Paganism as Slur, Paganism as the Other

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On June 30 Phil Kent, an appointee to Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, concluded a televised roundtable discussion on same-sex marriage by saying that he hoped “the pagans’ and the left’s values do not prevail because that’s not the Judeo-Christian culture that made this country great.” In uttering those words, Kent has joined several prominent figures who have, in recent months, used the term “pagan” as a slur, or as means of labeling an amorphous “other” in seeming opposition to their interpretation of Christian values.

Christian organizer David Lane, who is doing outreach work on behalf of Senator Rand Paul, recently inveighed against a “pagan onslaught” that includes “pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media.” Meanwhile, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput says that “many self-described Christians” are “in fact pagan,” spurring other Catholics to try and spin his comments in a way that won’t offend other Christians. Joining the Archbishop, Irish Catholic clergy believe their countrymen “have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan,”  and so on, and so on, and so on it goes.

David Lane

David Lane

“Where are the champions of Christ to save the nation from the pagan onslaught imposing homosexual marriage, homosexual scouts, 60 million babies done to death by abortion and red ink as far as the eye can see on America? Who will wage war for the Soul of America and trust the living God to deliver the pagan gods into our hands and restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture?”David Lane, 2013

For the most part, these people aren’t explicitly talking about us capital-P modern Pagans (except when they are), they’re invoking an idea, a giant egregore that encapsulates all that is “other” than Christianity, or to be more precise, anything that is outside the boundaries of a very narrow and particular kind of Christianity.  It’s a slur of disgust, one that frames the target in complete opposition to all that Christians hold dear. It doesn’t matter if it’s Earth Day celebrations, or same-sex unions. This dualistic ‘Christians versus the “pagan” Other’ paradigm has done more to erode interfaith relations, and the social standing of Christianity in the West, than many of that faith’s real problems or opponents could have ever done.

“Christians have alienated gays and lesbians and their families, friends, and sympathetic allies, driving many away from the love of Jesus Christ and contributing to the secularization of American culture. They have done a great deal to create hostility to the church and closed ears to the Gospel. The saddest cases are the church’s own rejected gay and lesbian adolescents and twentysomethings. They are legion. Christians have contributed to the fear in society that millions of Americans are unable to tell the difference between the church and the state, or between the demands of their faith on themselves vs. the demands of their faith on those who do not share it. This contributes to secularization and weakens respect for legitimate concerns about protecting a zone of religious liberty for religious dissenters.”

The use of the word “pagan” as a slur, as a tool to label enemies, has a corrosive effect, particularly when it comes to those religious groups that claim Pagan (or Heathen) as a descriptor. Would Christian clergy in Florida have reacted so strongly to the reality of a Pagan festival near them, necessitating some quick outreach to prevent a protest, if the term didn’t immediately summon up images of depravity and evil within their minds? This existential dread, sourced in the Christian narrative of battle against false gods and idols, of persecution that turns to triumph, is pushed like a button by ideologues and conspiracy theorists to get their audience engaged, scared, and ready to do what’s necessary to “win.” The actual human lives of the Pagans (or “pagans”) are rarely considered in these contexts, or if they are, only in terms of pity or imperious judgment. Pagan author and commentator Gus diZerega, who has done a considerable amount of outreach to Christians, once wisely noted that the figure of the “pagan” strikes to the heart of a religious peril that was supposed to have been vanquished long ago.

“We have arisen within a Christian culture, a very self confident one, and we explicitly reject its Abrahamic spiritual tradition as being good for us. Not only that, we look to the pre-Christian past for inspiration and grounding. We represent the rise of something Christian leaders thought they had vanquished long ago, and we should never forget that initial vanquishing involved the sword far more than persuasion. Add religious liberty and the outcome would have been far different. For the most rabid of our attackers, our reappearance also seems evidence that we are in the end times, a time of religious war, at least for the likes of Dispenastionalists.”

Our very existence brings this often-uttered metaphor to life, and touches something ugly in the process. It is imperative that Christians and modern Pagans collectively move beyond what Paul Louis Metzger calls “lampoon tract propaganda” if we are to share a civil society together. An important first step in this process is to realize that words have power, and that constantly invoking the “pagan” as symbol for that which you oppose has real-world consequences.