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September 23, 2010

Wiccan Community Responds to Christine O'Donnell's Ignorance

If you follow politics at all, you're familiar with Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party-backed candidate who recently pulled off an upset victory in the Republican Senate primary in Delaware. She's gotten a ton of press coverage thanks to her unexpected win and her views, which range from extreme to ridiculously extreme to extremely ridiculous.

O'Donnell is anti-choice, anti-contraception, and anti-masturbation, believes that homosexuality is an "identity disorder", has claimed that condoms don't stop the spread of AIDS, once argued that letting women attend military academies "cripples the readiness of our defense", believes that American companies "are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains", has said that President Obama is anti-American because he's so liberal, and once said of a trip she took to the Middle East that "it was refreshing not to be constantly bombarded with smut all the time". (See Think Progress' The Old Adventures of New Christine for more.)

A few days ago, Bill Maher released a clip of an appearance that Christine O'Donnell made on his show in 1999, during which she talked about having "dabbled in witchcraft". Here's the clip and the relevant quotes, via Think Progress:

O’DONNELL: I dabbled into witchcraft — I never joined a coven. But I did, I did. … I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do...One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn’t know it. I mean, there’s little blood there and stuff like that. …We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.

A few days after this clip surfaced, O'Donnell tried to play down the comments by saying, "How many of you didn’t hang out with questionable folks in high school?"

Obviously O'Donnell is the type of candidate that comedians dream of, but joking aside, her comments are ignorant, incorrect, and potentially harmful. So I wanted to highlight some of the responses to this incident that have come from the Wiccan community.

Witch Says Christine O'Donnell is Confused About Witchcraft: Despite O'Donnell's 1999 Confession, Real Witches Don't Worship Satan or Hold Dates on Altars With Blood [ABC News. Emphasis mine. And I will say that I do kinda love the fact that this is now a real news headline that exists.]

"It leads me to believe she's making it up completely out of whole cloth with poor information," said Sylvia T. Webb, the first officer of the Covenant of the Goddess, a national non-profit organization. Comments like O'Donnell's, she said, are "bizarre" and contribute to misinformation about the religion.

...Webb scoffed at O'Donnell's claims. "It's very hard to worship something you do not believe in and Satan is a Christian concept," she said. "Wiccans don't have Satanic altars."

...they do have altars, but "there would be no blood," Webb said. "She might have had a date with some ... want-to-be goth child who was into thinking he was Satanic or something," Webb said. "There are a lot of misinformed young people trying to be wild."

In reality, Wicca is a denomination of Paganism, a religion that pre-dates Christianity.

Jim Lewis, a leading expert on new religious movements, wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com that while it's true many young people "dabble" in witchcraft and other neo-pagan beliefs as teenagers, the second part of O'Donnell's claim "is sensationalistic exaggeration."

"The stereotype of blood-sacrificing Satanists has been thoroughly debunked by mainstream scholars," he wrote. "Additionally, talking about neo-Pagans and Satanists as if they're part of the same movement is completely inaccurate. In fact, they actively dislike each other."

No ancient Wiccan texts were ever recorded, Webb said, but modern Wicca was believed to have been born in the early to mid-20th century.

"Most of us are proud to be called witches," Webb said, although she said some shy away from that term because of the negative connotation. "To me it is a title of wisdom and one who shapes through will."

Wiccan Community Upset With O'Donnell, Calls Witchcraft Comments 'Teaching Moment' [Huffington Post. Emphasis mine.]

"Yes, this was 11 years ago she said that," said Reverend Selena Fox, the High Priestess & Senior Minister of the Circle Sanctuary a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting paganism and nature spirituality. "But the kinds of things she is saying now, saying 'well in high school you are with despicable characters' or some such thing, she is actually defaming Wiccans. Whether she intends to do that or not as a way to try and get herself out of this political problem she has created for herself, the fact is America really needs to be a place where you can celebrate diversity and practice your religion without getting ridiculed or defamed."

Fox, who has been active in fighting anti-Wiccan measures in Congress and the military for the past 25 years, showcased a bit of political deftness when she diplomatically called O'Donnell's candidacy a "teaching moment" for the country. Debates over religious tolerance, she offered, have been shrouded recently in heated political rhetoric. And there was now growing concern among both she and members of her organization that "there will be more ridicule as well as more misinformation" about Wiccans and witchcraft because of O'Donnell's remarks.

"Any political candidate that is going to equate witchcraft with Satanism is ill informed and is not likely to get the support of people involved in nature religion," she said, noting that the pagan community was "multi-partisan."

"I'm concerned," she said. "I'm concerned that 25 years of work that the Lady Liberty League and other Wiccan and pagan civil rights and religious freedom groups have been involved in... that there will be more misinformation as well as ridicule and disrespect. We are living in politically turbulent times."

Wiccan: GOP candidate's witchcraft dabbling a teachable moment [CNN Belief Blog. Emphasis mine.]
“It’s an opportunity to get some correct information out there. That’s how I see it,” says [Selena] Fox, who is the high priestess and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church near Barneveld, Wisconsin, that serves Pagans worldwide. “There’s comedy about it, hot debate about it, lots of pundits weighing in. But one of the things that really hasn’t gotten through is how ridicule and defamation can harm people.”

...Pagan, she explains, is the “umbrella term for nature religion practices with roots in Old Europe.” Wiccans represent one branch of Paganism, as do Druids and Heathens, for example, she says. Fox, who was raised Southern Baptist, explains her beliefs this way:

We honor the Divine as a goddess and god, as well as a great oneness and a multiplicity. We celebrate the cycles of the sun and seasons. … We honor the five elements of nature: earth, air, fire, water and spirit. The circle that connects the five points [of the pentacle star, a symbol used by Pagans] represents the greater circle of nature that we’re part of, love and wholeness. … We honor ancestors and seek to live in harmony not only with other humans but with nature.

And, she insists, she and other Pagans do not recognize or speak of Satan. Some people within the nature religions are trying to take back the words “witch” and “witchcraft,” but she says others stay away from such terms because of the continued misconceptions....

"America, as a whole, needs to be aware that nature religion practitioners are part of the religious diversity in this country," she said.

Witches Blast O'Donnell [The Daily Beast. Emphasis mine.]
"The old nature religions of Europe were persecuted for hundreds of years," [Selena Fox] said, "and part of a tactic for suppressing the pagan practices of old was to label them Satanic or demonic."

For some, old habits die hard: Senator Jesse Helms tried to rob Wiccan churches of their tax-exempt status in 1985, while Rep. Bob Barr wanted to outlaw Wiccan services on military bases in 1999. According to Ivo Dominguez Jr., the owner of what he calls a “metaphysical general store” in Dover, Delaware, O’Donnell’s dabbling with witchcraft is really just another window into her Christian beliefs. “Basically, you have to be a Christian to believe in Satanism because you have to believe in the Devil,” he said. “So I think probably it was a bunch of teens that decided to do a pastiche of too many bad movies... It has nothing to do with witchcraft and paganism.”

Not all of Delaware’s politicians are as out of touch with the faith as O’Donnell. “There are probably more pagans in Delaware than Unitarians,” Dominguez said. Each year, the Delmarva Pagan Pride Festival draws several hundred Wiccans and other pagans to Dover from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. “In past years, we have had politicians or parties show up at Pagan Pride Day with politicians wearing buttons and handing out stickers.”

“Our current governor came to a meet-and-greet that he knew ahead of time was going to be mostly Wiccan or pagan,” said Dominguez. Questions for Gov. Jack Markell, who was then a candidate in the Democratic primary, were mostly about the environment. “There were no questions about will you appoint an openly pagan blah blah blah,” said Dominguez. “At this moment of history, that’s not where our community is.”

Dominguez said that the surfacing of O’Donnell’s past comments is particularly unfortunate for Wiccans because it comes near “our least favorite media cycle,” the run-up to Halloween. “My biggest concern is that we will be receiving negative depictions on one side from the people that traditionally don’t like us, which are folks that believe the only thing that is a valid spiritual path is a narrowly defined kind of Christianity, and on the other side people that are progressive that we would normally see as our friends but who will be using the witch angle as a way of attacking a conservative candidate.”

No matter how Democrats treat the issue, it seems unlikely that Wiccans will turn out for O’Donnell at the polls. “Her inability to separate anything non-Christian from Satanic is going to be an issue not just with her potential pagan constituents but with any other non-Christians or Christians of a flavor that does not match hers,” said Michael Smith, the Wiccan IT analyst who hosted the meet-and-greet the governor visited.

“A couple of my local politician friends say she’s losing the Wiccan vote,” said Dominguez. “Well, I said she never had the pagan vote for the most part to begin with.”

Real witchcraft deserves respect --not O'Donnell's dabbling [Washington Post On Faith blog. Emphasis mine. This was written by Starhawk, "a prominent voice in modern Wiccan spirituality and cofounder of reclaiming.org, an activist branch of modern Pagan religion, and author of ten books."]
Whatever Christine O'Donnell may have dabbled in, it wasn't Witchcraft. As someone who is openly and publicly a Witch myself and the only Witch who is a columnist for On Faith, I find myself in a dilemma. On the one hand, I feel a natural urge to respond to this issue--on the other hand, the fact that we're focusing on O'Donnell's bad date instead of the multiple urgent crises that beset us is a measure of just how low the level of political discourse has sunk. I'd really prefer not to contribute to it.

...So let me just say this--had O'Donnell really 'dabbled' in Witchcraft, she might have learned that the Craft, as we call it, or Wicca as some prefer, is a remnant of the pre-Christian indigenous traditions of Europe and the Middle East. Witches do not worship Satan--we consider the Devil to be a purely Christian construct. We see nature as sacred, and human beings as part of nature. Our spirituality does not require belief in things we can't see--but rather an attitude of respect, awe and wonder at the everyday miracles we can see, the great and common mysteries of birth, growth, death and regeneration in the fall of a leaf or the phases of the moon, in the cycles of our lives and the turning of the seasons.

O'Donnell might have learned that Witches see all of life as interconnected, that we are taught to respect other people, to treat one another with compassion, generosity and honor, to protect the earth and to live in balance with nature. We can only imagine how her life, her crusades and her politics might have been shaped by an early encounter with the Goddess, for whom the body is a temple, sexuality is a path of deep and sacred communion, and who tells us "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals."

Witchcraft deserves the same respect accorded to any other spiritual tradition. And O'Donnell deserves the same respect as any other politician: that we judge them by their record, their abilities and their policies, not by stupid, offhand remarks they made decades ago.

O'Donnell didn't fare much better with actual Satanists, if this piece from CBS News is any indication:

Christine O'Donnell's "Witchcraft" Comments Rebuffed by Satanist

Some Wiccan leaders complained that witches do not believe in Satan. Diane Vera, the founder of a group called "NYC Satanists, Luciferians, Dark Pagans, and LHP Occultists" added today that O'Donnell's anecdote also misrepresents Satanists.

"As far as I am aware, no serious practitioner of any variant of either Wicca or Satanism would have a picnic on one's altar," Vera said in a press release.

Vera also cited a 1997 Washington Post op-ed O'Donnell wrote as head of the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT). O'Donnell wrote about proselytizing to concert goers in the Washington area.

"Walking through the crowd I also noticed more pentagrams than crosses around the teenage necks," she wrote. "'Satanism is the religion of the '90s, I was told."

Vera responded that O'Donnell "has a tendency to confuse Satanism with not only Wicca but also rock fan culture."

There has been plenty of joking around about O'Donnell's views since her primary win, and much of it has centered around her comments about masturbation, but this witchcraft thing is now running a close second. I'm not saying that's all bad. You need a sense of humor to follow politics, especially these days. But it's also important to remember that a joke about witchcraft may be a joke about someone's religion, so sometimes it's worth taking a second to think about at whose expense you're really joking. At the same time, we need to deal with the fact that thousands of people in Delaware actually voted for Christine O'Donnell, and many more across the country are sending her money, endorsing her, and supporting her in at least some of her extreme views. And that's no laughing matter.


Urban Wild Cat said...

Making jokes about a persons religion is just as fair as making jokes about their political position, or any other weird opinions/beliefs they hold. Ridicule can be an effective teaching tool.

Jezebel said...

Urban Wild Cat - I didn't say that nobody should ever make jokes about religion. There are a lot of witch jokes going around about Christine O'Donnell right now, and I'm just saying it's a good idea for people to be mindful of exactly what they're joking about. O'Donnell provides plenty of material with her extreme views (mice with human brains?), and that should be the focus.

Sunatic said...

Urban Wild Cat, making jokes is one thing. But saying, with the power and authority of a well-known politician, in all seriousness that Wiccans make bloody sacrifices in their rituals is another thing. Especially since the real beliefs of various neopagan groups aren't familiar to most people, so the masses are willing to believe anything their darling candidates tell them. I read her somments as slander against neopagans, and I'm happy that someone has stood up to correct them.

Katy said...

Bill Maher showed another clip of her talking about her religious "dabbling" on his 1999 episode of Politically Incorrect, and she went on to say that she "dabbled" in Buddhism and would have been a Hare Krishna except that she's Italian and just loves meatballs too much to be a vegetarian. Bill's response? "Yes, you're clearly very spiritual." She's obviously ignorant about pretty much every non-fundamentalist-Christian religion out there, so why are we surprised that she is offending people with her naive remarks?

burningbush said...