The Political Peril of Dabbling

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If I lived in Delaware I probably wouldn’t be voting for Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. This is based on the fact that my personal political views differ from hers, so I wouldn’t want her representing my state. However if, for the sake of argument, I agreed with O’Donnell enough to vote for her, I certainly wouldn’t be talked out of it because she once dabbled in Wicca (or maybe Satanism, it isn’t clear) back when she was in high school.

Then Maher did the big reveal, a short segment which included actor Jamie Kennedy listening incredulously to her story. “I dabbled into witchcraft,” O’Donnell says in the clip. “I didn’t join a coven, Let’s get this straight,” she says, as Kennedy asks her questions. “I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not makin’ this stuff up. I know what they told me they do.” O’Donnell, sporting super permed hair, a blue sweater and black pants, then describes “one of my first dates with a witch.” It was “on a satanic altar and I didn’t know it, and I mean there a little blood there and stuff like that,” she says. “We went to a movie and had a little midnight picnic.”

As someone right around the same age as O’Donnell, who also experienced young-adulthood in the 1990s, and who dedicated themselves to Witchcraft in 1990, I feel I’m uniquely qualified to weigh in on this “dabbling” controversy. For the record, loads of us “dabbled” in the occult back then. Back when that program aired popular culture was going through one of its mini-infatuations with the subject. The Craft had come out in 1996, followed by Practical Magic in 1998, and being a bit “witchy” was rather cool in the proper contexts (remember the uproar over “Teen Witch” in 1998). So it only makes sense that O’Donnell felt safe revealing her naughty Pagan ways back in 1999. After the religious right Moral Majority-dominated 1980s young somewhat-hip pro-abstinence, pro-life, anti-masturbation activists had to prove they could relate to the irony-loving slackers of the day. So she appears on Politically Incorrect and MTV and drops a few hair-pins to let us know she understood where us sinners were coming from.

So fast-forward to the present day, and O’Donnell is ducking interviews and everyone is making a super-huge deal out of this whole “witchcraft” thing.

Former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove on Sunday called on Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell to explain what she was talking about when she said in 1999 that she “dabbled into witchcraft.” O’Donnell’s comments came to light Friday in a clip from comedian Bill Maher’s former show, “Politically Incorrect,” that Maher aired on his current HBO program, “Real Time.” “In southern Delaware there are a lot of churchgoing people,” Rove said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They’re going to want to know what that is all about.”

It’s only a matter of time before someone in the mainstream media drags a willing Witch or Satanist into the limelight to get their opinion about O’Donnell’s “dabbling”. Aside from the idle speculation from our community about what sort of experiences she really had when she was dabbling, I think we should be very careful about how we get involved in this. In fact, if anything, we should be paying very close attention to how O’Donnell’s opponents use this against her. As Pagans, we have no real problem with people trying out different religions, practicing multiple religious simultaneously, or even leaving our faiths entirely if it doesn’t suit them. O’Donnell may have unwisely exaggerated her experiences back in 1999 to prove a rhetorical point, but the current inference that there’s something deficient with her politically because she once tried out Witchcraft is one that inherently demeans modern Pagan religions. It says that people who are Wiccan or Pagan can’t be serious candidates, or at least serious conservative candidates, but we know that isn’t true.

The wisest thing O’Donnell could do right now regarding this is to say “so what”, I was a kid, I tried it, I didn’t like it, I returned to Catholicism (which seems to be the direction the campaign is heading). Her silence is only feeding speculation and encouraging her opponents to dig deeper though her old media appearances.  Indeed, she has more troubling off-the-cuff statements to explain than this one, so waiting this storm out may not be the best option. In the meantime, Pagan faiths are sent the message that while they may enjoy some perks of mainstream acceptance, they, like other minority faiths, are not fully welcome into the halls of political power. Those trying to use this clip as a political club to hurt her candidacy may not realize that it is also damaging the advances of modern Pagans trying to work for equal treatment and an end to unspoken litmus tests.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose and criticize O’Donnell if you don’t like her positions, but this shouldn’t be one of them. That said, if she decides to respond to this mess by attacking modern Paganism that’s a different story, but so far the only people mocking us are those trying to embarrass this candidate. There should be no political cost to “dabbling” with our faiths, in fact, I wish more people would dabble in Paganism, if only to humanize our experience to those coming from a place of ignorance.

UPDATE: At a GOP picnic in southern Delaware today O’Donnell tried to joke about the issue.

During an appearance Sunday at a GOP picnic in southern Delaware, O’Donnell said she was in high school when she dabbled in witchcraft. She asked the audience: “How many of you didn’t hang out with questionable folks in high school?”

It wasn’t reported if the crowd found it funny.