Archives For Judaism

“Pagan” is most commonly used in our interconnected religious communities as an umbrella term for any of the religions that either seek to revive a pre-Christian religion, or belong in the New Religious Movement category, such as Wicca. The religions under this umbrella are often more varied than they are similar and Ōraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is no exception. ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī, which translates as “path of the ancients,” is in the Canaanite family of religions and seeks to revive the practice of the Israelites of the 15th through 9th centuries BCE.  Back then, it was primarily a tribal religion with centralized religious spaces and large festivals focused around a reconstructed lunisolar calendar. The practice also included a strong sense of household and familial tradition, including ancestor veneration, personal prayer, blessings over food, and family events.

ryan dial
The Wild Hunt
spoke to Ryan Dial, who is an ʼAlūp̄, or High Priest, for Ancient Path Assembly in Atlanta about this religion and how it is currently practiced.

The Wild Hunt: I realize it’s probably complex, but can you explain a bit about ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī?

Ryan Dial:  ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a revivalist faith, which is similar to polytheistic reconstructions in many ways in that we utilize archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. with academic conjecture to revive an ancient faith system, but unlike recons, we don’t necessarily shy away from unverified personal gnosis (UPG) and we seek to update and move forward beyond simple reconstruction. More specifically, we are a religion within the larger category of Canaanite Reconstructionism/Revivalism, which includes reconstructions of Phoenician, Moabite, Amonite, Judahite, Edomite, and Israelite religions, itself, genealogically speaking, a sub-category of the Northwestern Semitic religious family [Amorite and Ugaritic religions] which is, in turn, a sub-category of the Northern Semitic religious family [Akkadian and Eblaite religions]. All of that is in the modern nations of Israel, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Like many recons and revivalists, not all of our practitioners consider themselves “Pagan.” That tends to be a loaded term, unfortunately, and carries with it many connotations both from the outside world and from within the greater Pagan community. As such, I consider myself an ʼŌrēḥa, first and foremost, and depending on the audience, I may or may not also identify as a Pagan.

TWH: What part of the world did this religion originate from and is it similar to Judaism?

RD:  ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a revival of ancient Israelite religion. This is not the religion of the Bible, which was Judahite, but the religion of the northern Kingdom of Israel and its citystate and tribal predecessors. The Israelites were a confederation of Canaanite tribes.

We reconstruct primarily from the 15th through the 9th centuries BCE. The Israelites were conquered by Assyria during the 720s BCE. Prior to this, Judahite religion had already diverged and begun to become monotheistic. With the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in the 720s, many Israelites fled south and added unique religious elements to the largely monotheistic Judahite national faith. Some of these survived in the Bible as Judahite religion slowly evolved into Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries CE, but by and large, Israelite religion had ended by that point. Some have shown survival of some elements of Israelite religion into the later religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Neoplatonism, thanks to the works of Iamblichus, who was himself of Canaanite stock.

We honor the Canaanite pantheon, which has roughly 150 deities of several “families,” much like the Aesir and Vanir in Germanic religions or the Asuras and Devas in Indo-Iranian religions. We’re monolatrous-panentheists with a emanationist slant. That is to say, while we believe in many gods, we believe that they, like all things in existence, including ourselves, are emanations of a singular divine force which we call Yǝhōwāh (lit. “Existence”). Additionally, while we support the idea that the gods of other peoples exist in some form, we believe that they, too, are emanations of Yǝhōwāh, though only our gods, the ʼĔlōhē͡ī-Kənaʻan, the “Godhead of Canaan,” should be worshiped by members of our faith. The theology is a bit more complicated than that, so think of this as a simplification.

9th Century BCE map showing the Kingdom of Israel [creative commons]

9th Century BCE map showing the Kingdom of Israel [Public Domain]

TWH:  What are the main ethics in your religion and how does it shape your daily life?

RD: Personally, I think the observance of Šeḇaʻ hāʼĪmărōṯ, “The Seven Teachings,” is by far the most important. They are seven philosophical teachings that form the core of our faith system, and as such, all practitioners, regardless of level, are expected to keep them. …

  1. Yəhōwāh is one and all things are unity.
    All that exists is part of the divine and, therefore, forms a singular existence. A human, an animal, a plant, and dirt are all part of a unity and there is no separation between them. We must recognize the divine in all things, in all people, and within ourselves.
  1. All actions will have consequences.
    We are all responsible for our actions, regardless of the circumstances, and nothing can absolve us of that responsibility. The choices we make are up to us, and every choice has consequences, many far-reaching and incapable of being predicted.
  1. Will governs actions.
    It is intent, the force of will, that governs our actions. Through proper intent, we can commit to a life of proper action. Approaching the world with selfish, individualist intent will most assuredly result in actions with negative consequences for all affected.
  1. Speak support, practice harmony, and in all things, be at peace.
    Our actions should always strive to create harmony, peace, and beauty in this world. We should strive to teach others through our example, not our words.
  1. Generosity, humility, calm, and joy are the path to wellbeing.
    Through generosity, we can aid our world. Through humility, we can be content with ourselves and with others. Through calm, we can maintain proper intent and see the world for its beauty. And through joy, we can spread wellbeing to those who need it most. Through these concepts, we can learn to love ourselves and others.We should be careful to guard ourselves against their opposites: greed, jealousy, anger, and self-loathing. It is through the concept of greed that the illusion of possession arises, and through the illusion of possession, we are prone to jealousy, anger, and self-loathing.
  1. One who is merciful, compassionate, and kind to the smallest creatures joins to Yəhōwāh.
    We should always seek mercy, compassion, and kindness, whenever possible. From the insect in our home to the poverty-stricken on the street, we should strive to honor the divine within all. We should always seek to aid those in need and prevent malevolence, cruelty, and hostility to all of creation.
  1. Love others freely and with deep passion.
    Without crass individualism and selfish concepts of ownership, we can freely love one another. We should seek to love others purely, with our whole soul, and love them for the unique expressions of the divine that they are. In all of our relationships, we should be devoted wholly and love them as the entirety of existence.

TWH: Could you explain what a religious observance might look like and why explain how it is still relevant today?

RD:  One of our more important holidays is Ḥaḡ haMaṣōṯ, a week-long festival celebrating the beginning of the barley harvest. It begins with the Pesaḥ ritual, a protection ceremony which originally secured the gods’ protection over the barley while it was being harvested and stored. During the ritual, we make an offering of barley into a sacred flame. This offering is followed by a week of feasting and merriment, with song and dance and firelit stories. We reenact these rituals with a modern twist, asking for protection over our livelihoods, our modern subsistence methods.

Ḥaḡ haMaṣōt ritual, observed by firelight [courtesy photo]

Ḥaḡ haMaṣōt ritual, observed by firelight [courtesy photo]

TWH: How did you learn of this religion? And how long have you been a part of it?

RD:  I began this path as an Orthodox Jew, actually. I wasn’t raised in a religious home, but I came to Orthodox Judaism on my own in college while looking for some of those “big question” answers. My pursuits began in Kabbalah and moved into Chasidism and eventually the religion of my more recent ancestors, Sephardi Judaism. I began a path that led to me seeking to join the rabbinate.

During this same time, I was studying cultural anthropology and anthropology of religion at Emory University, focusing on the early phases of Near Eastern religion. Over time, my intellectual pursuits and my religious pursuits came into conflict, and I found myself leaving the rabbinical path and, ultimately, Judaism altogether. My draw was always to the ancient Near East — it felt like home to me — so I said to myself, “There must be something to this, to the religion of the ancient Canaanites, that draws me in. If I am so in love with their faith, why not practice it in the modern era?” From there, I began seeking out groups that were doing what I was doing. I’ve now been on this path for almost 3 years. It’s an evolving religion, tied in so closely with academic research and archaeological discovery, but we’ve stabilized over those 3 years and have really come into our own as a living faith.

TWH:  Do you know how many people practice your faith and are there groups who meet in person?

RD: ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a communal faith, a tribal religion formed from an intentional tribe bound not by blood but by choice. As such, meeting in person is rather necessary for our practice. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we have individuals with varying levels of interest and practice quite literally across the world, but our central home is Atlanta, GA [Ancient Path Assembly Atlanta], where our physical group currently meets. As with most Pagan groups, it’s hard to get a good number on just how many members and interested parties we actually have. Rituals tend to stay small, most likely due to their rapid frequency and non-western calendar, we don’t move rituals to the weekend. I know of two other extant groups that identify as somewhere within the Canaanite sphere — Natib Qadish and Am HaAretz, AMHA or the Primitive Hebrew Assembly, though, again, it is hard to get a definite number on the total size of the Canaanite polytheist community.

*   *   *

If you’d like to learn more about ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī or the Ancient Path Assembly Atlanta you can check out their website or go to their Facebook discussion group.

Today is Easter Sunday.

As is typical, the days prior are filled with conversations exploring the hidden meanings of the holiday’s commercialized symbols, such as fully bunnies and pastel eggs. In the past, The Wild Hunt has done its own contemplations on the subject. Are there really ancient Pagan origins nestled within the sacred Christian holiday?

As infinitely interesting as that discussion may be, I would like to focus on something entirely different; something often not discussed. This weekend also saw the celebration of another major religious holiday – Passover.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Growing up surrounded by a Jewish family and having mostly Jewish friends, I never marked the entrance of spring with rabbits and divine rebirth. I was never coerced into wearing pastel dresses adorned with satin and tulle. For myself and many others, spring was ushered in by matzo, moror and mishpocheh.

At some point in April, when the dark New Jersey winters began to yield their annual grip, Passover would arrive. My Jewish family would come together for the sacred Seder tradition. Gathered around an extended dining room table with adults at one end and us, children, at the other, we’d eat, drink and recount the story of Passover using the Haggadah. Admittedly, there was always a whole lot of nonsensical giggling during the plagues. Nothing is funnier than frogs, boils and locust when you’re are five.

For Jews, the world over, Passover does in a way mark the beginning of spring. While many children cheer when the Cadbury eggs arrive in supermarkets, I was always overjoyed upon seeing store shelves packed with macaroons, Gefilte fish and Manishewitz wine. Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover was my favorite. Matzoh, Matzoh brei, Matzoh balls, Matzoh farfel cupcakes.

To this day, the springtime holiday holds a space – a sacred space – within my life. Although I was never religiously Jewish and I am now Pagan, I have retained a deep connection to my Jewish heritage and the traditions that come with it.

And, as I have learned, I am not alone in that feeling. While the majority of first generation Pagans and Heathens do come from Christian backgrounds, there are those that do not. Of that small sector of the population, many are of Jewish heritage.

Ilan Weiler, an eclectic Israeli Pagan studying Hermetic Magic, said, “I still consider myself Jewish. I view my Judaism as being more of an ethnic/tribal and cultural nature, and I recognize the Jewish deity on two levels: as the tribal deity of my ancestors on a polytheistic level (recognizing an ancient practice of henotheism), and on the occult level of Kabbalistic-Mystical concept, which I incorporate into my magical practices.” Weiler added that he sometimes attends temple service and “[studies] Jewish history, lore and scripture as to learn my ancestors beliefs and traditions.”

American Hermeticist Jonathan Korman also acknowledged honoring the Jewish deity as a “personal tribal deity.” He said that, on his Pagan altar, he maintains “an empty space for that god.”

Deborah Bender, an American Pagan of Jewish heritage, explained, “Jewish identity isn’t strictly religious. Secular Jews identify themselves as Jews on the basis of culture or ethnicity, often without having had much exposure to the Jewish religion or much education about it.”

While some Pagans with Jewish roots embrace their heritage, as Bender suggested, others do not. Illy Ra, a Kemetic Pagan living in the small town of Kadima in central Israel, said, “I don’t consider myself Jewish, I define myself as a Hebrew Pagan,” adding that she incorporates nothing from Judaism into her own Pagan practice. Similarly, Moon Daughter, an eclectic Israeli Pagan from Moshav, said, “I personally do not consider myself a Jew from the religious point of view, but I am a Jew in my cultural heritage and ethnicity.”

It is true that not every Pagan of Jewish heritage clings deeply to their roots. Interestingly, in some cases, these differences are marked by nationality. Very generally speaking, it would appear that Israeli and American Pagans have a different relationship with Judaism and Jewish culture. Moon Daughter speculated, “I live in Israel and I think a lot of Pagans here, not all naturally, are quite angry at monotheistic religions and certainly Judaism … The attitudes toward [the religion] are more complicated [than in the United States] since Judaism is not just a religion, it is also a national identity.”

[Photo Credit: Yehuda Cohen / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Yehuda Cohen / Flickr]

When becoming Pagan, Israeli Jews may have a more difficult time negotiating through their own internal “identity politics” than American Jews. As Moon Daughter noted Judaism in Israel is a religious practice and a national identity, both of which are married to culture, ancestors and family. Illy Ra added, “Even if one chose to leave the Jewish religion, the community will still see them as part of the Jewish community and culture.”

That is also partly true in the United States. There is a sense of Jewish-ness that exists beyond the practice of the religion itself and beyond spiritual belief. I can still feel that “belonging.” After telling my Aunt, a Jewish Atheist herself, that I was Pagan, she reminded me, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God. If Hitler came today, you would still be sent to a camp with all the other Jews.” And that, in her eyes, was enough.

This sense of tribal belonging – that Jewish-ness – is something that can be and is carried into Pagan practice. Bender explained, “The Jewish religion has a very strong tradition of discussion and argument, and the Talmud records minority opinions. I take from this that it’s okay to arrive at a different conclusion than other people if it’s based on reason and evidence and you don’t make yourself an enemy of the Jews.” She added that the Jewish people are “used to being a religious and ethnic minority, and not basing our self-image on what the dominant culture think.”

In our conversation, Bender also noted the similarities that she personally finds within Judaism and her Pagan practice. She said, “Judaism shares with Wicca the outlook that what you do is more important than what you believe. Wiccan sacred time is cyclical. Jewish sacred time is both cyclical and historically linear. The calendars of both have a lunar month and a solar year. Judaism and Wicca both concentrate on living this life but recognizing something beyond. Both teach that the world is fundamentally good that physical pleasures are divine gifts that we are responsible for our own actions.” She went on to list more.

Because of the strong cultural aspects that thrive within Judaism, many Pagans, at least in America, do not reject their Jewish heritage with the same level of hostility and frustration as often expressed by Christian peers. However, as noted earlier, Moon Daughter clarified that this generalization does not necessarily apply to those in Israel where Jewish culture informs the dominant social structure. Moon Daughter said “I guess [American Pagans] still feel like a minority that needs to stick together and do not want their criticism of Judaism to revert to anti-Semitism.” And that may be partially true.

American Pagans of Jewish heritage are minorities within a minority, which complicates the building of a religious and personal identity, especially when you still embrace your Jewish-ness. I have attended Pagan gatherings where I have felt moderately alienated, simply because I had no context for something happening or being discussed. The very first time that my coven sang Pagan “Yule” carols, I was a bit lost. The Frosty and Rudolf parodies were no issue, but when they got to “Goddess Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I just sat quietly dreaming up Pagan words to the Dreidel Song. “I have a little cauldron. I may it out of clay….

But getting back to spring and Passover, many Pagans of Jewish heritage still make their way to family or friends’ homes by sundown as tradition dictates. Once there, they relive an ancient story and participate in a sacred ritual and, more importantly, a family tradition. Moon Daughter said that she has attempted to find a Pagan interpretation for Passover Seder but “that is not always easy, since holidays are about family, and most of my larger family are of course non-Pagans.” Illy Ra said, “I do celebrate the holidays with my parents to respect their belief and culture, but I guess I would do the same if they belonged to any religion.”

Weiler also emphasized that the Seder is a time for family, describing his own tradition as being “secular” and “nothing more than a glorified family dinner.” However Weiler added that when he has his children, he would like to do a “real Seder, incorporating traditional, modern and Pagan notions.”

Bender, on the other hand, doesn’t like to mix her rituals. She said, “I try to stay within Jewish tradition when I’m doing Jewish rituals. If I want a fully Pagan ritual, it’s separate.” However, she did add that it is possible to “adapt” the Seder structure into a spring Pagan ritual, but she said, “You would have to do it carefully to avoid incoherence and cultural appropriation.”

As for me, this Jewish heritage has remained close by my side. I can still sing the four questions in Hebrew and make tasty kneidels, even though I no longer participate in a formal Seder. Should an emergency occur, I do own multiple Haggadahs, a matzo cover and a Seder plate. Each spring, as I prepare for Ostara, I also purchase a box of matzo and a few cans of macaroons. Like many others, this Jewish-ness colors who I am and, in many ways, the practice of my adopted Pagan religion.

Springtime cheers to all our readers who are enjoying this weekend’s religious festivities, whether it be for family, tradition, faith or simply matzo. L’Chiam and may you always find the afikomen!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

A young Nepalese girl dressed as a Kumari/living goddess. Photo: Narendra Shrestha.

A young Nepalese girl dressed as a Kumari/living goddess. Photo: Narendra Shrestha.

  • Does the presence of goddesses within a faith mean better treatment for women within a culture? A Guardian article complicates the notion. Quote: “Goddesses are worshipped merely as a ritual but in reality, women are generally never seen as their earthly representations,” [Usha Vishwakarma] says. “It is not inspiration or motivation that we look for. Sheer frustration from being ill-treated by men and unsympathetic responses from family drive us to rebel and make conditions better for ourselves.”
  • Scholar Wendy Doniger says India banning her book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” had her “in high spirits.” Quote: “But I must apologize for what may amount to false advertising on my behalf by Mr. Batra, who pronounced my book ‘filthy and dirty.’ Readers who bought a copy in hope of finding such passages will be, I fear, disappointed. ‘The Hindus’ isn’t about sex at all. It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.”
  • At HuffPo, Parth Parihar discusses “Hinduism and the eco-activist vacuum.” Quote: “What could be more adharmic than incentivizing the creation of fossil fuel infrastructure that only makes oil a more economically viable means of energy production, thereby impeding progress on combating global climate change?”
  • The head of the British Veterinary Association is advocating that animals slaughtered in Kosher and Halal butchering be stunned first, spurring charges of misinformation and limiting religious rights. Quote: “But Mr Arkush, who is the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the Jewish slaughtering practice was a ‘humane act designed to bring about the animals’ end very quickly’. He said that Mr Blackwell’s remarks were ‘completely misleading’ and criticised him for ‘speaking in a way that inflamed prejudice’.”
  • The Straight Dope covers the topic of penis-stealing sorcerers. Quote: “The result of this delusional drama can be pretty ugly. About 20 witches accused of penis theft were lynched in Nigeria in 2001, and 12 in Ghana in 2002. One survey counted 56 separate cases between 1997 and 2003, with at least 36 suspected thieves murdered. In a 2008 outbreak in Congo, urgent messages went out by radio to avoid strangers wearing gold rings in taxis, leading police to put 13 suspected sorcerers into protective custody to prevent lynchings.”
  • Tablet Magazine explores the forbidden books of Jewish magic. Quote: “If most historical Judaisms have taken a transcendental approach to the magic taboo, the transgression-consummation dyad accounts for the simultaneous attraction and repulsion to magic one finds in so many Jewish sources. The highly charged polarity is responsible for producing myriad expressions of anxiety, the tracing of which may shed light on familiar facets of Jewish culture. The binary status of magic gave rise to contested formulations of its cultural position among rabbinic authorities. Was magic the most profound degradation of the spirit, or the highest actualization of human potential?”
  • Police in Siberia managed to stop an attempted witch-burning before it was too late. Quote: “In an unexpected incident worthy of the Spanish inquisition, a couple in eastern Siberia decided their acquaintance was a witch and attempted to burn her alive, though police stopped the impromptu auto-da-fe. The rescue came not a moment too soon, as the couple were at that moment forcing the alleged witch headfirst into a burning stove in an abandoned building, Zabaikalsky Region police said Thursday.”
  • From the “what could possibly go wrong” files, Oklahoma House passes “Merry Christmas” bill that would protect using religious expressions in public schools. Quote: “There is a war on Christians and Christmas, and anyone who would deny that is not paying close enough attention,” Cleveland said in a December 2013 press release. “This bill will create a layer of protection for our public school teachers and staff to freely discuss and celebrate Christmas without worrying about offending someone.” Don’t worry though, the proposed law calls for Christianity to share the stage with at least ONE other faith and/or secular expression. Diversity!
  • A new book from a 20-year devotee alleges widespread corruption, nepotism, and abuse in the empire of “Hugging Saint” Mata “Amma” Amrithanandamayi. Quote: “An Australian woman, who served Mata Amrithanandamayi for two decades, has exposed in her memoir the “hugging saint’s” ashram as a murky world of physical, sexual and mental torture, promiscuity power-madness and intolerance.” The organization’s response? She’s crazy and depressed (no, really, that’s their response).
  • Slate.com mentions Santeria and Vodou elements in the hit HBO show “True Detective.” Quote: “Voodoo and Santeria have long inspired the authors who dabbled in cosmic horror. Louisiana Voodoo (otherwise known as “Hoodoo”), which draws upon African and European folk traditions alike, derives much of its occult resonance from such practices as vengeance by proxy (voodoo dolls), suspended animation (zombification), and gris-gris (talismans, not unlike the knocked-together fetish sculptures that Hart and Cohle discover at the scene of Dora Lange’s murder). The particular appeal of Louisiana Voodoo to cosmic-horror writers like Lovecraft and those who have followed in his footsteps comes not only from its supernaturalism, but from its cultural otherness as well.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Evo Morales receiving the blessing of the Aymara priests.

Evo Morales receiving the blessing of the Aymara priests.

  • Is Bolivia imposing an animist/indigenous worldview on Christians? That’s the charge some Christian groups are making in the wake of a new law which oversees the recognition of religious groups in the country. Quote: “They want to control the activities of the evangelical churches,” Agustín Aguilera, president of ANDEB, told the Santa Cruz newspaper El Deber. “Article 15 (of the law) would force all religious organizations to carry out our activities within the parameters of the ‘horizon of good living,’ which is based on the [ethnic] Aymara worldview. This is an imposition of a cultural and spiritual worldview totally foreign to ours.” It should be noted that the ethos of “Living Well,” while originating in indigenous thought, does not force a particular theology. Since Christianity Today is so concerned with people being forced to conform to religious philosophies not of their choosing, I’m sure they’ll speak out against a monarch in Nigeria who converted to Christianity and is now jettisoning traditional practices beloved by the locals. Right? Any day now…
  • Sociologist Robert Bartholomew says there’s a “sudden upsurge” in cases of mass psychogenic illness, better known in the common parlance as “mass hysteria” Worse, Bartholomew says that it can now spread via social media, which is bad news for those trying to prevent another “Satanic Panic,” or plain-old witch-hunt for that matter. Quote: “In a paper titled “Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Social Network: is it changing the pattern of outbreaks?” Bartholomew writes, ‘Local priests, who were inevitably summoned to exorcise the ‘demons’, faced a daunting task given the widespread belief in witchcraft, but they were fortunate in one regard: they did not have to contend with mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook.’ However, the old and the new are more intertwined than one might expect. Two separate strangers messaged Thera through Facebook saying she needed an exorcism.”
  • Greek Jews live in fear of the Golden Dawn, an extremist political party that’s been on the rise in the wake of austerity and fiscal crisis. Their words and actions are getting increasingly reminiscent of another European political party that arose during a time of fiscal crisis.  Quote: “In Athens on July 24, another song was heard — a Greek version of a Horst Wessel song, a Nazi anthem. The Golden Dawn Party blasted it outside its headquarters while handing out free food to “Greeks only.” Golden Dawn says it wants to “clean” Greece of foreigners. Its black-shirted supporters attack poor South Asian and African migrants, claiming they’re all in Greece illegally. The violence scares Orietta Treveza, a Greek-Jewish educator who has three young daughters. ‘It’s very scary because we think that we are next,’ she says. ‘It’s not going to end with the immigrants.'” For those wondering, the party did/does embrace nationalistic pseudo-pagan trappings, but has also realized the populist potential of catering to Greek Orthodoxy. Like most fascists, belief and tradition are simply avenues to power.
  • Satanic Panic bottom-feeder Bob Larson and his troupe of teenage exorcists have hit London, and the results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Quote: “Savannah seriously weighed in on why London is full of dark forces, explaining, ‘I think it’s been centuries in the making, but I believe it all kind of came to a pinnacle, a peak, with the Harry Potter books that have come out, and the Harry Potter rage that swept across England.’ Her sister Tess agreed, commenting, ‘The spells and things that you’re reading in the Harry Potter books? Those aren’t just something that are made up– those are actual spells. Those are things that came from witchcraft books.'” There’s the fruit of reality television for you, anything so long as it draws attention. Oh, and there’s going to be new Harry Potter soon, so I guess Satan wins again?
  • A United Nations housing expert has criticized a new “bedroom tax” in the UK, so naturally the Daily Fail accuses her of being a Marxist Witch. Quote: “Her lengthy CV lists countless qualifications, civic achievements, books and publications – but Raquel Rolnik makes no mention of dabbling in witchcraft. Yet the architect and urban planner appears to be an avid follower of Candomble, an African-Brazilian religion that originated during the slave trade. The academic, brought up a Marxist, actually offered an animal sacrifice to Karl Marx…” This is yet another reason why Pagans should not support or link to this tabloid.
An image from the "Abused Goddesses" campaign against domestic violence.

An image from the “Abused Goddesses” campaign against domestic violence.

  • A lot of attention has been paid recently to the “Abused Goddesses” awareness campaign against domestic violence, which features representations of Hindu goddesses that carry bruises and cuts from beatings. However, reactions from Hindus have been somewhat mixed. Praneta Jha of the Hindustan Times says that “trapping women into images of a supposed ideal is one of the oldest strategies of patriarchy – and if we do not fit the image, it is deemed alright to ‘punish’ and violate us.” Sayantani DasGupta at The Feminist Wire notes that “these images of Hindu goddesses looking sorrowful and downtrodden undermine culturally located sources of female power – however ‘contradictory’.” Lakshmi Chaudhry calls it a “giant step backward for womankind,” and USF professor Vamsee Juluri adds that “there has been such a great deal of misrepresentation, if not outright malicious propaganda, about Hinduism, that the campaign already seems to many Hindus to be a perpetuation of that, rather than a sincere attempt to address the real problem of domestic violence.” Finally, Suhag A. Shukla says that “what will be the ultimate test of the success of this campaign, however, is if it is able to stop the first of many abusers from letting his raised hand meet its intended target.”
  • Does philosophy have a problem with women? Katy Waldman at Slate.com ponders: “Taken one by one, the various explanations for philosophy’s woman problem are like Zeno’s arrow, inching ever closer to a target they can’t quite hit.”
  • In Israel, the tradition of participating in the kaparot ritual using a live chicken has caused debate after MK Rabbi Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid called the practice “deplorable” and “pagan.” Quote: “The ritual involves circling a live chicken over one’s head three times and symbolically transferring one’s sins to the animal. The chicken is then slaughtered and eaten. Many have the practice of donating the chicken’s meat to the poor […] Lipman urged Jews to perform the kaparot ritual with money or with flowers instead, as many currently do.”
  • Mitch Horowitz writes about how the occult brought cremation to America. Quote: “Cremation was introduced to America in the 1870s by a retired Civil War colonel, Henry Steel Olcott. As a Union Army staff colonel and military investigator, Olcott had amassed a distinguished record, which included routing out fraud among defense contractors and making some of the first arrests in the Lincoln assassination. In his post-military life as a lawyer and journalist, Olcott developed a deep interest in the esoteric and paranormal — which drove his fascination with the then-exotic rite of burning the dead.”
  • Definition of a slow news day: these leaves and overgrowth on power lines look somewhat like a witch! Wow! Really? Let’s get that spread around as quickly as possible.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

For many, today is Easter. While I have never personally celebrated the holiday, I confess to having enjoyed some of its trappings, such as egg hunts, pastel M&Ms and peeps. While those were always a treat, springtime marked a very different religious celebration for me.

You’re thinking of Ostara. Of course, that’s true. But also…Passover.

Passover Seder Plate

Passover Seder Plate
Source: thedailygreen.com

I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d come home from school and don our fancy clothing. That meant a tie and jacket for my brother and a pretty dress for me. Then we’d watch Mom pace back and forth as we waited for my father to return home from work. We absolutely had to make it to my Uncle’s house before sundown.  As I child, I was sure this had something to do with Vampires. I was quite disappointed to learn otherwise.

Upon arriving at my Uncle’s house, my mother would head to the kitchen to deliver her farfel cupcakes while my brother and I were inundated with hugs, kisses and pinches. We would all schmooze a bit while the final guests arrived. Then, at last, my Uncle would call everyone to the super-extended dining room table. The men and boys quickly affixed their yarmulkes and the Seder would begin.

Yes, Passover was my favorite Jewish holiday – gefilte fish and all. Even after twenty years of being Wiccan, I still buy a box of Matzoh. I have even found myself humming “The Four Questions” on occasion. This is sort of like the Passover caroling.

There are very few Pagans who are second-generation practitioners like Wild Hunt columnist Eric Scott.  Most of us have an alternate religious heritage with one or more stops along the way.  In order to embrace our Pagan path, we’ve had to acknowledge, reject and walk away from these traditions. For some people, like myself, the transition was painless. For others it was and still may be a struggle. In either case, something else was there, in secular or spiritual form, during our lives B.P. (Before Paganism)

Growing up as a “none,” I didn’t have to uproot any religious dogma – only a deeply-embedded cultural tradition. At the time of my 3rd degree initiation, I was forced to examine my nostalgic attachment to Jewish custom. Was I trying to walk two paths?  Why did the culture mean so much?  What if I say “Oy Gevalt” in the middle of ritual?

At first I tried to reject my Jewish-ness but then I realized how senseless this was.  My family’s heritage is as much a part of my spiritual journey as anything else. That epiphany got me thinking.  If Judaism, in part, has defined my understanding of religiosity, how have other people’s Pagan practices shaped by their own experiences B.P?

This idea came to light one Mabon while my covenmates were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer. We never did this at Seder or otherwise. Jewish prayers were said with heads up, eyes open and wine glasses raised.  Is “hand holding and head bowing” a remnant of Christian tradition?  If so, that’s not a bad thing, just a curiosity. Our history enriches our lives. Denying its existence is denying a part of the self.

Source: David French of aclj.org

Source: David French of aclj.org

Since fully embracing my Jewish identity, I feel more complete. In addition, I have discovered why Passover was such a highlight. It is the powerful importance of family and tradition.  Every spring we sat around that same table with the same crowd of people to tell the same story and eat the same food. I felt like I was a part of something magical. These people were my tribe. Despite all political differences, divorces and dirty dishes, we came together year after year after year.

Recently, I began to wonder how these memories could be used to enhance my Pagan practice. What can I borrow from Passover, for example, to strengthen my Wiccan journey?  No, I’m not talking about making a Pagan Seder. I’d consider that cultural appropriation as defined by Yvonne Aburrow: “taking someone else’s practice and doing it in a completely different context where it does not fit.”

Nor am I suggesting that we tell the Passover story within an Ostara ritual. Nobody needs to be re-enacting the ten plaques. Blood, Frogs, Lice, Flies, Pestilence, Boils, Hail, Locus, Darkness…Death of the First Born Son. That could get pretty ugly.  Plus, I’m quite certain that it violates the “An ye harm none” clause.

So what can we do with these tales of religions past?

In his recent Patheos post John Morehead, the custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, asked, “Will we ever be able to move beyond our history of ignorance, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, bigotry, and combativeness?”  He later goes on to say, “It would seem to me that we have limited options in the way forward.”  Could our experiences B.P. be one of these “limited options”? Could our memories of participating in other religious cultural moments become the tools of interfaith outreach – the stepping stones to better communication?

I would venture to guess that there are very few religious groups that have as many followers as Pagans do who once were “something else.”  This is a unique quality that can ultimately work in our favor. The sharing of common experience can open doorways, disarm the mind and break-down the barriers between people. Nostalgia is a wonderful bonding agent.  I can  schmooze with Jewish people about Passover, keeping kosher and the best charoset recipe. Add in a bit of Yiddish and we have an instant connection.

What do you remember from life B.P.?  Maybe it’s that single magical moment sitting quietly before a Christmas tree filled with gifts? Perhaps it is the beautiful harmony of a Church choir? Or maybe you remember the frantic need to collect more plastic eggs than your brother?  Perhaps it’s more simple like the smell of your Grandmother’s homemade Baklava or the struggle to make it through fast.

Source: Old Salem Inc of Flickr

Source: Old Salem Inc of Flickr

These captured moments are a part of the creation that is each of us. As Pagans, especially those who engage in interfaith work, we can use these memories to help us build a bridge to those of others faiths. Instead of entering the conversation with shields up, we can enter the discussion from a point of remembrance. Once that platform of trust is built, a deeper discussion about spirituality and journeying can happen.

I do understand that not everyone has had a painless religious journey. I am privileged in that respect and I speak from that point. In addition, not everyone has been called to or is interested in interfaith work. However, for those that do, this is something to consider when casually coming in contact with non-Pagan activities or engaging with them in formal settings.

How have you incorporated your past religious heritage into your current practices?  What remnants of life B.P. still remain?  Have any of those experiences helped in your Pagan journey or in interfaith work?

 

 

My Life as a “None”

Heather Greene —  February 3, 2013 — 16 Comments

Before I started writing for The Wild Hunt, Jason suggested that I introduce myself.  I never did and time scurried away.  So today, I’m going to share with you a personal revelation – an admission, of sorts.  I frequently write about my Jewish upbringing.  But now I must confess that I was really only Jew-ish.  In actuality, I was raised a “none.”

antique photograph

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s curtis4x5

As I child, I lived in a wholly secular family environment. We didn’t have a mezuzah.  We didn’t belong to a temple. Religion had no place in our lives. Words like “prayer,” “faith” and “God” were foreign terms used by other people. Existence was explained through science and philosophy. Ethics were harvested from history, art and experience.

And so it was, my life as a “none.”  Before I continue, let me be clear. We were not atheists, agnostics or humanists.  We were nothing.  We just lived in the world as it presented itself; which, as it turns out, was very religiously diverse. While that eclectic environment was fundamentally excellent, the diversity eventually became a problem.

Everyone around me had a religious identity linking them to a community filled with rich tradition and heritage. Through these identities, they had a defined relationship with spirit.  Some kids went to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes and others to Hebrew school. Some missed school for Yom Kippur and others fasted during Ramadan.

While I felt the presence of spirit, I had no means of accessing it. The few Jewish prayers that I knew were spoken in a foreign language; rendering them spiritually useless.  I was left standing alone outside the religious speak-easy with no password to enter.

This void became my burden and my quest.  I clung desperately to the small trickle of Jewish culture that was accessible.  In doing so, I did find my cultural heritage but, unfortunately, I found no suitable relationship to spirit.

Astronomical Clock in Prague Courtesy of Anthony Dodd

Astronomical Clock in Prague
Courtesy of Anthony Dodd

As the wheel turns, life changes. I am no longer nothing.  My quest led me to Wicca and my burden was left at some doorstep long ago. Interestingly enough, I can also now say that I was never nothing.  There is finally a label for what I was: “religiously unaffiliated.”  I was a “none.”  According to Pew Forum, the “unaffiliated” population has now grown from 5-10%, in the 1980s, to today’s 19.8% of the overall population. This growth warranted finally giving the group a name.

What has fuelled this growth?  Harvard Professor, Robert Putnam told NPR, “this young generation has been distancing itself from community institutions…” Putnam goes on to relate this phenomenon to the heavily polarized socio-political landscape with regards to religion. While that may be so, I’d also suggest that this increase coincides with our transformation into an independent “do-it-yourself” society.  (e.g. Home Depot, You Tube, TiVo, eTrade.)  We now have “do-it-yourself” religion.

While that sounds as if I’m mocking the concept, I’m not.  Remember, I was raised a “none.”  As such, I’ve always participated in creative, off-beat religious expression.  One year, we renamed our secular Christmas holiday to “Peacemas,” celebrated with Jewish friends, Kugel and Pictionary. 

Additionally, secular culture is increasingly able to fill the void that plagued me as child – one of connectivity. Of course, the internet plays a big role, but outside of that, “nones” are connecting in the physical world.  Just this month, the First Church of Atheism opened its doors in the U.K.  Founder Sanderson Jones said, “We want all the things that are good about bringing a community together and make us better people, just without God being involved.”

Similarly, Calgary boasts the new Calgary Secular Church.  Founder Korey Peters explained, “We are a small group of a-religious or atheist people who want the community and celebration we used to have in our Christian (or Mormon) churches.”  These “nones” are searching, as I did, for the community connection that only comes through one’s relationship to spirit; whether that spirit be through humanity or other secular modalities.

Reason Rally

Summer Reason Rally in WDC
Courtesy of CNN.com

Now there’s even a movement.  I suppose someone stood up and said, “Hey, wait!  There are a lot of us.  What can we do with that?” Dale McGowan, director of Foundation Beyond Belief , told CNN:

Part of it is trying to consolidate … cultural presence. That has something to do with politics, but it is also more generally cultural…Much as churches and synagogues foster and nurture communities, Atheists can do the same to gain clout and broader acceptance

On January 26th in Atlanta, the eighth annual Heads Meeting took place. It was attended by leaders from various secular organizations such as; The American Humanist Association, Foundations Beyond Belief, The Center for Inquiry, and American Athiests. They met to discuss the socio-political future of the “non-affiliated.”  Dale McGowan explains:

These groups operated separately from each other and sometimes at odds with each other. There was a realization that we should meet once a year and come together on the goals that we have in common.

What makes a “none?”  How do they distill all that diversity into one single word?  What is the defining point?  Simply put, they all check “not affiliated.”  That’s it. That’s what binds them. That’s what makes them “nones.”

I relate this to art. The “nones” are the negative space – the environment around the meticulously drawn picture. Good artists always carefully consider their negative space because in visual imagery, nothing is always something. As a child, I was defined as nothing.  Now, the “nones,” are embracing that definition; being defined by what they are not.  They are the negative space filling 20% of the collective social canvas. They are something.

Many years ago, I left the life of “nothing” and found a spiritual path, a deep connection to humanity through the language of Wicca.  I went from being a “none” to being a Priestess; from the negative space to the positive.  Why are the “nones” important to me now?  Why should they be important to Pagans?

The “nones’” cultural evolution appears to be running almost parallel to the Pagan movement.  Just as they did, many of us looked up one day and said, “Hey, wait! There are a lot of us.  What can do with that?”  We are asking similar questions. Do we need to organize?  Should we build institutions? How can we foster community? Do we need leaders?  And most importantly, how do we define “Pagan?”  Where is the checkbox on the form?  We have much to learn from the “nones.”

BeachGirlAs for my personal journey, I can now better appreciate my childhood.  My parents’ secular path allowed me the freedom to eventually build my own relationship to religion; to become a spiritual artist.  Where once there was angst and frustration, there is now respect and gratitude.

To this day, my life as a “none” colors my Wiccan experience. I enjoy drawing the sacred out of the secular and finding the magick in the mainstream. While I have yet to do a full moon ritual with Broadway music, I can see the creative possibilities. For me, the lines between the secular and the sacred are blurred, colored by the language of Wicca. I do still check “unaffiliated” and will continue to do so until Wicca or Pagan has its own check box.

What’s it like to be a religious minority in a Christian-dominated culture? Jews on First has published a must-read in-depth exploration of what it’s like for Jewish students going to public schools in the South, consistently exposed to peer pressure and conversion attempts by their Christian classmates, behavior often (directly and indirectly) supported by faculty.

Hint: The "Fifth Quarter" is about Jesus.

Hint: The “Fifth Quarter” is about Jesus.

“It can be the little stuff, like my classmates wishing me to have a ‘blessed day’. I know that really means that Jesus blesses you,” says Jane. “I have a friend who introduces me as her ‘Jewish friend, Jane’. It’s always in your face. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded that I’m a Jew.” [..] One parent relates how his son would eat breakfast in the school cafeteria when a group of athletes would come in and “perform” for the students. “They would basically lift weights for about 30 minutes,” then go to the microphone and “announce that Christ helped them become athletes. After five or 10 minutes of sermon, they would pray and leave,” but meanwhile the students eating breakfast were not allowed to leave the cafeteria and were obviously a captive audience with no option to “not hear.”

Because court rulings have largely forbade faculty and staff from directly proselytizing, local churches use various tricks like the aforementioned “performance” to introduce stealth missionary work into the student body. One Rabbi in Atlanta notes that Christian students are urged by their churches to work towards the conversion of non-Christian students.

“…according to Rabbi Greene, one of the largest evangelical churches in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, even provides literature to its young members about “how to approach your Jewish friends.” He calls the effort “love bombing.” Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, which isn’t far from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, agrees that ‘they are very aggressive in their proselytizing and will teach Christianity to anyone who will listen. One of my former Hebrew School students came to me recently and said he accepted Christ; he’s confused.'”

In public school systems that are religiously and culturally diverse, the issue of student conversions is almost non-existent, evangelical Christian students are simply one voice among several; but when your school is in a region dominated by mission-minded Christians, the tone and tenor of student interactions suddenly changes. Instead of one voice, Christianity becomes the only voice, the dominant voice, among the student body. Those who don’t fit into that template find themselves consistently battered by the expectation that they too will fall in line. Christian leaders in these areas are well aware of this power, which is why they fight for state constitutional amendments that open “the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing” and “religious freedom” laws that they know will benefit the majority at the expense of minorities.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Public schools are supposed to be secular by design, they have to serve the needs of all students, not simply those who are in the majority. These initiatives by local churches and missionary groups are trying to “game” the system by turning the student body into a peer pressure engine against non-Christian students. These are not natural conversion experiences that arise after deep contemplation or introspection, this is the equivalent of religious bullying, turning all those who resist into social outsiders. The experience of these Jewish students and parents is shared by other religious minorities in deeply Christian areas of the country, including modern Pagans. Sadly, these students often have to turn to outside help, or even litigation, to make sure their own religious autonomy is respected, as the faculty and staff are often sympathetic to these conversion efforts.

Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and non-Christian religious leaders. It makes them the enemy, and they turn the message of Christ into a sort of bludgeon in which to control behavior they don’t like.

[The following is a post from The Wild Hunt archives. The Wild Hunt is on hiatus through Labor Day weekend and will return with new posts on Tuesday, September 4th.]

Despite the fact that the history of the United States is incredibly well-documented, many of us labor under various misapprehensions regarding our nation’s past. This seems especially true of America’s religious history. Lately it seems as if there’s been an inundation of pundits, amateur historians, and demagogues trying to frame us into a reductive (Protestant) Christian mold, painting a picture of harmony and piety that endured until the post-60s culture wars started raging. This sort of narrative leaves little room for religious minorities and outsiders to understand their own experiences, or draw accurate lessons from history. While recent books by Leigh SchmidtChas Clifton,Courtney Bender, and others, have taken the time to explore religious perspectives outside of this paradigm, there’s still a great need to deconstruct and analyze just how our current ideas about American religiosity were formed.

Kevin M. Schultz, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Chicago, in his new book “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” recounts how goodwill and interfaith groups in the early 20th century battled a rise of nativistic politics, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism to forge the notion of a “Judeo-Christian” America and ultimately (and somewhat unintentionally) usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. A look at how toxic religious nativism can be avoided in favor of pluralism, and how mistrusted religious minorities navigated an America dominated by Protestant Christianity. I think Schultz’s book should be required reading, especially for religious minorities currently struggling for equal treatment in American culture. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Kevin M. Schultz about the book, exploring how a new religious image of America was formed in the 20th century, how religious conservatives today exploit that image, and what lessons religious minorities today can take from this period in history.

What prompted you to write “Tri-Faith America?” It certainly seem very relevant to the state of religion and politics in America today. Do you feel this is a bit of forgotten history?

When I wrote “Tri-Faith America,” I wrote it purely as a piece of history. I was interested in the debates about pluralism and “getting along” that took place during World War II, or more generally after the 1930s, when class differences dominated American politics, and before the 1960s, when the civil rights movement thrust race so dramatically into the national consciousness.

As I began to investigate the question, which was in fact not very often investigated, it became increasingly clear to me that battles between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were vitally important to Americans of that era. These debates dominated the development of the suburbs, the Supreme Court cases, the census, what should be taught in schools, and even the make-up of Little League teams.

It was only after I discovered all these debates that I saw how they fit into the question about whether or not America is a Christian nation, a debate that, as your question suggests, is relevant to the state of religion and politics today. Many of the actors in my story were saying things like “We need a broader, more inclusive, and more accurate conception of the American nation.” Given the limits of the time, they adopted a “tri-faith” model, inviting Catholics and Jews to the table for the first time.

I think many people would be surprised at how manufactured our modern ideas of America as a “Judeo-Christian” country are, that we went from a status quo where, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” to one where the commonalities between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were stressed and a united religious front seen as vital to our nation. It seems remarkable that interfaith and goodwill organizations were able to so quickly turn the United States away from the growing nativism of the times. I understand that WW2 was a great cultural unifier, but the momentum had begun even before that. To what do you ascribe the underlying success of this “tri-faith” effort?

First off, I think I’d disagree with the part of the question where you say “were able to so quickly turn the US away from nativism.” It took a lot of work!

But I think two things are at play in this transformation, a transformation from, to put it too simply, nativism to an acceptance of pluralism. First, and I don’t go into this much in my book, a lot of Americans were challenging the underlying structures of racism, things like the 19th century notion of the hierarchy of races, which of course always premised white Protestant superiority and then had all other groups lower in the hierarchy, with black people always at the bottom. Lots of Americans were challenging this idea in the first decades of the twentieth century–scientists, Leftist Jewish intellectuals, some progressive reformers, many folks in the labor movement of the 1930s, and my interfaith folks, who were demanding greater inclusion and a new national image.

Out of this mix arose the folks I study in the book, who worked hard to reconceptualize the predominate notion of what it meant to be an American. They went on the road, setting up little morality plays with a priest, a rabbi, and a minister on stage all jabbing each other, asking the hard questions–can a non-Catholic get to Heaven? Do Jews run the world? They went to Des Moines and Debuque. They filmed movie-shorts. Ironically, they were helped greatly by Adolf Hitler, who presented an image that Americans sought to avoid, and one way of doing so was by being tolerant of other faiths. The US Armed Forced supported it too, somewhat remarkably inviting these religious advocates on military bases all over the world, one of the only non-military groups to be given such access. Then the Cold War against those godless communists cemented the image of America as a land of religious pluralism.

So it took some time, and was the result of people working hard to create a new image of America.

One thing that struck me in your book is seeing Catholics as outsiders, as a somewhat suspect religious minority struggling to gain political and social parity with the nation’s Protestants. One quote in particular from Carlton J.H. Hayes (the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews) seemed particularly relevant: “I have always maintained that in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” With Catholics now the largest Christian denomination in the United States, I can’t imagine a prominent Catholic lay-leader repeating these words, or words very much like them. The idea of the politically dominant faiths in this country “assuring justice and true toleration” to smaller faiths now seems almost radical. Are shifts away from sentiments like these simply a by-product of success? Has tri-faith America lost the ethos of protecting religious minorities today?

Ah, but Catholics were the largest Christian denomination even then, although most Catholics take issue with the label “denomination.” Perhaps saying the largest group of Christians is better.

What changed was the nation’s perception of itself. Now, instead of having Protestants dominating the nation’s social and moral authority, most minority faiths are more or less tolerated and protected, and even to some extent endorsed. The addition of Muslim, Buddhist, and maybe soon a Wiccan chaplain in the military might be one example.

But this tolerance and pluralism came at a cost: conservatives of all stripes–Protestants, Catholics, and Jews–have seen all this tolerance as a sign of a secularizing society. The timing made this seem accurate–it began in the late 1960s and 1970s. So today, instead of having Catholics as a sizable minority demanding inclusion, now many Catholics see themselves as defending the last ramparts of Christianity and civilization. Any breech demands a response and minority faiths present a certain challenge–they might just be the camel’s nose in the tent.

An important split in post-war tri-faith unity was the differing visions of America’s religious future and the idea of pluralism. For Catholics, who were growing in prominence and influence, an “all-in” pluralism was endorsed, where every faith commingled (and competed) in the public square, but for the Jewish community, who were wary of Catholicism’s history of persecution in Europe, secularism seemed the best option. While legal efforts have raised the wall between church and state and helped bring about historic disestablishment rulings, this split over the role of religion in our public life now rages hotter than ever. Where do you think we are going? Will there be a re-establishment, or will post-war secular gains hold?

As a historian, I always hate to predict the future. And the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on religion in public life are awkward, but they do shine a little light. Basically the Supreme Court has said religious icons that are old–say, having “In God We Trust” on our money or “under God” in our pledge, both of which came in the 1950s–are okay. We’re honoring our past. But having new religious icons in public space–say, building a giant statue of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse–is a symbol of endorsement. This isn’t terribly doctrinaire or logical, but as a pragmatic decision, it makes some sense.

My notion is that as a society we will continue to create space for worshipers of all faiths, even secular humanists and atheists–and this is a direct follow up of Tri-Faith America. But alongside that, more and more people will be able to bring their religious perspective openly into the public sphere, and this won’t be automatic grounds for dismissal. The burden then, of course, is for religious people to be able to make secular arguments. The idea that same sex marriage is wrong because it contradicts your faith is fine, but why should everyone have to live to the standards of your faith? If you can create a secular argument for why same sex marriage should be outlawed, then there will be a conversation, and that’s the best we can hope for in a democracy!

While the forming of a Judeo-Christian consciousness had many benefits for future religious minority communities, most notably the idea that “there was no such thing as neutral advocacy of religion,” it also provided a language and framework for the conservative Christian activists of today. Today many of them off-handedly talk of our “Judeo-Christian” heritage, or invoke the post-war/early Cold War religious consensus as a period they’d like to return to. I was particularly taken aback by a quote from a Catholic newspaper that you highlight: “Non-Christian religious groups, prompted by the presence of many of their children in public schools, are seeking to dilute or to eliminate Christ from Christmas.” Rhetoric like that could have easily been placed in the mouth of many “keep Christ in Christmas” activists today. How much do conservative Christian activists owe to this period, and how much is their conception of history shaped by it?

Yes, I was struck by that too. A lot of the conversations I found in the archives could have happened on The Daily Show or Fox News last week. It was remarkable.

As for how much today’s conservatives owe to the formulations of middle of the twentieth century, I think the answer is “not much.” The reason is because they are ignorant of it. They think (as do lefties, I should add) that something called “Judeo-Christianity” has been around forever, when in fact it was more or less invented in the late 1930s to combat Hitler and to bring Jews into the fold of “good Americanism.” Well, the thinking then went, if we can’t be “Protestant” or even “Christian,” what’s next? Judeo-Christian? Okay, let’s go with that. It wasn’t quite this simple, but that was the progression of thought, and the effort was to increase inclusivity. Today’s conservatives, however, use “Judeo-Christian” as an exclusive term–to keep those secularists and atheists and Muslims and Hindus out–and that’s the real distinction.

As for bringing Christ back into Christmas, there is a long history to that complaint, going back to the early 20th century and basically the invention of mass marketing and advertising.

Today the splits in religion seem to be between liberal and conservative visions of America (and theology), not between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. You note that the United State’s growing religious diversity since the 1960s has “made it difficult to refer to the United States as a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’,” though this growth hasn’t supplanted the “liberal-conservative divide.” Is America moving towards a post-Christian identity, religiously speaking, or do you think the conservative religious alliances will manage to hold back (or even reverse) this tide?

Good question, and again I hate to guess about the future. I do think it would take extraordinary circumstances for the United States to become a “Christian nation,” whatever that might mean (and few advocates bother to develop a vision). There just are too many diverse faiths in America and too many constitutional protections to kill off all our religious pluralism. Plus, if you look back to colonial Massachusetts, even those folks felt like they were living in un-Christian times. Recall that the great form of speech then was the Jeremiad. The threat of a coming American godlessness has a long, long history.

If you were to offer a lesson from the history of Tri-Faith America for religious minorities struggling today for acceptance and equal treatment, what would it be?

Histories lessons are always complicated because the events of the past happen in contexts that are very different from those that exist today. One of the things the advocates of “Tri-Faith America” did quite successfully, though, was to present a positive and forceful image of what it meant to be an American, one that made their position the obvious next step. They were fighting over the meaning of America, and they were using historical actors and historical antecedents to push their vision forward. Today’s conservatives are much better at this than today’s liberals. But religious minorities in the past have used the various languages of good Americanism to show they belong, and those arguments were very successful for the people I study too.

My thanks to Kevin M. Schultz for the interview, you can find ”Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise” at AmazonBarnes & NoblePowell’sGoogle, and other fine book (and e-book) sellers.

Ever since his religious affiliation was outed to the general public back in 2009, Republican Dan Halloran has tried to keep the subject off his adherence to Theodish Heathenism, and on day-to-day political matters. After his Heathen faith became an issue in the successful 2009 campaign for a seat on the New York City Council, he finally released a public statement entitled “I believe in God,” which downplayed his Pagan identity, and stressed Halloran’s Catholic heritage.

Dan Halloran (left) receiving the endorsement of the Queens County GOP. (Photo courtesy Queens County Republicans)

Dan Halloran (left) receiving the endorsement of the Queens County GOP. (Photo courtesy Queens County Republicans)

I took comfort in my family’s history and our heritage, yet through all of this pain and hardship, I never lost faith in God. Last week, I was attacked for my faith in the Queens Tribune.These attacks happened on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest time of the year for the Jewish people. Having been raised in a Catholic household that shares its religious roots with the Jewish faith, I was deeply offended that religion would be used for political gain. […] I am a man of faith – and now my faith is under attack by a newspaper working for my opponent. I call on my opponent to disavow the Queens Tribune’s attack on religion. I am running a campaign on the issues.”

Not once in the statement does Halloran mention the terms “Heathen,” “Theodish,” or “Pagan.”  A fact that soured many in the Heathen community to Halloran, believing that they were “thrown under the bus” so he could win the election. From that point, Halloran has steered clear of talking explicitly about his faith, even when journalists dug up former co-religionists who made allegations relating to his leadership role within Theodism. In a 2010 interview with the Pagan Newswire Collective, Halloran reiterated that his faith is private, and “irrelevant” to any policy decision he might make.

“My service in the Council and advocacy for our neighborhoods has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that my religious faith is not only irrelevant to my public policy… but also a source of great personal strength for me which only inures to the benefit of my Community. I do occasionally hear that being a “Druid” explains why I am such an eco-conscious Republican.”

However, it now seems like Halloran may be willingly (if unwittingly) opening the “black box” of his religion by attacking one of his potential Democratic opponents in the upcoming congressional race. In an interview with the Jewish political blog Gestetner Updates, Halloran praises Assemblyman Rory Lancman as his toughest potential opponent, but also claims his voting record doesn’t reflect his personal faith.

“Unfortunately his voting record does not match his personal commitment to his faith,” he said. “He was on the opposite side of gay marriage; opposite side of abortion; and the opposite side on the issues of school vouchers, and tax credits and incentives for those who use private schools to educate our young children.”

In short, Halloran kinda implied that Lancman may be a bad Jew when it comes to these issues, echoing the criticisms of conservative New York Jews. That may seem like good politics when you’re trying to win over moderate and conservative Jews, but it also opens the “black box” of his own religion, making him fair game for similar questions and statements. Considering the fact that the Village Voice has already attacked Halloran for being a hypocrite, specifically on the question of abortion, it doesn’t seem wise to run on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“In early 2011, a legislative fight emerged in New York City over anti-abortion “pregnancy centers” advertising abortion counseling when they don’t actually offer abortions. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced a bill that would force such organizations to advertise that they don’t perform abortions and to disclose if they have any medical staff on hand.  […] Quinn’s bill would eventually pass overwhelmingly in the council without Halloran’s vote. According to Little Neck Patch, Halloran “did not see the issue . . . as a part of the decades-old debate over abortion rights.” (Still, through a spokesman, he also noted “the Council member is pro-life.”) […] The episode infuriated some of Halloran’s former followers, who not only had known him to be pro-choice, but also to be “pro-abortion to nearly the point of endorsing infanticide,” as one put it.

The Voice piece quotes Halloran at length defending abortion within the context of his faith, and while I publicly criticized the piece for crossing the line, this new interview now partially undercuts my argument that “too much is made of his faith, and in improper contexts.”

I can only think of three possibilities for why Halloran has decided to bring up same-sex marriage and abortion in the context of a potential opponent’s religion: that it was a mistake, that he felt it was a calculated risk worth the potential blowback, or he’s hoping to preemptively make the religion question moot by muddying the waters now, instead of during the general election. Whatever the reason, it just seems risky to open yourself up for attack after you’ve spent years saying your religion isn’t an issue for public debate or commentary.

In the coming weeks I’ll be highlighting a two-part guest commentary from our resident Theodism expert Nick Ritter on what Theodism is and isn’t, and the political career and congressional candidacy of Dan Halloran from a Theodish perspective. I feel that as this campaign heats up, it will be important to talk to voices who can bring more light to the issues that will no doubt be raised regarding religion. In the meantime you can listen to my podcast featuring Nick Ritter and PNC-Minnesota reporter Cara Schulz on Halloran’s congressional run. I fear we’re going to be hearing a lot about Halloran’s faith in the mainstream media come November, and we should be prepared for what that might mean for the broader Pagan and Heathen communities.

Despite the fact that the history of the United States is incredibly well-documented, many of us labor under various misapprehensions regarding our nation’s past. This seems especially true of America’s religious history. Lately it seems as if there’s been an inundation of pundits, amateur historians, and demagogues trying to frame us into a reductive (Protestant) Christian mold, painting a picture of harmony and piety that endured until the post-60s culture wars started raging. This sort of narrative leaves little room for religious minorities and outsiders to understand their own experiences, or draw accurate lessons from history. While recent books by Leigh Schmidt, Chas Clifton, Courtney Bender, and others, have taken the time to explore religious perspectives outside of this paradigm, there’s still a great need to deconstruct and analyze just how our current ideas about American religiosity were formed.

Kevin M. Schultz, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Chicago, in his new book “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” recounts how goodwill and interfaith groups in the early 20th century battled a rise of nativistic politics, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism to forge the notion of a “Judeo-Christian” America and ultimately (and somewhat unintentionally) usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. A look at how toxic religious nativism can be avoided in favor of pluralism, and how mistrusted religious minorities navigated an America dominated by Protestant Christianity. I think Schultz’s book should be required reading, especially for religious minorities currently struggling for equal treatment in American culture. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Kevin M. Schultz about the book, exploring how a new religious image of America was formed in the 20th century, how religious conservatives today exploit that image, and what lessons religious minorities today can take from this period in history.

What prompted you to write “Tri-Faith America?” It certainly seem very relevant to the state of religion and politics in America today. Do you feel this is a bit of forgotten history?

When I wrote “Tri-Faith America,” I wrote it purely as a piece of history. I was interested in the debates about pluralism and “getting along” that took place during World War II, or more generally after the 1930s, when class differences dominated American politics, and before the 1960s, when the civil rights movement thrust race so dramatically into the national consciousness.

As I began to investigate the question, which was in fact not very often investigated, it became increasingly clear to me that battles between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were vitally important to Americans of that era. These debates dominated the development of the suburbs, the Supreme Court cases, the census, what should be taught in schools, and even the make-up of Little League teams.

It was only after I discovered all these debates that I saw how they fit into the question about whether or not America is a Christian nation, a debate that, as your question suggests, is relevant to the state of religion and politics today. Many of the actors in my story were saying things like “We need a broader, more inclusive, and more accurate conception of the American nation.” Given the limits of the time, they adopted a “tri-faith” model, inviting Catholics and Jews to the table for the first time.

I think many people would be surprised at how manufactured our modern ideas of America as a “Judeo-Christian” country are, that we went from a status quo where, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” to one where the commonalities between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were stressed and a united religious front seen as vital to our nation. It seems remarkable that interfaith and goodwill organizations were able to so quickly turn the United States away from the growing nativism of the times. I understand that WW2 was a great cultural unifier, but the momentum had begun even before that. To what do you ascribe the underlying success of this “tri-faith” effort?

First off, I think I’d disagree with the part of the question where you say “were able to so quickly turn the US away from nativism.” It took a lot of work!

But I think two things are at play in this transformation, a transformation from, to put it too simply, nativism to an acceptance of pluralism. First, and I don’t go into this much in my book, a lot of Americans were challenging the underlying structures of racism, things like the 19th century notion of the hierarchy of races, which of course always premised white Protestant superiority and then had all other groups lower in the hierarchy, with black people always at the bottom. Lots of Americans were challenging this idea in the first decades of the twentieth century–scientists, Leftist Jewish intellectuals, some progressive reformers, many folks in the labor movement of the 1930s, and my interfaith folks, who were demanding greater inclusion and a new national image.

Out of this mix arose the folks I study in the book, who worked hard to reconceptualize the predominate notion of what it meant to be an American. They went on the road, setting up little morality plays with a priest, a rabbi, and a minister on stage all jabbing each other, asking the hard questions–can a non-Catholic get to Heaven? Do Jews run the world? They went to Des Moines and Debuque. They filmed movie-shorts. Ironically, they were helped greatly by Adolf Hitler, who presented an image that Americans sought to avoid, and one way of doing so was by being tolerant of other faiths. The US Armed Forced supported it too, somewhat remarkably inviting these religious advocates on military bases all over the world, one of the only non-military groups to be given such access. Then the Cold War against those godless communists cemented the image of America as a land of religious pluralism.

So it took some time, and was the result of people working hard to create a new image of America.

One thing that struck me in your book is seeing Catholics as outsiders, as a somewhat suspect religious minority struggling to gain political and social parity with the nation’s Protestants. One quote in particular from Carlton J.H. Hayes (the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews) seemed particularly relevant: “I have always maintained that in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” With Catholics now the largest Christian denomination in the United States, I can’t imagine a prominent Catholic lay-leader repeating these words, or words very much like them. The idea of the politically dominant faiths in this country “assuring justice and true toleration” to smaller faiths now seems almost radical. Are shifts away from sentiments like these simply a by-product of success? Has tri-faith America lost the ethos of protecting religious minorities today?

Ah, but Catholics were the largest Christian denomination even then, although most Catholics take issue with the label “denomination.” Perhaps saying the largest group of Christians is better.

What changed was the nation’s perception of itself. Now, instead of having Protestants dominating the nation’s social and moral authority, most minority faiths are more or less tolerated and protected, and even to some extent endorsed. The addition of Muslim, Buddhist, and maybe soon a Wiccan chaplain in the military might be one example.

But this tolerance and pluralism came at a cost: conservatives of all stripes–Protestants, Catholics, and Jews–have seen all this tolerance as a sign of a secularizing society. The timing made this seem accurate–it began in the late 1960s and 1970s. So today, instead of having Catholics as a sizable minority demanding inclusion, now many Catholics see themselves as defending the last ramparts of Christianity and civilization. Any breech demands a response and minority faiths present a certain challenge–they might just be the camel’s nose in the tent.

An important split in post-war tri-faith unity was the differing visions of America’s religious future and the idea of pluralism. For Catholics, who were growing in prominence and influence, an “all-in” pluralism was endorsed, where every faith commingled (and competed) in the public square, but for the Jewish community, who were wary of Catholicism’s history of persecution in Europe, secularism seemed the best option. While legal efforts have raised the wall between church and state and helped bring about historic disestablishment rulings, this split over the role of religion in our public life now rages hotter than ever. Where do you think we are going? Will there be a re-establishment, or will post-war secular gains hold?

As a historian, I always hate to predict the future. And the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on religion in public life are awkward, but they do shine a little light. Basically the Supreme Court has said religious icons that are old–say, having “In God We Trust” on our money or “under God” in our pledge, both of which came in the 1950s–are okay. We’re honoring our past. But having new religious icons in public space–say, building a giant statue of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse–is a symbol of endorsement. This isn’t terribly doctrinaire or logical, but as a pragmatic decision, it makes some sense.

My notion is that as a society we will continue to create space for worshipers of all faiths, even secular humanists and atheists–and this is a direct follow up of Tri-Faith America. But alongside that, more and more people will be able to bring their religious perspective openly into the public sphere, and this won’t be automatic grounds for dismissal. The burden then, of course, is for religious people to be able to make secular arguments. The idea that same sex marriage is wrong because it contradicts your faith is fine, but why should everyone have to live to the standards of your faith? If you can create a secular argument for why same sex marriage should be outlawed, then there will be a conversation, and that’s the best we can hope for in a democracy!

While the forming of a Judeo-Christian consciousness had many benefits for future religious minority communities, most notably the idea that “there was no such thing as neutral advocacy of religion,” it also provided a language and framework for the conservative Christian activists of today. Today many of them off-handedly talk of our “Judeo-Christian” heritage, or invoke the post-war/early Cold War religious consensus as a period they’d like to return to. I was particularly taken aback by a quote from a Catholic newspaper that you highlight: “Non-Christian religious groups, prompted by the presence of many of their children in public schools, are seeking to dilute or to eliminate Christ from Christmas.” Rhetoric like that could have easily been placed in the mouth of many “keep Christ in Christmas” activists today. How much do conservative Christian activists owe to this period, and how much is their conception of history shaped by it?

Yes, I was struck by that too. A lot of the conversations I found in the archives could have happened on The Daily Show or Fox News last week. It was remarkable.

As for how much today’s conservatives owe to the formulations of middle of the twentieth century, I think the answer is “not much.” The reason is because they are ignorant of it. They think (as do lefties, I should add) that something called “Judeo-Christianity” has been around forever, when in fact it was more or less invented in the late 1930s to combat Hitler and to bring Jews into the fold of “good Americanism.” Well, the thinking then went, if we can’t be “Protestant” or even “Christian,” what’s next? Judeo-Christian? Okay, let’s go with that. It wasn’t quite this simple, but that was the progression of thought, and the effort was to increase inclusivity. Today’s conservatives, however, use “Judeo-Christian” as an exclusive term–to keep those secularists and atheists and Muslims and Hindus out–and that’s the real distinction.

As for bringing Christ back into Christmas, there is a long history to that complaint, going back to the early 20th century and basically the invention of mass marketing and advertising.

Today the splits in religion seem to be between liberal and conservative visions of America (and theology), not between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. You note that the United State’s growing religious diversity since the 1960s has “made it difficult to refer to the United States as a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’,” though this growth hasn’t supplanted the “liberal-conservative divide.” Is America moving towards a post-Christian identity, religiously speaking, or do you think the conservative religious alliances will manage to hold back (or even reverse) this tide?

Good question, and again I hate to guess about the future. I do think it would take extraordinary circumstances for the United States to become a “Christian nation,” whatever that might mean (and few advocates bother to develop a vision). There just are too many diverse faiths in America and too many constitutional protections to kill off all our religious pluralism. Plus, if you look back to colonial Massachusetts, even those folks felt like they were living in un-Christian times. Recall that the great form of speech then was the Jeremiad. The threat of a coming American godlessness has a long, long history.

If you were to offer a lesson from the history of Tri-Faith America for religious minorities struggling today for acceptance and equal treatment, what would it be?

Histories lessons are always complicated because the events of the past happen in contexts that are very different from those that exist today. One of the things the advocates of “Tri-Faith America” did quite successfully, though, was to present a positive and forceful image of what it meant to be an American, one that made their position the obvious next step. They were fighting over the meaning of America, and they were using historical actors and historical antecedents to push their vision forward. Today’s conservatives are much better at this than today’s liberals. But religious minorities in the past have used the various languages of good Americanism to show they belong, and those arguments were very successful for the people I study too.

My thanks to Kevin M. Schultz for the interview, you can find “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise” at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Google, and other fine book (and e-book) sellers.