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Last year I warned that intensifying polarization over the issue of illegal immigration was leading to the demonization of Santeria and related syncretic faiths practiced by immigrants. Since then things have only gotten worse, especially in Arizona where a series of draconian lawsincluding one tailored to eliminate public school classes that are seen as too Mexican-focused, have deepened divisions. It didn’t have to be this way, many prominent conservatives, including George W. Bush, Orrin HatchCharles HagelRichard Lugar, and John McCain once supported compromise legislation like the DREAM Act, and  large swathes of Americans (including conservatives) support establishing a path to citizenship. I note this because I don’t think finding solutions to immigration issues has to be partisan, and that politicians who employ “kick ‘em all out” rhetoric are unwittingly feeding something ugly that they may not be able to control. I say this as preface to a startlingly ugly editorial in the Telegraph by conservative historian Tim Stanley, who frames illegal immigration not simply in terms of economics or crime, but as a religious war with a “Mexican death cult.”

Santa Muerte

“…the debate about illegal immigration isn’t just about competition over jobs or lingering white racism. Many Americans share the European fear that mass migration is subverting their democratic culture from within. In the same way that exotic cells of Jihadists have established themselves in London and Paris, criminal gangs motivated by bloodlust and kinky spiritualism have been found living in the suburbs of Boston and Atlanta. One of its many manifestations is the cult of Santa Meurte. [...] Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in America venerate Santa Muerte and have no association with crime. Nor is the cult purely ethnic: in North California, the Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage is tended by a woman of Dutch-American descent. But the prevalence of Santa Muerte imagery among drug traffickers injects an interesting cultural dimension to the debate over illegal immigration. It accentuates American fears that the drug war in Mexico is turning into an invasion of the USA by antidemocratic fanatics.”

While Stanley does include the disclaimer that many Mexicans who venerate Santa Muerte aren’t criminals, that is more than counter-balanced by connecting Santa Muerte to Muslim extremism over and over again.

“The goal of these groups is to undermine democracy and govern autonomous secret societies through family, blood and religion. [...] in Mexico, family and religion filled the vacuum left by the failure of socialism.”

I would recommend not reading the comments section of this editorial as it makes the most heated debates here at The Wild Hunt look like happy playtime, but there was one comment I thought was worth mentioning from R. Andrew Chestnut, author of the forthcoming book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” from Oxford University Press.

“The more “vicious threat” we face than Santa Muerte worshipers is our own insatiable demand for the methamphetamines, marihuana, and heroin supplied by the narco cartels. Moreover, Santa Muete (Saint Death) is a more complex folk saint than the demonic Grim Reapress of your piece. She aslo has many devotees among Mexican law enforcement.”

Indeed, if there’s a spiritual war being waged, it’s internal, not external.

“In secret meetings that draw on elements of Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Santeria and Mexican witchcraft, priests are slaughtering chickens on full moon nights on beaches, smearing police with the blood and using prayers to evoke spirits to guard them as drug cartels battle over smuggling routes into California. Other police in the city of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, tattoo their bodies with Voodoo symbols, believing they can repel bullets.”

The worship of Santa Muerte is a complex thing, not easily used as proof of some sort of larger constructed “Mexican death cultists vs. United States Christian values” meme, and certainly not limited to being a “narco-saint”.

The authorities have condemned Santa Muerte as a “narco-saint,” worshipped by drug traffickers, cartel assassins and dope slingers. But the worship is more a reflection of contemporary Mexico, says the anthropologist J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, the author of “La Santa Muerte: Protector of Mankind.” The cult is an urban pop amalgam, New Age meets heavy metal meets Virgin of Guadalupe. It is no accident that it is also cross-cultural — that the centers of worship are the poor, proud heart of Mexico City and the violent frontier lands of Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana. The cult borrows equally from Hollywood and the Aztec underworld. Altars, necklaces and tattoos honoring Santa Muerte also make appearances in Mexican American neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Boston. “The believers may be drug dealers, doctors, carpenters, housewives. The cult accepts all. No matter the social status or age or sexual preference. Even transsexuals. Even criminals. That’s very important, that the cult of Santa Muerte accepts everyone,” Perdigón told me, “because death takes one and all.”

Editorials like Stanley’s do nothing more than feed fear and hysteria, creating further roadblocks to addressing illegal immigration in a constructive ways by framing the problem as war for the religious soul of America itself. Reinforcing that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, aren’t simply “taking our jobs” they are something truly “other,” and not to be trusted. This leads to anti-immigration sentiment manifesting in ways that targets the very beliefs (or at least assumed beliefs) of immigrant groups (illegal or not). This leads to profiling, and ultimately, hate crimes. By saying that some illegal immigrants might be secret death-cultists who are just as bad as Muslim extremists, you tar all immigrants with suspicion and fear. A point that’s acknowledged by Stanley in his editorial.

“Sadly, Mexicans seeking work get caught in this existential drama and are either swallowed up into the gangs or demonised in the US for crimes they have not committed. Nevertheless, Americans of every ethnicity are legitimately concerned about their country being poisoned by a criminal subculture that blends political corruption with ritualised murder. Europeans should not be so quick to judge their transatlantic friends. Americans face a vicious threat of their own.”

Nevertheless, nevertheless, nevertheless. Repeat it like a mantra until the guilt of harming the innocent along with the guilty fades from the waking mind. Don’t think about the followers of Santa Muerte or other “cults” practiced by immigrants that will now be seen as suspicious simply because they believe as they do. Even if they have a visa, or are second, third, or forth generation United States citizens. Even if they pay the same taxes and have the same worries, we now must worry if they are secretly in league with “antidemocratic fanatics.” This kind of editorial is dangerous tinder for fires that aren’t easily put out, once lit. Fear-mongering of this sort does nothing to solve the problems posed by illegal immigration, or of drug trafficking, all it does is create something new to worry about.

Back in November the Telegraph’s blog editor and alleged religion reporter Damian Thompson kicked off a tempest-in-a-teapot over whether the BBC was “sucking up” to Pagans during the Halloween/Samhain season. This is apparently part of the perennial British media sport of BBC bashing, but UK Pagans were unamused at Thompson’s undisguised ignorant venom and made complaints to the aptly named Press Complaints Commission. Thompson, a conservative Catholic, was apparently wounded deeply at Pagans daring to complain about anything he writes, and has lashed out in the only way he knows how; in a spiteful anti-Pagan editorial masquerading as review of Elizabeth Dodd’s “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers”.

“I should make it clear that Wicca & Witchcraft: Understanding the dangers by Elizabeth Dodd doesn’t make any silly cracks about broomsticks. But I can’t resist. There’s no eco-bore like a Wiccan eco-bore. I’ve met a few and, believe me, you need to be under a spell to sit through a three-hour whinge about Mother Gaia from a practitioner of white magick. It makes one long for the days when witches restricted themselves to a quick cackle before riding off into the night. (Just kidding, witches and pagans! Seriously, last time I had a go at them they reported me to the Press Complaints Commission, which proved resistant to their magick.) [...] she’s not buying any of its [Wicca's] bullshit about being descended from prehistoric totemic and animist religion…”

He also posts a picture of an ugly witch from the film “The Witches” with the caption “Peace be with you!” because that joke never gets old! Seriously! Never! A huge laugh every time. I can’t imagine how proud The Telegraph is of this blog post.

It’s very clear what’s going on here, Damian Thomspon had his feeling hurt. You may not know this, but religion reporters are a deeply sensitive lot, especially if they are also expected to blog on a regular basis. He had no idea that blithely branding Pagans as feminist Satanic racist Nazis when making a point about the BBC’s coverage would actually offend us. That the invites to tea would stop, that he’d no longer get friendly invites to fire circles, throwing his social calendar into ruins. This is clearly a cry for help. Positively reviewing shoddy re-hashed anti-Pagan books is one of the sure signs. So let’s put a stop to this madness now. Damian, if you’re reading this, all you have to do is say you’re sorry for acting like an spoilt ignorant child, and we’ll all work together to put this behind us.

The BBC in the UK, like many news-gathering organizations around the world, spent some time covering modern Pagans during the Halloween/Samhain season. I thought their article by religion correspondent Robert Pigott was pretty standard stuff, meet the Pagans, talk about Samhain, interview Ronald Hutton, mention some recent stories Pagans have appeared in, and wrap it up. But it appears I’m wrong, the article, according to Damian Thompson, a religion reporter and blogging editor for the Telegraph, was an “utterly fawning” exercise in sucking up to Pagans.

“But this potted history of paganism is very heavily sanitised. There’s no mention at all of the overlap between paganism and various forms of Satanism – or the much broader overlap with the far Right. In northern Europe, some pagan movements have celebrated Aryan cultural and racial purity for the best part of a century. In the words of the historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of a brilliant study of the Neo-Nazi movement entitled Black Sun, Nordic racial paganism or Odinism is a “spiritual rediscovery of the Aryan ancestral gods … intended to embed the white races in a sacred worldview that supports their tribal feeling”, and expressed in “imaginative forms of ritual magic and ceremonial forms of fraternal fellowship”.

Needless to say, the white witches of Weymouth celebrated by the BBC are deeply opposed to this variety of paganism. But over the years there have been ferocious ideological battles between Lefty, feminist pagans and their racially obsessed but equally Green Odinist rivals, and there has been more contact between the two camps than the official representatives of British paganism would care to acknowledge.

Hours after Thompson, who is also director of the deeply conservative Catholic Herald, lets fly with his threadbare conspiracy theories involving Paganism and baffling BBC-bashing, the Telegraph runs an article seemingly constructed largely from press releases by The Christian Institute and the Christian Legal Centre.

But the decision to give so much air-time to a minority event has raised eyebrows at a time of a 16 per cent cut in the corporation’s budget. It also brought into question how the BBC reacted to more traditional religious events. Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “It’s not always healthy to represent such beliefs as paganism as mainstream, particularly when our national faith is so often pushed to the edges, “It’s vital that our national broadcaster remembers our great Christian heritage and all the precepts that come from it that are good for the nation. I would like to see this more clearly recognised.”

Before you can say “wag the dog” the “controversy” is getting noticed by Gawker, and the Daily Mail, never one to miss out on a good controversy involving Pagans, does a barely adequate re-write of the Telegraph piece.

Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, said: ‘It’s not always healthy to represent such beliefs as paganism as mainstream, particularly when our national faith is so often pushed to the edges. ‘It’s vital that our national broadcaster remembers our great Christian heritage and all the precepts that come from it that are good for the nation. I would like to see this more clearly recognised.’ The decision to allow so much air-time to the minority event in Weymouth, Dorset, was questioned at a time of a 16 per cent cut in the corporation’s budget.

See what I mean? As for the controversy, and the supposed “marginalization” of Christians (you don’t see us complaining about being marginalized during Christmas or Easter), would there even be an uproar if it weren’t for the Telegraph’s own conservative Catholic blogger (who is never mentioned in the later article) and the instantly available pull-quotes from two conservative Christian organizations? It just seems desperately manufactured, an opinion that is only strengthened by the fact that the Telegraph and the Daily Mail (again following the Telegraph’s lead) are both currently (and luridly) covering the story of a diversity handbook given to police officers that includes Pagans.

“The PC’s guide to arresting a witch: It’s normal for people to be naked, bound and blindfolded and whatever you do, don’t touch their book of spells…”

You get the picture. As for the BBC, as spokesperson remarked that “we don’t have anything to say on this.” To which I say: I’m proud of the BBC.

ADDENDUM: BBC editor Kevin Bakhurst responds at greater length to accusations of “neglecting” Christianity.

“It was Halloween. A good chance, we thought, to explore the background to paganism. I would simply suggest that the decision to cover some aspects of paganism on one day indicates an interest in the fact there is in the UK a range of faiths – and among some a lack of faith. Our reporting should be seen in the context of BBC News’s wider coverage of religion and religious events where stories, as ever, are based on topicality and editorial merit. And Christianity – being the country’s main religion – still remains the faith with the most coverage.”

Bakhurst also notes that the BBC got flak for giving too much coverage to the Pope’s recent visit, maybe the Christian critics were too busy reading the Daily Mail to notice that distinct lack of marginalization?