Friday, April 27, 2007

Wicca's Legimacy as Religion

It is often a bad idea to read the comments on political blogs. They tend to degenerate into vicious name-calling by anonymous persons all too quickly.

A recent post on the pentacle grave marker case at the political blog Winds of Change bemoaned the fact that Americans litigate over religion:

I abhor the kind of attitude that leads to people hassling Christians over creches at Christmas, and that spurred the ACLU to threaten to sue a Christian cross off the seal of the County of Los Angeles California.

At the same time, blogger David Blue continued,

This long struggle for religious fairness for those who have died defending America has now reached a satisfactory end, mostly because George W. Bush shot his mouth off too much, and consequently it was better for the US Department of Veterans Affairs to settle, with a non-disclosure agreement, than to defend a weak case in court.

And he praised Jason Pitz-Waters' "brilliant, link-rich posts at The Wild Hunt Blog" for their coverage.

The comments that follow are interesting. Many commenters argue for fairness: given that there are hundreds of Wiccans in the military, they deserve the same treatment as followers of Eckankar and other new religions, not to mention avowed atheists, who have their own military grave marker symbol.

Some comments make much of the newness of Wicca, while others note that all religions start as new religions. I was impressed that a couple of comments came from names that I know from religious-studies circles.

Personally, I found the comment thread interesting because it reminds me that much of the blogosphere is an echo chamber. People read bloggers with whom they agree, or they read their ideological opponents just so that they can make nasty comments, usually anonymously. I read some of these comments, and I wonder, "How can anyone still think that way?"

But of course they do. It is good to be reminded.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

VA Approves the Wiccan Pentagram

The first message (from a Pagan staffer at the American Academy of Religion) hit my inbox at 12:28 today, and then the Colorado Pagan email lists lit up: The Veterans Adminstration approved the pentagram for veterans' grave markers.

(Pentagram, pentacle, same thing as far as the news media are concerned. Personally, to me the "pentacle" is a disk with a pentagram engraved or drawn on it, but I won't quibble.)

Credit for the heavy legal lifting goes to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who report the news here. Credit also to Circle Sanctuary for serving as the plaintiff.

The litigation charged that denying a pentacle to deceased Wiccan service personnel, while granting religious symbols to those of other traditions, violated the U.S. Constitution.

“This settlement has forced the Bush Administration into acknowledging that there are no second class religions in America, including among our nation’s veterans,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “It is a proud day for religious freedom in the United States.”

From what I heard last November from the spouse of one of the lawyers involved, Americans United pretty well had the VA nailed for violating their own regulations and were counting on the potential embarrassment of a court trial to scare the VA into doing the right thing. It looks like that legal strategy worked.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"I don't care if it rains or freezes . . . "

Drug-runners lose in court over "profiling" claim regarding Bibles on the dashboards of their cars.

Personally, when running a load from the Coast, I decorate the dash with The Confessions of Aleister Crowley or the current issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

(Read the rest of the quoted song lyric.)

Hat tip: Religion Clause, now on the blogroll under "Religion and Journalism."


Friday, March 30, 2007

Cremation, public lands, and commerce

Ladies in White, from the left, Catherine Goodman, Pat Cross-Chamberlin and Fran Coover, in the Rattlesnake Wilderness in Montana.Ladies in White, three women in Missoula, Montana, tried to start a business scattering human ashes--what the funeral industry calls "cremains"--on national forest land.

The U.S. Forest Service doesn't like the idea, because they see a "slippery slope" towards permanent monuments:

But the Forest Service has long had a firm policy against commercial scattering, said Gordon Schofield, the group leader for land use here in Region I. If ashes are scattered “the land takes on a sacredness, and people want to put up a marker or a plaque.”

The Ladies in White say their practice is environmentally benign, although they do accept that like other public-lands commercial users (guide services, for instance), they need a permit.

Currently, the official position on private scattering is "don't ask, don't tell." (Some of us writers do tell, however.)

What a wonderful tangle of American religious issues: "nature religion" in the broadest sense, the change in funerary practices, representatives of some Indian tribe sticking their oar in, the organized environmentalists, and the bureaucrats in the middle of it all.

Take a look at Catherine Goodman, the woman on the left. What is that on her head--antlers? a crescent crown?

Via Ann Althouse's blog, where there are lots of comments.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

My continued fascination with Gleb Botkin

I recently found a Wikipedia entry on Gleb Botkin. I still think that he is one of the most fascinating figures in American Paganism, with a life whose arc connected the lost world of the Russian royal family to the contemporary Pagan revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

He is worth a biography of his own, I think.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ted Haggard and Elmer Gantry

Over supper, I suggested to M. that perhaps Rocky Mountain PBS' scheduling of Elmer Gantry as their Saturday night classic movie tonight had something to do with the downfall of the well-known megachurch founder Ted Haggard.

"Of course!" she said. "I assumed that the minute that I heard about it."

This 1960 film version, starring Burt Lancaster, covers only a short part of Sinclair Lewis' novel. To quote Wikipedia:

Although he continues to womanize, is often exposed as a fraud, and frequently faces a complete downfall, Gantry is never fully discredited and always manages to emerge triumphant and to reach ever greater heights of social status. The novel ends as the Rev. Gantry prays for the USA to be a "moral nation" and simultaneously admires the legs of a new choir singer.

The novel traces the opportunistic Gantry through quite a variety of religious organizations, including a New Thought group.

Before there was New Age, there was New Thought, which is essentially the same thing except without the benevolent Space Beings from the Pleiades.

Instead of today's War on (Some) Drugs, Elmer Gantry is set against a background of Prohibition and the corruption of government and public morality that it produced.

Yes, the 1920s may seem like a long time ago, but the novel holds up well as a mirror to the seamy side of American religion. You can recognize all of its characters as you move down the American religious smorgasbord.

As for Ted Haggard, I am sure that he will be back in the public eye some day. He has not given up his Web domain.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Lady Sintana

Morning Glory Zell, Tim Zell, Lady Sintana in 1978Morning Glory Zell and Tim/Oberon Zell of the Church of All Words with Lady Sintana (right) at the Church of Wicca Samhain Seminar in 1978. Photo by Chas S. Clifton.)

Jason Pitz-Waters links to a newspaper article about Sintana (Candace Lehrman) and the House of Ravenwood, one of the best-known covens in the Atlanta area.

Ravenwood was also the subject of a book by a group of sociologists of religion: Allen Scarboro, et al., Living Witchcraft: A Contemporary American Coven (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994). Being sociologists, the authors concentrated quite a bit on issues of authority--when you have a charismatic and strong-willed founder who claims to have retired, has she really retired?

There is too much Lord-ing and Lady-ing in the Craft, mostly a bleed-through from the Society for Creative Anachronism, and it only gets in the way. British Witches, I have noticed, coming from a land where those titles mean something (like it or not), tend not to use them.

Sintana, however, could get away with it.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

My Catholic/Wiccan/Asatru ex-girlfriend

Al Billings shares some religious/magickal paths personified as ex-girlfriends.

Thelema and the OTO

The freaky ex-girlfriend who likes her sex kinky, her parties wild, and her drugs. She goes clubbing, dresses all in black, and has the razor scars on the wrists to show that she’s serious. She has a lot of interesting ideas but draws the wrong sort of crowd because of her reputation when she was young. These days she’s more likely to want to go to Mass and do a bake sale but the expectations of youth are hard to live down, and she secretly revels in it.

Read the whole thing.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Wicca: trendy, phony, and Constitutionally protected

If I were not teaching rhetoric, I would not have found Michael Medved's column on Sgt. Patrick Stewart's pentacle memorial while looking for a good political column for my students to analyze.

After insulting the religion--"it’s a trendy, phony potpourri of druidical, primitive and New Age elements that’s more a pagan cult than an organized faith"--Medved grudgingly admits that "the Constitution leaves no room for the government to discriminate against its adherents."

Uh, OK, thanks, I guess. And we are a Pagan cult, in fact, if you want to be technical about it.

Meanwhile, his fellow columnist Dennis Praeger, who has been bent out of shape over a Muslim Congressman wanting to take his oath of office on the Koran, responds to his critics and adds,

I am a Jew (a non-denominational religious Jew, for the record), and I would vote for any Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, atheist, Jew, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Wiccan, Confucian, Taoist or combination thereof whose social values I share.

A couple of nights ago I guest-lectured via telephone to Jeffrey Kaplan's class in new religious movements at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

I said that I thought that Paganism--Wicca in particular--was becoming the new designated Other on the American religious scene--and these columnists bear me out. Get used to "What about Wicca?"

However, I expect that it will be a long time before the first Wiccan elected to the House of Representatives has to worry about on which book to swear an oath. For the record, no holy book is required anyway.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Amtrak Heaven, Amtrak Hell--and all for Pagan Studies

Regular readers know that M. and I like train travel. We saw both sides of it on our just-completed trip to Washington, DC.

The Southwest Chief was on time to La Junta, Colorado, where we meet it, but the ticket agent was muttering about possible stoppage due to high winds.

Somewhere in western Kansas, we ended up parked for five hours. Apparently there is an Amtrak regulation against prairie travel when winds exceed 50 mph, and according to a crew member, winds at the Dodge City airport were 63 mph. Can those double-decker Superliner cars blow over?

Late to Chicago, we missed our connection on Capitol Limited to Washington, but did make it onto the Lakeshore Limited, which had been held in the station. Thus began the great Rust Belt tour: northern Indiana and Ohio, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and down the Hudson River to New York City. This time, our sleeper was one of the one-level Viewliner cars, designed to fit into Penn Station.

I could never keep count of all the old brick warehouses, piles of scrap metal, and empty factories. What is the quarter-mile long three-story white brick building in Utica, New York, that looks empty? There is just so much stuff in this country.

We arrived in New York about 8 p.m. and an Amtrak representative promised us seats on a regional train down to Washington, DC, which would have gotten us there by midnight--eight hours late, but we could live with it.

But what she did not tell us was that a freight train had derailed south of Baltimore, interrupting the "catenary" electrical system and stopping commuter trains in that sector. We got this sad news from the conductor somewhere around Trenton: our train would stop at Philadelphia.

It was too late for a Greyhound bus--the last one had left at 10:15 p.m. The rental car counters were all closed. Amtrak's Philadelphia agents were flailing around, first promising buses and then saying that there were none, and that Baltimore was worse, anyway.

Eventually, like some other passengers, we partnered with a third traveler and rented a cab. Yes, from Phillie to Washington by taxi, driven by an immigrant Indian driver who knew how to get onto Interstate 95 south, but after that had no idea where he was going.

Neither M. nor I knew our way around either. Fortunately the other guy knew the main roads--and somewhere in the south part of downtown, the brotherhood of cabdrivers was invoked: our driver pulled alongside a DC cab, rolled down his window, and shouted [assume melodious Indian accent]: “Where is Hotel Washington?” And soon we were there, heads hitting the pillow about 3 a.m.

And so I slept until about 10:30 a.m. and then trudged off to the Convention Center, arriving late for the all-day Pagan studies conference, but delighted to be there and able to say that I had paid all that money out of my devotion to Pagan studies.

It was totally worth it.

On the return trip, we were only slightly late into Chicago and right on time in La Junta. Boarding the Southwest Chief in Chicago, we looked around and realized that we were in the same "roomette" in the same sleeping car that we had just vacated six hours earlier. That never happened before. Perhaps it was . . . a sign.

Thursday, Nov. 16, apparently was no picnic for air travelers either. I spoke to one attendee who had been dropped in Pittsburgh and sent by bus to Baltimore. Others had similar stories. The travel system is complex and fragile. One thunderstorm at an airport can back up air travel all around the country, so I cannot be too hard on Amtrak for its high-wind policy.

On the other hand, I have been talking with Customer Relations and will be seeking some sort of refund, having bought Chicago-Washington sleeper tickets but having been dumped in Philadelphia.


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Saturday, November 11, 2006

We have a Pagan Studies series!

Introduction to Pagan Studies by Barbara Jane Davy
With Barb Davy's Introduction to Pagan Studies, we now have three books in Rowman & Littlefield's Pagan Studies series.

And three of something truly is a "series," right?


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Saturday, November 04, 2006

A fall from a height

I am in Colorado Springs today, where famous evangelical pastor Ted Haggard's fall dominates the news.

Frankly, to borrow the name of a better-known blog, I just don't "get" his kind of religion. A 14,000-member megachurch? Why? So you can sit on your butt and be preached at and sung at among a huge crowd of strangers?

My dislike for Haggard's approach is more than theological. It is partly aesthetic--the whole megamall megachurch entertainment thing. And it's partly because of the way that New Lifers regarded the most interesting parts of Colorado Springs (such as the Old North End and Tejon Street) as controlled by Satan or something. I wrote elsewhere that they do not understand the gods of the city, only the gods of the suburban shopping mall.

One excerpt: "[Jeff] Sharlet makes a good case for New Lifers as exurban parasites, taking the services that the city provides but being unwilling to pay for them, either financially or psychically."

Anyway, he is toast now, although there will probably be some sort of public-repentence-as-career move. From a Christian perspective, LaShawn Barber's coverage is about the best.

And that's the news from "Fort God."

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Leaving the meat uncovered

Sheik Taj Din al-Hilaly, Australia's senior Islamic cleric, explains rape and how women serve Satan:

“If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street, on the pavement, in a garden, in a park, or in the backyard, without a cover and the cats eat it, then whose fault will it be, the cats, or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the disaster.

I just felt that I needed to share that. Pagan cat-owners, please don't be offended.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Barbie, the Hot Pagan Witch

I am in debt to Mark Morford's SF Gate column on the latest, must-have Barbie doll. (Mattel offers a dark-complexioned version as well.) She would be just right to look down on you and your plushies while you are reading some of Llewellyn Publications' latest teen-witch fiction. Read an excerpt online if you dare.

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Thursday, October 23, 2003

Demeter on a John Deere

I love a good conspiracy theory, especially when it involves what I always thought was one of the most innocuous of fraternal orders. You will find a calmer discussion here.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Smokey and the Sacred

My paper "Smokey and the Sacred: Nature Religion, Civil Religion, and American Paganism" has been accepted for a special issue of the journal Ecotheology, edited by Graham Harvey.

The publishing agreement, however, forbids me from publishing more than the abstract online. (But maybe if you ask nicely.) I will supply a complete bibliographic citation to the printed copy as soon as it is available.

Maybe it's the first Pagan Studies paper to invoke Smokey Bear as a godform, following the footsteps of Gary Snyder's "Smokey the Bear Sutra."

OK, so he is somewhat discredited as a forester in these "prescribed burn" days. Sometimes demigods have a come-down.

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Friday, September 05, 2003

Eighties flashback

Maybe if more people knew that the Freemasons had sex slaves , their membership would not be declining!

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Saturday, August 30, 2003

'Sacred' but not 'Religious'

A school teacher in my former home of Cañon City, Colorado, is in trouble with a cowboy-hatted pastor (his photo not on the web version) over alleged 'pagan' practices at the school. See how she employs the language of public-education casuistry.


Saturday, August 09, 2003

African Religions Attracting Americans

This is not really new news, but the growth of religions of the African diaspora attracted the attention of this reporter.

From what I hear elsewhere, it is actually the new converts--not all of them necessarily of African descent--who are most insistent about purging Voudoun, etc., of syncretized Christian elements in order to make them purely Pagan.

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Friday, July 18, 2003

A quiz on civil religion

Quiz: The removal of bronze plaques bearing Bible verses from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a defeat for Christian hegemony and a victory for

A. Secular humanism
B. Covert federally supported nature religion
C. The American Civil Liberties Union
D. Fundamentalist fundraisers
E. All of the above
F. None of the above


Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Sacred Ground

Rediscovering America's Sacred Ground, subtitled "Public religion and the pursuit of good," will be on my reading list as soon as SUNY Press releases it. The author is Pagan scholar Barbara McGraw, who "examines the debate about the role of religion in American public life and unravels the confounded rhetoric on all sides. She reveals that no group has been standing on proper ground and that all sides have misused terminology (religion/secular), dichotomies (public/private), and concepts (separation of church and state) in ways that have little relevance to the original intentions of the Founders."