Funding Proselytism in Haiti, and other Pagan News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 21, 2011 — 38 Comments

Top Story: The Awl investigates allegations that millions of dollars in United States government funding to Christian NGOs, specifically Samaritan’s Purse, is being used to directly fund aggressive and shameful missions to “evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

“…our research into the hush-hush tag team efforts of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Samaritan’s Purse found millions of USAID dollars going to Samaritan’s Purse aid stations in Haiti. Their mission: a coordinated effort by BGEA chaplains to evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

Reporter Abe Sauer notes that Franklin Graham (president of Samaritan’s Purse), son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham, is especially fixated and obsessed with eliminating Vodou in Haiti.

“…in the case of Samaritan’s Purse, whose Haiti work is being heavily funded by the taxpayer-funded USAID, it could be to “take back their country from voodoo, despair, and sin,” one of the charity’s stated goals for the “Festival of Hope.” As Graham said of Haiti in his address at the Festival, “…the biggest need is the spiritual need.” (Graham and his crew are especially obsessed with the elimination of voodoo, as it comes up again and again in Purse literature. A recent personal update on work in Haiti from Franklin Graham himself reads, “Through our partnership, the three original churches have been able to establish 28 more—including one in a village that was infamous for voodoo….”) Video of the heavily promoted fundraising event has been erased from the Samaritan’s Purse website as a result of our questions to USAID.”

They note that Samaritan’s Purse, working hand-in-hand with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), is able to benefit from government funds by skirting along on paper-thin technicalities, confirmed by USAID officials, but who seem to lack the political will to do anything about it. This is a stark confirmation of several isolated reports and allegations regarding the activity of missionaries in Haiti. It’s bad enough that some Christian groups are taking advantage of the chaos in Haiti in order to win souls, but now it seems we’re paying for it as well.

No Pagan Drivers for Lowery: Former Democratic state Representative John Lowery is being taken to court by Eugene Keeler after he was allegedly fired from Premier Well Services (owned by Lowery) for being a Pagan only hours after being hired. Keeler has the backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is being heard by a judge who’s dealt with Lowery before.

The EEOC case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, which could be interesting. When Wright ruled that a winter solstice display could be put up on the state capitol grounds — along with the traditional nativity scene — Lowery led the Arkansas Legislative Council denouncement of her decision, saying, “When this is allowed to happen in high places by people in authority societies become chaotic, economies collapse and nations are taken over by other nations.”

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette interviewed Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League about the case, though the article is behind a paywall if you want to read it. It should be interesting to see what happens in this case, hopefully it will be reported more widely, and more accessibly, than it has so far.

Do Religious Symbols Count Even If You’re a Racist? The Jewish Chronicle notes that a jailed racist, convicted of inciting racial hatred in the UK, had his Thor’s hammer pendant confiscated because it had “fascist meaning and neo-Nazi overtones.” After a complaint, it seems that Michael Heaton, an Odinist, had the pendant returned. The piece closes with a quote from a CST (Community Security Trust) spokesperson that seems to imply that, in their opinion, Odinism doesn’t meet the “relevant criteria” for equal treatment as a religion.

A CST spokesman said: “Norse and Odinist symbolism features extensively in Nazi and Pagan circles. Legislation on religious rights can make questions such as this a complex matter. But you might well question if this kind of symbolism should meet the relevant criteria.”

While I personally believe that Heaton is a vile, foul, sad, criminal, his odious beliefs don’t wipe away his rights under the law. To call into question whether genuine religious symbols appropriated by racists are still valid is to glide down a slippery slope that would eventually ban all religious symbols. Also, for an organization like the CST, who are watchdogs against antisemitism, to conflate Nazism and Paganism in such a casual way is troubling, to say the least.

The Boundaries of Civil Religion: Former Wild Hunt guest contributor Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, writes an essay for the USC blog The Scoop about the recent memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, and reactions (or non-reaction in some cases) sparked by the opening invocation of Dr. Carlos Gonzales.

The media response–or rather the general lack thereof–was telling. Those motivated to comment publicly on the blessing were mainly conservatives troubled by its implications. For example, Brit Hume of Fox News was baffled, saying, “By the time it was over with, he had blessed the reptiles of the sea, and he had prayed to the four doors of the building, and while I’m sure that all has an honorable tradition with his people, it was most peculiar.”  TheWashington Examiner went much further and called it a “a stark statement of  pantheistic paganism” and “a blatant violation of church and state.”

Glossing over the apparent hypocrisy–the biblical references in Obama’s eulogy did not seem to touch off a similar nerve–perhaps Gonzales’ invocation can be read as a vague nod to a loose, politically correct “spirituality” appealing to the so-called “liberal elite.” Yet the left wing of the blogosphere also had little to say about Gonzales’ invocation. (There was some insightful discussion from this vantage point taking place on a popular and intelligent Pagan blog called the Wildhunt.)

Gilmore notes that many American aren’t used to being taken outside “a generic and lightweight form of ceremonial deism,” as was done by Gonzales’ Native blessing. A transgression that may have sparked the absurd over-reaction is some quarters. She also touches on the “othering” of religious minorities in the United States, such as was done in this case, and that mainstream journalism has done a poor job in enlightening the public to their worldviews. The whole essay is worth a read, and you should check it out.

Seeing the Future in Russia: The AFP reports on the popularity of doing fortune telling in Russia between Christmas and Epiphany, and why that tradition endures to this day.

Psychologist Svetlana Fyodorova puts the faith in fortune-telling down to Russians’ close links to their pagan past. “Russians love fortune-telling because it frees their subconscious,” she told AFP. “As compared to Europe, in Russia Christianity is young and the traces of a pagan traditions can still be felt here,” she said.

Something that no doubt worries the Russian Orthodox Church, who are increasingly testing the waters of social control now that they are ascendant once more. With signs of a crack-down against religious minorities intensifying, those who look for signs in the wax, or throw shoes out the window, should be careful.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Thanks for finding that Awl article Jason! This is the kind of thing that can easily be lost in the noise. The article itself contains one outrage after another after another.

  • Robin Artisson

    May the powers of the Underworld drag Franklin Graham and all who support him away, swiftly, and cast them at the feet of Nemesis. May Haiti defend herself and all of her suffering people from these predators and their wickedness.

  • On religious symbols and racism: The religion of choice for the far-right and racists generally has always been Christianity. By far the largest and most important racist group in the UK is the British National Party which proudly claims to fight on behalf of "Christian values" and "British Christianity."

  • caraschulz

    You must have the story about Former Democratic state Representative John Lowery wrong. He has to be a Republican. Democrats are our friends and are ready to champion our rights at every turn.

    • Bookhousegal

      It's beyond me how that's supposed to make the Right better than it is in any way.

      • caraschulz

        *I've* never claimed that one political party is better than the other – in so far as it relates to being more willing to protect our rights rather than just pay faint and occasional lip service.

    • Cheryl Taylor

      Nice to see you don't have any issues or anything about it

      • caraschulz

        Issues? No.
        Sense of humor coupled with a realistic view of politicians? Yes

  • Dennis Nock

    i too would love to see pagan communities . that is one of my pipe dreams , if my ship ever comes in , i'm currently . like many others trying just to keep my dingy afloat. but like i said i'd like to create a purly pagan community w/ homes and bussinesses to cater to it , making it self suffeciant . maybe some day , the whole place of course would be green and carbon nuetral as possible . small very effecient homes and a pub , of course. and also including religous community space and a community garden . a pagan eden so to speak twould be nice Kilm

  • Jason, re: Heaton, I have an entirely different take on the matter. I do not see religious discrimination as the primary motivation in confiscating the pendant, though it may have been a factor or a matter of discussion among the governors. I believe they were more concerned about safety, chiefly his. If he walks around wearing a symbol that other inmates regard as insulting to their culture and belief, he could be beaten or killed, literally bludgeoned or stabbed to death by these inmates. Prison is a very closed, tense, often violent world of its own. In that compressed and repressive atmosphere, actions that we might see as annoying are taken with great seriousness, and vengeance to be the right of the person or persons offended. In some cases, this might be as simple as a dirty look (known as "mad-dogging" in California prisonspeak, BTW) or brushing against someone. Recently a deputy told me about a certain prisoner who remains segregated after he received threats from other inmates. It seems he consistently overran his allotted shower time, meaning other inmates' time was shorter. I do believe that while Heaton's civil rights were protected here, his continuing to wear the pendant endangers his safety and even his life. And I think that was the motivation that led to the confiscation in the first place.

    • Cathryn, the prison officials themselves explicitly stated that they took away the pendant because, according to them, "Norse and Odinist symbolism" is associated with "Nazi and Pagan circles." They further reinforced the religious issue by also explicitly stating that concerns about "religious rights" do not apply in this case because Odinism, as a religion, does not meet "relevant criteria". This is what the prison officials themselves said in their own words. Obviously "safety" had nothing to do with it.

      • I was unaware of that statement. Well, ugh; it certainly is not prison officials' business or right to decide what is and isn't a relevant religion. I do believe, however, that safety might be a valid or at least defensible reason for such an action and see reason to believe that Heaton, like the prisoner I referenced, will make life even more difficult for himself than it has to be while he is incarcerated.

        • Correction: I did see the statement in Jason's article. However, I did not accept it at face value and still believe there might be more to the decision than is quoted there.

          • Tearlach

            Having worked on occassion with HMPS, it's unlikely to be down to Heaton's own proptection. While the UK's prisons are unpleasant places they do not have the level of intercommunal violence that are found in parts of the US prison system. What is more likely is that one of the HMPS oficers on Heaton's wing had probably only come into contact with Odinist symbols in conjunction with XRW material and got a little bit over-excited.

            HMPS has a Pagan Prison Chaplaincy run by the Pagan Federation (from memory). In general here in the UK you are more likely to be mocked for being a Pagan than attacked. This goes for being overtly religious in any way, including Christian.

          • "While the UK's prisons are unpleasant places they do not have the level of intercommunal violence that are found in parts of the US prison system." Glad to learn this, and it sounds as if you ought to know. Like so much else, the correctional system is in crisis here in a big way (shudder). I suspect we can and should learn from you in this regard.

  • Michael Lloyd

    Personally, I don't think anyone in prison should be permitted to have jewelry of any type. But if the prison systems are required to be even-handed, then Thor's Hammer is only equivalent to Fascism in the same way that the crucifix is to the KKK. So if they ban the one, then they should be required to ban the other.