Can You Be a Christo-Pagan in Prison?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 29, 2008 — 9 Comments

In the wake of a lawsuit, the Washington Department of Corrections has altered its policy regarding a prisoner’s adherence to multiple faiths. Under the old rules, an inmate had to get written permission from each faith before being able to claim dual adherence. Now, those barriers have been removed, and any inmate may simply declare their involvement in multiple religions.

“It used to be difficult for state prison inmates to belong to multiple faiths. The offender had to have written permission from each religion saying it was OK to be a member of both simultaneously … That changed Dec. 12, when the Corrections Department started allowing inmates to simply profess to belong to multiple religions simultaneously. The change was part of a settlement of an inmate’s lawsuit. The inmate had contended the state was violating federal law by prohibiting him from worshiping as both a Native American practitioner and as a Seventh-day Adventist. The department eventually relented, gave the inmate $1,500 and changed its policy. Not long after, Suss said, an inmate at McNeil Island decided to become both Catholic and Asatru, a movement harkening back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe and Scandinavia.”

The article interviews a Catholic prison chaplain who is taking a leave of absence due to this new development, and may not return because his traditionalist stance on faith makes dual-adherence a logical impossibility.

“Common sense says you cannot be a pagan Christian,” he said. “As a state chaplain, I must endorse state policy. I have to be willing to endorse this inmate’s freedom to be both religions at the same time, but my own convictions being a Catholic priest don’t allow for a Catholic to be a pagan at the same time.”

Before we go deeper into the priest’s problems, we need to take a moment to discuss the question of “Christo-Pagans” (Pagans who adhere to some form of Christian belief). Most Pagans don’t claim to have the “only” or “one true” way of relating to the divine. In theory, there is nothing preventing a Pagan from practicing within multiple faiths (though wild eclecticism is frowned on in some quarters), the problem arises when one of the claimed faiths has an exclusionary view of truth and conception of the divine (many forms of Christianity, for example). This can create hostility and criticism from both sides when it happens.

Outside of a prison environment, these dual-practitioners usually settle into a comfortable compromise of their own that rarely confronts the traditionalists within exclusionary faiths (or other Pagans). Often these dual (or multiple) faith adherents gravitate towards the more “liberal” manifestations of the traditional monotheisms, or simply create their own private or group practice. As a result you can find Quaker Pagans, Jewitchery, Morwics, and a wide variety of Christopagans (not to mention syncretic faiths like Santeria and Voodoo).

Inside of prison, where just about every activity is regimented and overseen, true religious freedom has been harder to come by, sometimes due to security concerns, but often due to rigid and often discriminatory views of how faith should be handled. But since 2000, when the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed, inmates have been winning wider freedoms, including the right to belong to more than one faith. A prospect that stymies some officials in Washinton.

“State Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, heard of Suss’ situation and is adding language to an existing prisons bill aimed at protecting the jobs of chaplains whose duties come into conflict with their faith … ‘I don’t know how somebody can be a pagan and a Catholic,’ Carrell said. ‘That’s like being partly pregnant.'”

But this new freedom to engage in a multiple faiths is hardly a major burden on traditionalists. No Catholic, for example, will be forced to give communion to someone he feels has transgressed against the faith. In fact, the only real complaint comes down to buying religious supplies.

“If I stayed, the individual who identified himself as Asatru/Catholic could come in for religious items and if I refused, he could sue me,” Suss said. “And the department would not defend me because I refused to endorse state policy.”

When it was pointed out that a different clerk could sell the items, the disgruntled Catholic chaplain then displayed how out of touch he truly was with the modern world.

“Why should we allow them to be in prison what they can’t be on the street?”

Of course “on the street” people are free to believe (or disbelieve) whatever they want. Their religious and spiritual options are virtually limitless. They engage in several religious traditions with little to no negative repercussion. Perhaps it is time for Father Tom Suss to retire, after all, Pagans outnumber Catholics in Washington prisons (they are, in fact, second only to Protestants), and I haven’t heard of any official Pagan chaplains being hired to service that population. Perhaps lawmakers in Washington should deal with that issue before arguing over whether Christo-Pagans can truly exist.

Jason Pitzl-Waters