacred teachings of none of them espouse tolerance. After all, where the capital-T truth is concerned, there is no room for tolerance of what is not true. Even if alternative religionists wanted to join the True religion they couldn’t; there is no way to tell who has it, if anybody does.

The evils of nationalism have been well noted. The First World War is about as powerful a comment as one can make on the subject. The 60s anti-war protests about as powerful a rejection. Now, with the rise of American Exceptionalism, the pendulum has swung back the other way and the “constructed other” is again rejected, not welcomed. Hate and mixing are mutually compatible. American Exceptionalism is as ugly today as Prussian Nationalism was a century ago.

And unrestrained, it may lead us to the same place.

Ethnic squabbles are nothing new. They’re old beyond the extent of the historical record. We can look at the Old World over the past few centuries. We can look at the Balkans today or at Africa. America has had its own share.

But despite all these differences, people can get along. It has been proven. By Pagans. And I would argue that if Pagans cannot manage it today, nobody can. We have our own history to support us. We do not all have to believe the same things, or anything at all, to get along. Because there is no pressing need for others to believe the way you do, the religious equation ought to simply go away.

But how do Pagans cope with increasing polarization in the religious and political landscapes? Ancient pagans might have been drawn together by what they shared – polytheism’s non-exclusivity – but today’s version of religion – largely monotheistic and exclusivist, pushes people apart. Nothing can be shared when each group adopts an exceptionalist stance, be it due to religion or an excess of nationalism, ideology or some other cause.

Fast growing religion or not, Pagans are a drop in the bucket of American diversity. Can what we have in common, in the words of Jan Assmann (Moses the Egyptian 1997:3), “function as a means of intercultural translatability”? Fostering our common humanity, looking for connections, seems far more helpful a course than creating more gaping cracks between us, doesn’t it?

Disagree we might, but if we Pagans cannot tolerate each other, if we can’t translate inter-culturally, how can there be hope for anyone else?

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted July 16-21, with 1,018 adult Americans questioned by telephone, including a special sample of 308 black and 303 Hispanic respondents. The survey’s overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Mar 052010

Tea Party attempts to draft Dan Halloran for Congress
I didn’t want to return to this topic quite so early, but after I read the post on The Wild Hunt “Quick Note: Halloran for Congress?” I changed my mind. Halloran has been impressing local Tea Party groups at gatherings meant to screen and interview politicians and candidates. So much so they were calling on him to run for Congress.

Allow me to pause for a moment just to revel in how far we have come in such a short time. Two years ago I would never thought an openly Pagan candidate could still win his seat after his opponent used his religion against him. Especially after photos of him in ceremonial dress were published with the headline of “Pagan Lord” and captioned  “First Muggle of Hogwarts” hit the Press. What about you? In your wildest dreams did you guess that earlier this week non-Pagans would be talking about the possibility of supporting a Pagan for Congress?

Even though Halloran decided not to run for Congress, that he was asked is another milestone we have passed in our journey for civil rights. Another step forward.  Part of that step forward is the response within the Tea Party to Halloran.

People within the Tea Party, in a Letter to the Editor, in Twitter, and in Tea Party forums, were saying Halloran would make a good Congressional candidate and he had their support if he decided to run for Congress. When his religion is mentioned, it is usually from people asking what the heck it is or people commenting that it would be great to have a non-Christian candidate to combat the view that the Tea Party is a fundamentalist Christian group.

“I could give a shit less what his religion is, we need more like Halloran running for Congress!” – Wayne, Tea Party Patriot forum

“WTF is Theodism?” – Angela, Tea Party chat
“It’s some old Viking stuff. You know, honor and family and Odin and shit like that.” - Dreeson, Tea Party chat
“Hmh. Vikings? Sounds like my husband’s family. What’s the big deal?.” – Angela, Tea Party chat

I’ve been pleased at how positive the comments have been about Halloran. They really, really like him.

Reading the Tea Leaves
The story of Tea Party support for an openly Pagan politician is at odds with the popular portrayal of the Tea Party. There is no shortage of articles that describe the Tea Party movement as a racist, right-wing, Christian fundamentalist response to having a black man in the White House and describe persons who are part of this movement as paranoids with a distorted sense of reality.

There is confusion and conflicting information about almost every aspect of the Tea Party movement. Not even the origins of the movement are entirely clear. What is interesting is that the Tea Party Patriots, an information dissemination, planning, and networking hub, has created an origin mythos for the movement.

Keli Carender has a pierced nose, performs improv on weekends and lives here in a neighborhood with more Mexican grocers than coffeehouses. You might mistake her for the kind of young person whose vote powered  President Obama to the White House. You probably would not think of her as a Tea Party type.

But leaders of the Tea Party movement credit her with being the first.

As for who Tea Partiers are, the Sam Adams Alliance has released a 28 page report entitled Activist Insights Report: Market Research on the Tea Party Movement, its Leaders and their Motivations.

The conclusion of this report is that the Tea Party activists are not the “other,” and they cannot be defined through a single statement, document, or definition. They are the early adopters of a new empowerment.

Some of the findings? About half of Tea Partiers are new to political involvement, almost 2/3rds have a college degree or higher, and they are very adept at social media. If you received tweets linking to new Tea Party iPhone apps you probably aren’t surprised by any of this. The report is worth looking at in detail to learn more about Tea Partiers in general.

The Interviews
So what is it like for Pagans who are involved with the movement? I interviewed three Pagans who volunteered to relate their experiences and I have a list of 27 more who are planning to be involved shortly and agree to be interviewed later. If you would like to interviewed now or at a later date, feel free to contact me through this blog.

Ellen is living in the Los Angeles, California area. Her and her husband are loosely associated with the Ventura Country Tea Party group.

Oak lives in a suburb of Chicago and is a facilitator in his local Tea Party Patriot group.

Allison lives in Georgia and is part of Kick Them All Out, a group that works with Tea Party and Tea Party affiliated groups.

How does religion – yours or others – interact with the movement? Do they know your religion? Are you worried about them finding out? Is it very “Christian” in tone?

Ellen – I’m not worried about anyone finding out, but I don’t advertise, and I find it easier to blend in (in like manner I don’t go out of my way to tell other pagans that I’m conservative). Most Tea Parties are wonderfully open and accepting of all stripes and go out of their way to speak of God in general terms. Sometimes it’s more Christian than that, which doesn’t bother me in small doses.

Oak – Most people there know I’m a Pagan and it’s never been a problem. Like everywhere I go, Christians out number the non-Christians, and they sometimes forget that not everyone is of the same religion.

Allison – Our group, and when we get together with other groups for a Tea Party rally, is very open to all or no religions. We sometimes take turns saying a few words before a rally to pray for success. I pray to my gods, others pray to their god and the atheists lead us in a cheer of “Go humans!” We had one person who was extremely pushy about religion and she was asked to not come back.

Do you feel that you can impact the group, or do you feel that you can only follow what leaders set forth?

Oak – I’m a bit of a loudmouth, I guess, so I was pegged right away to be a facilitator. I’ve also had experience in helping with Pagan groups and if you can get a group of Pagans headed all in one direction, you can get any group moving. That experience has helped and has earned me the respect of others in the movement. Yes, I would say I’m having an impact on the group.

Allison – I don’t really want to be a leader. I enjoy helping out, and if there was something going on that I disagreed with I would say something.

What do you like about the Tea Party?

Ellen – It is wonderfully grass roots — it sprang organically into life last April 15 all over the nation as Americans peacefully and cheerfully (and even a little sheepishly) came together to say “Hell no!” to Washington. I can count on one hand the number of individuals I have run into who could be described as “angry.” We’re firm and determined, telling our elected employees that they are not doing what we sent them there to do. But we laugh and joke and have a good time toting our posters and flags on street corners. It does get noisy tho, with all the cars honking in solidarity. We’re out there to say to our fellow Americans, “you are not alone in your dissatisfaction.” People seem to appreciate that.

Oak – I like that people can take a leadership role without there being leaders. This is what I’m used to in my spirituality so it’s familiar to me. Most people are excited and willing to pitch in. Self-policing is difficult but we are getting it down. I used to be the one who would say “Leave your Party at the door” or “Take your social issues shit somewhere else” when people would go off on things not related to our mission. Now everyone else pipes up before I can. Imagine! Political discussions and never once is abortion mentioned! That I like.

Allison – I like they at least will work with us on challenging incumbents and believe that there are no free rides in elections. It’s fun to meet up with other small groups that share that view. The Tea Partiers are the ones that bring us all together for rallies. Together we are stronger.

What do you not like about the Tea Party?

Ellen – I don’t think there is anything I don’t like per se. Any movement has its lunatic fringe, and I guess I don’t like how the main stream media persists in finding the crazies to put on the news, when they pay any attention to us at all. They are drawn like flies to the one or two persons with extreme views. I have never seen a swastica in the crowd. And the only “Nazi” was actually a La Raza heckler who was trying to be disruptive. I know because we engaged him and his pals in debate for half an hour at the last Tea Party we attended (incidentally keeping them from getting loud and disruptive again).

Oak – I wish there was more of a unified message. It’s starting to happen, just not soon enough for me. I don’t like that there aren’t as many speakers from the Democrat Party there. We keep inviting them, but they won’t answer us. If we just keep having Republicans speak then the group will turn off Conservative Democrats and Independents.

In your opinion, is the Tea Party “grassroots” or is it controlled or created?

Ellen – Definitely grassroots.

Oak – grassroots, but the Republicans would love to control us. That ain’t gonna happen. No way it was created. If it was created it wouldn’t have been such a chaotic mess in the beginning.

Allison – I don’t know.

When someone tells you that the reason the Tea Party exists is because there is a black man in the White House or says the Tea Party is a racist group, what is your reaction?

Ellen – Hogwash. Obama was elected by a majority of the people because they believed he would be bipartisan. It quickly became apparent that he is hyperpartisan. When people said they wanted “change” they meant change from business as usual in Washington, not a complete make-over of our American way of life. We are not Europe and we don’t want to go there.

Oak – My reaction? I would tell them they are full of shit right to their face. I would also tell them if they had any honor, they would attend a rally with me and they could see what it’s like for themselves. That shit is said by people who have never attended a rally or been to a meeting.

Have you seen or experienced racism in the Tea Party?

Ellen – No. Well, yes — by the La Raza hecklers toward Americans in general and whites in particular.

Oak – Sometimes there are people who show up and think this is their kind of racist place because of what they have read about the Tea Party. At first, when we weren’t as organized, we just ignored them. I said that was the wrong thing to do, we should have kicked their asses right out of the rally. Others said it was only a few and ignoring them would take their power away. Guess what was on the news? The couple of idiots trying to start trouble. That’s what we got identified with, two racist asshole. Not the hundreds of other people there. Now – we kick their ass out if we see them.

Allison – Yes, but they don’t stay. They aren’t welcome.

What is the response by other Tea Party members when people present racist views?

Ellen – As these were hecklers, the Tea Party folks just told people to ignore them. But my husband and I decided to engage them in a spirited debate (never heated). We figured they were there to cause trouble and we kept them distracted. At the end of the Tea Party they unfurled a Mexican flag and managed to get a rise out of a couple people. They video taped it and put it on the internet that night, to “show” the “angry” people at the Tea Party.

Oak – Like I said, we kick their ass out.

Allison – we ignore them. If that doesn’t work then we tell them to go away.

Is there anything that you would like to tell Pagans not affiliated with Tea Party about the Tea Party?

Ellen – I don’t have to say anything to Conservative Pagans (yes, we are out here), because they get it. To all the other Pagans, I say just because we don’t agree with your methods doesn’t mean we disagree with your goals. We all want the same thing — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We just think people should be the architects of their own lives. Big Government is impersonal and soulless. It will suck the life out of this nation.

Oak – Join us if you’re for fiscal responsibility and a limited federal government. It is a conservative group, but not right-wing Christian fundie group with a social agenda. The Tea Party is a good fit for pagans. It’s really trying hard to allow people to take leadership roles without forcing a hierarchy on you, much like how most pagan groups act. Pagans have so much more experience in that type of environment that we are quickly singled out for how effective we are. That means we can influence the hell out of this movement, but only if we get involved. I read your article about how the Tea Party may offer pagans the chance to influence politics in a way that belonging to the Republican or Democrat Parties just can’t. I agree with that!

Allison – Not really. Just that people should attend before they decide that the Tea Party or other groups that work with them are a hate group. The people involved aren’t horrible racist Christians. I’ve heard some pretty awful things said about the Tea Party and I don’t think that’s right. The stuff said about Tea Partiers is more hateful and personal than anything I have heard from Tea Partiers. I get that the most from pagans. I don’t even tell them I’m going to a rally anymore because I can’t stand the lecture about what a bad thing I’m supporting an how they hope someone bombs the rally. OK. I guess I did have something to say after all!


For examples of the type of comments from fellow Pagans that all three Pagans I interviewed talked about, you need only read the comments section of The Wild Hunt following the article about Halloran’s possible candidacy for Congress.

It’s sad that one of the first openly Pagan candidates is gleefully wedded to a dangerous fringe movement that prides itself on its inability to reason. But who knows, maybe there’s a bright side: he might drag the tea baggers down with him. – Gene

I fully understand the “idea” of the tea party being disgusted with politicians in general, from BOTH parties, but when this “groundswell” of anger manifests itself in a collective of ignorant, intolerant, conspiracy-theory nutjobs who wouldn’t know a critical thinking skill if it smacked them upside their heads, I cannot bring myself to symphasise with their “movement” at all, especially when it is so transparently in the pockets of the worst that right-wing, self-absorbed and totally un-empathetic conservative “values” have to offer. – Alex Pendragon

The irony of comments like the ones quoted above directed at a group that is embracing and supporting a politician they know to be Pagan and urging him to run for higher office is interesting for what it says about us (Pagans) and how we treat those with views other than our own. When the Tea Party and other non-liberal political groups, Christianity and other monotheistic religions, or other groups viewed as outside the mainstream of Paganism are talked about in our community the language directed at those people and groups is often times reflexively pejorative and hostile.

So let me close with a quote from the most recent journal entry from dionysusdevotee titled A Call For Intellectual Honesty and Mutual Understanding. If you don’t already read his journal, I recommend it greatly.

… at the same time the very groups we condemn; those evil right wingers, those nasty Christians, and the rest of the collection of people we simply FEAR are peopled with those who seek common ground and understanding. And yet; with the same hand we so recently wagged a finger with at them, admonishing them to open their minds, we then turn and bitch slap the lot of them and paint them with the same broad brush of “evil” that we so recently were the victims of ourselves.

No understanding, no wisdom, and no common ground will come from this “us versus them, good vs evil, right vs wrong” mentality. Regardless of which side is doing the judging. It will always be impossible to reach out to and understand an individual as long as we insist on treating people as generalistic ideologies. How can we claim to support diversity and deny its existence every step of the way?

Ironically I find myself in the position of having to admit that the people that live up and down my street, the right wing christian, gun totin’ hicks; by and large are more tolerant and accepting of people who REALLY think differently than many in my peer group. The fact that they give so called “progressives” a run for their money in the tolerance department, well, its just sad.