Top Ten Pagan Stories of 2011 (Part Two)

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[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

05. Dominionism! The Reponse! Christians Behaving Badly! I don’t revel in writing about extremism and anti-Pagan fervor within the politically and culturally dominant Christian religion(s), much preferring to instead highlight achievements and challenges within our interconnected communities. Still, even the most temperate of commentator would have to agree that this was the year when some ugly elements within Christianity inched ever closer to the mainstream, and, for a time, received some much-needed scrutiny from the mainstream press. There were three main and intertwining narratives, the Christian religious phenomenon known as Dominionism, the continuing emergence of the New Apostolic Reformation, and the embrace of these elements by mainstream politicians.

“What [Pastor] Thomas [Muthee] was probably doing, and he and I are friends also, what he was probably doing was speculating that there would be some people who practiced witchcraft and other forms of the occult who would try and take Sarah Palin down through certain rituals or curses or other techniques that witches have and try to destroy her through those things. And I think Thomas was praying a shield of protection around Sarah so that she would not be affected by them.” – C. Peter Wagner, one of key architects and Apostles of the New Apostolic Reformation movement, on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Fred Clark at Slacktivist pointed out that Dominionism has been a serious concern within conservative Christian circles for some time now, but many Christian commentators chose to frame questions about it as conspiracy theory  or anti-Christian paranoia by leftist/liberal elements. Meanwhile, for many Pagans, the New Apostolic Reformation’s spiritual warfare techniques started hitting too close to home, spurring a counter-campaign to preserve religious liberty and diversity. A serious discussion of these issues that goes beyond denial and alarmism is clearly needed, especially since we are at a point where serious presidential candidate have clear and definable ties to figures within these movements. As I’ve pointed out before, paying lip-service to extreme elements may seem politically expedient, but it can have serious repercussions once a candidate has taken power. I fear the “Religious Right” is becoming something very different from what people understand, and I hope that these controversies in 2011 were but passing storms and not a harbinger of what is to come.

04. Patrick McCollum, The Ninth Circuit, and the Future of Pagan Chaplaincy: At the end of 2010 I said that the struggles of Pagan activist and chaplain Patrick McCollum “represented and defined the public face of Paganism” and that there’s “every indication the 2011 will see even more from this tireless advocate for Pagan rights.” 2011 did indeed see much more from McCollum, as his legal challenge to the State of California’s “five faiths” policy saw a serious setback when the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court decision stating he doesn’t have standing to challenge California’s discriminatory “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents and is part of what McCollum has called an “endemic” level of religious discrimination against minority faiths in our prison system. Ultimately, McCollum decided to not appeal this ruling, and is instead working to shepherd new cases through the court system.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

“I’m currently in a place where if an inmate brought a case, my case could go forward […] I saw this coming down the pike, and so I have helped inmates bring forward cases that meet the criteria to make it so my case is viable and valid […] I’ve managed to keep those cases under the radar and the first of those cases his the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week. […] If the court rules that those inmates who are on that case do have a right to a chaplain then I can walk right back into the court and forget the ruling made by the 9th Circuit or anybody else.”

These battles are vital, as the basic question of equal treatment for Pagans and other minority religions lies at its center. Access to chaplains, to religious guidance and instruction, should be a fundamental right and the human cost when that right is denied can be greater that some would imagine. The rights of prisoners are a canary in the coalmine of our society, what we imagine is acceptable to deny them eventually become acceptable to deny others. Precedents are won and lost behind bars, and McCollum has worked tirelessly to ensure that minority religions have access to chaplaincy. I have no doubt that 2012 will see even more reverberations from this story, and from the larger battle over access to chaplains.

03. Candidate Gary Johnson and the Pagan Media: On October 16th a live Google+ video interview/”hangout” with GOP Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson and members of the Pagan media was held. Pagan media organizations participating in the Q&A with the former New Mexico Governor included Cara Schulz of PNC-Minnesota, Star Foster of, Devin Hunter of ModernWitch Podcast, David Salisbury of PNC-Washinton DC, Crystal Blanton of PNC-Bay Area, and myself. In addition,Ramesh Rao of the Hindu American Foundation also took part. It was, as far as I can tell, the first time any serious presidential candidate agreed to speak with Pagan media representatives, and Johnson’s willingness to reach out to us ended up making headlines in the political-minded press (and snarked about at WonketteNew York Magazine, and Gawker).

The former New Mexico governor spoke with members of the Pagan Newswire Collective, ModernWitch Podcast and, among others. He said it was important to reach out to voters that fall outside the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, and slammed his own party for being too beholden to the Christian right. “I think the world looks down on Republicans for their socially conservative views, which includes religion in government,” Johnson said. “I think that should not play a role in any of this. When Republicans talk about values — you know what? I bet you and I have the same values.”

In an editorial at The Washington Post I tried to contextualize the importance of this event, noting that alienating religious minorities is not a good long-term strategy for any political party, and that modern Pagans have real, serious, concerns that should be addressed by our political system. Since that press conference, Johnson has indicated that he’ll try to run as a Libertarian in 2012, noting that obstacles his candidacy has faced within the current Republican Party. Johnson’s chances to win the presidency of the United States are slim, but his willingness to reach out to Pagans, whatever the motivations were, opens a door to our faiths being taken seriously within the context of American politics.

02. Occupy Paganism: Time Magazine named “The Protester” as its Person of the Year, including in that archetype the growing and ever-evolving Occupy movement that started with Occupy Wall Street in New York. The movement, centered on issues of economic justice, has gripped the news as Occupy camps were (sometimes violently) removed by police, and Occupiers “mic checked” various events and political figures. Several modern Pagans have involved themselves with the Occupy movement, including noted figures like Starhawk, who noted with amazement how the organizing ethos she’s long preached suddenly sprung forward organically to effect massive changes in a matter of months. Former COG First Officer Peter Dybing stood ready to be arrested with Occupiers in Florida, while T. Thorn Coyle noted why so many Pagans seemed to take to Occupy so readily.

Peter Dybing at Occupy Fort Lauderdale

Peter Dybing at Occupy Fort Lauderdale

“Not all Pagans or Magick Workers support the Occupy movement. I would not expect them to. However, I am unsurprised at the large number of us who do. We are used to linking the spiritual with the material, honoring the sacred in the baking bread, the programmed pixels, the words we speak, the trees, the earth, the sky. Some of us find comfort in humanity and some from our Gods. For me, the Occupy movement includes all of this. Also, Occupy is about the spirit of individual people striving to connect with one another, to feed each other, to fight for each other, and to lift each other up.”

Here at The Wild Hunt I’ve tried to document Pagan involvement with the Occupy movement, highlighting Pagan chaplains at Occupy Wall Street, launching a group blog to document Pagan and Heathen voices, and even interjecting with a rare moment of pure editorializing in favor of the movement’s goals. As things progress I think we’ll see more Pagan voices emerge from within the Occupy movement, using the organizational and spiritual technologies taught them by their traditions to effect change. I think this is a unique moment for politics in America, and for modern Pagans who involve themselves with it. I think history is being made, and when it is written, Pagan voices will be a part of that narrative.

01. West Memphis Three Go Free: On August 19th, 2011, the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr.) were released from prison on an Alford plea. The West Memphis 3 case is perhaps the most high-profile trial known in which the 1980s Satanic moral panic played a significant role, using Damien Echols interest in the occult and Wicca as proof of his murderous interests. The case was decided with no physical evidence, and a coerced confession from the mentally challenged Misskelley. Jessie Misskelley’s former defense attorney Dan Stidham, in an interview with John Morehead, paints a picture of the Satanic hysteria that surrounded the trial.

“…you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious “cults.” He had a dual expertise.”

It’s easy to forget how pervasive anti-Satanic propaganda was back then, with many journalists and talk-show hosts (even Oprah) diving right into the hysteria. The result was thousands of lives ruined, directly or indirectly, by this phenomenon until it finally lost steam and faced a backlash from investigators and skeptical Christians. As a society, we are still dealing with the fallout of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” panic, and sadly, some judges and prosecutors are continuing to engage in the same tactics that convicted the WM3. The freeing of the West Memphis Three presents a vindication of those who have long fought against individuals being prosecuted simply for their outsider beliefs or mannerisms, and a warning that these moral panics can happen in a supposedly rational and free society.

That wraps up my top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2011. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2012!