Last Saturday, The New York Times posted an article titled “The Walls of the Church Couldn’t Keep the Trump Era Out.” Written by national politics reporter Nicholas Casey, it details the intense conflicts that tore apart the First Baptist Church of Williams, Alabama, in the years since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.
Pastor Chris Thomas first ran into trouble when he responded to Trump’s January 2017 travel ban, which effectively blocked Syrian refugees from seeking asylum in the United States. Thomas preached a sermon on the Beatitudes, the series of blessings proclaimed by Jesus Christ during the Sermon on the Mount. The Alabama pastor added a ninth blessing: “Blessed are those who seek refuge and have the door shut on their face.”
Some members of First Baptist told Thomas that the Beatitudes are not commandments for Christians and let him know that he was not to criticize the president, even implicitly. Church groups were set up to monitor what the pastor was “liking” on Facebook and to make sure no homosexual Christians joined the church.
First Baptist had been considered liberal, at least by the standards of white southern Baptists. In earlier years, they had quietly supported a (maybe) gay choir director and called for the nomination of female deacons. More recently, members vociferously opposed marriage equality and espoused anti-immigrant sentiments as they embraced Trump for openly saying what they were feeling.
Loyalty to Trump grew to the point where it trumped dedication to Christ, and Thomas was told to avoid speaking on any biblical subject that could be interpreted as a criticism of the president. More extremely conservative members left to join a neighboring church whose pastor openly preached in support of Trump and against LGBTQ+ rights. Earlier this month, Thomas himself left his post.
Casey’s article closes with Thomas reflecting on his own experience of being Christian in the Trump Era: “I go between taking prophetic action – say what you need to say from the pulpit, take the consequences, it may be only half or a third join you – and thinking sometimes we’re all exhausted of it. And maybe the church should be an oasis in the middle of this exhaustion.”
Tale as old as time
It’s an interesting article, and Thomas is a sympathetic figure, but we’ve read this story and met these characters many times. For corporate media outlets, asking “what do religious people think about politics today?” disproportionately leads to editors sending writers off to interview white evangelicals in the former Confederate States of America.
In the late 1970s, conservative operatives worked with the pro-segregation, pro-apartheid, anti-civil-rights entrepreneurial TV preacher Jerry Falwell to build the astroturf organization that Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress dubbed “the Moral Majority.” Their goal was to mobilize white fundamentalists as a dependable source of support for Republican candidates.
In 1980, this newly energized religious right helped push Ronald Reagan to his landslide victory over presidential incumbent Jimmy Carter – a drubbing of 489 electoral votes to a mere forty-nine, of forty-four states carried to only six (and the District of Columbia). Reporters covering politics, religion, and the intersection of the two have been fascinated with southern white evangelicals ever since, largely to the exclusion of other religious perspectives.
The symbiotic relationship of moneyed media and conservative politicians mutually reinforces this myopic focus, as reporters report on the importance of the white evangelical vote and Republicans pander for what they see as a key element of their base. Northern liberal readers love to look down their noses at southern conservatives, so the paper profits from the clicks. Conservative politicians know that they can literally just hold a Bible in the air, and they’re all but guaranteed the white evangelical vote. Everybody wins, except the rest of us.
It’s a simple fact that corporate media will only pay attention to members of minority religions and new religious movements when a practitioner runs for public office, commits a terroristic act, or is the victim of a shocking hate crime. There are exceptions here and there, but those exceptions will usually foreground the otherness of the tradition as a key element of the story.
The religion editor for a corporate news TV channel once told me that he ran the stories that people want to read, and I suppose that’s a solid business model. However, it does give the lie to any claims that the old media giants are dedicated to the stories that matter, the stories that people may not want to read, but should.
What would reports from the mainstream media look like if they made a conscious decision to include voices from minority traditions throughout their religion coverage? If we’re supposed to learn something new about religion or gain a new insight into politics by reading these articles about evangelicals and Republicans, imagine what could be gained by major outlets deciding to highlight perspectives that haven’t been profiled over and over again.
For one thing, a wider swath of Americans would realize that there are more religions and more ways of seeing politics than traditional media would have them believe.
Being Pagan in the Trump Era
Reading the article about the First Baptist Church of Williams and its implosion after Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency ripped several scabs off of America’s skin to reveal the rotten pus beneath, I couldn’t help wondering what this article would have been like if the focus had been on the U.S. Pagan community in one of its multiplicity of forms.
The hate that was ratified in Trump’s 2016 rallies and reinforced from the White House and the Don’s Twitter account ever since hasn’t only divided white evangelical churches. The racism that has long bubbled under the surface has exploded across the nation. Sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have been saddled up and driven throughout the land until they drip with sweat.
“He says what we’re all thinking” has morphed into a sense that hate can be freely expressed and wallowed in. So many who long whispered their bigotry are now shouting it from rooftops and in the face of cell phones recording their every leer. Where abusive police once smashed cameras before committing atrocities, they now gleefully go about their bloody work even as they are livestreamed by the smartphones of their victims. Why should they be shy when the top executive in the United States is egging them on?
This has been happening in Pagan communities as much as in Christian ones. Racist Heathens have dropped the semantic games they have played since the beginnings of American Ásatrú in the 1970s and openly embraced far-right rhetoric as they partner with extremist organizations. Social media has become a minefield of comments by Pagans who feel so comfortable publicly expressing their prejudices that they sound more like Archie Bunker than archdruid. Attending a Pagan event marketed as “inclusive” is no guarantee that there won’t be a neo-Nazi standing next to everyone else at the evening ritual.
Like the pastor at First Baptist, there are Pagans in leadership positions who resolutely stand against this rising tide of hate. Like him, they work hard to move their communities in positive directions, always circling back to the core of their traditions for grounding as they seek to move into a brighter future for all. Also like him, unfortunately, they can be faced by the emboldened bigots of this time period we’re all living through. Even more unfortunately, the fighters for positive change sometimes are so beaten down that they make the same decision as Mr. Thomas and walk away from what they see as fatally damaged communities.
Not that it is not only clergy who find themselves facing down faces filled with hate. From the solo practitioner to the small-group participant to the member of the national organization, we’re all of us living in Trump’s America. Especially in the online world that so many use to expand their Pagan contacts, and even more in the age of coronavirus when Pagans are forced to rely on online interactions for community, the ugliness of this country’s politics has a way of creeping into seemingly every space we create.
Paganism and politics
The pastor’s final words keep echoing in my head. I empathize with his wavering between two modes of religious experience, the prophetic and the transcendent. Should the religious event – the rite, the ritual – be focused on consciousness raising in the political sense or expanding consciousness in the spiritual sense?
For an extreme example on the political side, consider the model of liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal, who let Sandinista soldiers use the site of his religious community in Nicaragua as a staging ground for their attack on the National Guard. Cardenal would gladly give a theological explanation for why violence was necessary, and he would root it in biblical exegesis, but this is about as directly political as an action can get.
For an equally extreme example on the spiritual side, consider Transcendental Meditation®. Introduced to white middle-class Americans by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, TM packages practices derived from Hindu tradition as a ritual complete in itself – a ritual independent of dharma or any other religious action. As marketed in the United States, TM is “[t]he technique for inner peace and wellness,” a rite focused on an individualistic inner gaze that pushes aside the stressful everyday world to achieve “a restful state of mind beyond thinking.” In other words, TM is religion reduced to an act solely designed to transcend all worldly concerns.
There’s a lot of ground between launching military attacks from a sacred space and seeking refuge from lived life in a non-thinking zone beyond this reality. The question that the pastor is addressing and that I find compelling is how to find a place where one is true to the need for action in the world while also responding to the need for refuge from hate and pain.
One of the ways that Pagan ritual can differ fundamentally from services in churches such as First Baptist is in the equanimity of ritual. We can have clergy who lead our rites, but they are not indispensable, and their role is often more organizational than authoritative. In general, those who wish to speak will be heard, and their voices will be given equal weight by the practicing community.
This communal structure of ritual can itself show a way out of Thomas’s dilemma, a path between the extremes that both engages with the world and provides sanctuary from it.
Out of many, one
During the Ásatrú ritual of blót, at least as we celebrate here in Chicago, everyone who participates has the same opportunity to speak and to shape the feeling and direction of the rite. Whether the focus is on a specific deity, on those who have left this world, or on offerings into the fire, each person has their say as the drinking horn is passed around the circle. The nature of speech over the horn varies widely.
This diversity was central to our most recent midsummer blót to Thor. Some spoke directly to the turmoil in the United States, asking the thunderer to protect those standing up to rioting police and to keep this horrific virus away from our doors. They saluted those who have taken to the streets to reaffirm that black lives do indeed matter, honored those whose lives have been snatched by racist police, and spoke of actions they have taken in their own lives to push back against systemic injustice.
Others, though, thanked Thor for being a pillar of comforting strength, for being a powerful prop that holds them up in times of despair and sorrow. They spoke of lost loved ones, of how painfully they continue to feel their loss, and of how the spirits of the departed continue to be a felt presence. They spoke of personal challenge, progress, setback, and success. They unburdened themselves of weights in their public and personal lives that they perhaps can’t speak of to their own family members.
And that’s why we call ourselves a kindred. We use the word not in the sense of blood relation or shared ancestry, but of spiritual relation and shared experience. Whether we stand around the oak tree or are forced by the current climate to meet via videoconference, we shape our celebrations of the seasons by the speech acts we share.
This, too, is America. By joining together and listening to each other, we do not disappear into the tepid broth of the melting pot. To the contrary, we celebrate our different life experiences and learn from each other. On our best days, we strive to live the words of Maya Angelou:
It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.
Diversity is not something that should be sprinkled over the top of a fundamentally monolithic experience or organization to deflect charges of racism, to gain public approval, or to crassly cash in on grant money or Kickstarter coin. Diversity is of great value in and of itself.
By embracing diversity and structuring ritual to reflect it, we can find our way out of the dilemma of choosing between facing outward into the political world or inward into the spiritual self. By joining together, we can push each other to action in the world and comfort each other in a sacred space set apart from that world.
What the Christian pastor sees as either/or, the Pagan community can embody as both/and. How we face the challenges of this dark time is up to us to determine.