Editorial: An Open Letter to Pagan Leaders
MAYBE YOU’RE the high priestess of a coven or the chief druid of a grove. Or you find yourself at the head of a Pagan seminary, a news site, a blog portal, a Pagan convention, a witch tradition. Maybe you’re the owner of a publishing house or a witch-shop, a teacher of seminars or on the board of a non-profit. Or maybe you’re just an activist or a well-known writer with a huge audience. Regardless of how you got there, whether or not you ever intended to find yourself in a position of ‘leadership,’ you’re there.
I won’t talk about the responsibility such influence comes with. You probably see it already. If you’re like me, it maybe even scares you a little. You maybe didn’t ask to be here, and definitely not during the rise of far-right nationalism in the United States.
Most of you tend to lean towards the liberal end of things, and probably don’t like the new president. Maybe you voted against him, or even protested against him last weekend. You’ve also probably noticed that the people who look up to you have some pretty strong opinions about him as well.
More than likely, you didn’t start out on your path with the goal of advising people about politics and have no desire to start. If you’re a teacher or founder of a tradition, you were probably thinking you’d mostly just show people how to learn magic or talk to the gods. Or maybe you just showed up to help out and suddenly find an entire group relies on you, or started writing and found thousands of people now read you.
I’m not suggesting you change that, but I do have some things I’d like you to consider.
I won’t pretend I’ve got answers to the nightmare sweeping across the United States, the same authoritarian and racist current threatening the stability of European countries as well. I don’t have answers, but I do have insights, as do the other writers here at Gods&Radicals, and I’d like to offer some of them to you in this letter.
First, though, I’d like to suggest we consider several ways in which Pagan leaders have previously related to the government in the last few decades, and the problematic way we’ve thought about religious freedom until now.
Religious Freedom and Government Alliance
THE UNITED STATES Constitution guarantees the right of religious practice and expression free from government interference. Of course, that guarantee has never really quite been true for minority religions, so Pagans have used several strategies for expanding these protections.
Anti-discrimination lawsuits, for instance, have been quite useful in expanding the rights of witches and Pagans to practice, not just for the plaintiffs. Creating legal precedent has a powerful effect on businesses and government institutions: it can change the way they hire and treat employees, because few ever want to be sued.
However, litigation can only do so much, and often comes with negative media attention. More so, courts often require proof that the practices in question are actually-documented or prescribed practices by clergy or other religious institutions. This requirement has led to a significant move to formalize and institutionalize Pagan belief in such a way that it would meet the requirements of the courts.
A similar strategy has been employed to aid Pagan, Heathen, and witch prisoners in US jails, soldiers in the US military, as well as the clergy who hope to serve them. Without official doctrines and federally-recognised religious institutions attached to the beliefs in question, the government (and the courts) often refuse to extend protections to individuals requesting them.
One negative consequence of these strategies has been an increasing move of younger people away from established Pagan groups. Many practice witchcraft because of its embrace of individual will and history of anti-clericalism; as Pagan and witch groups have become more formalised, they begin to resemble the very thing that many of us came to Paganism to escape. If you are wondering why ‘solitary’ seems to be the most common Pagan affiliation, you need look no further than the institutionalization of Pagan and witch traditions.
Another consequence is more immediate with the change in government within the United States. Many of the moves to extend religious freedom to Pagan-aligned people have the effect of giving tacit support to government policies. This is seen most in the long campaigns to get Pagan, Heathen, and now Druidic symbols on the headstones of soldiers. While it certainly is a benefit to the families of dead military personnel to see that the deceased religious practices are honored in their death, Pagans in those same traditions who deeply disagree with American foreign policy and imperialist conquest now find their own beliefs associated with the military.
And finally, religious freedom arguments have been employed in the same way by Pagan-aligned groups as they are by Christian fundamentalists, seeking the ‘right’ to discriminate against others. One need only look at the actions of the Asatru Fellowship Assembly and the defense of fascist senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus in the name of religious freedom to see how this framework can often mirror the same Christian dominionism which now many fear in the form of Mike Pence.
The Choice Now
PAGANS HAVE BEEN AS TAKEN-IN by the belief in Liberal Democratic progress as the rest. Though some warned against trusting too much in the government for our protections and freedoms, it’s completely understandable that few of us heeded those Cassandras. Many signs seemed to point towards an increase in freedom and tolerance of all peoples and beliefs in the Western world; parallel victories such as the end of anti-sodomy laws, gay recognition in the military and gay marriage certainly suggested things might always be getting better for everyone.
And to be clear, all these strategies to increase the freedom to practice Pagan beliefs were based in good intentions. However, any good magic practioner knows that intention without discernment can lead to some unexpected–and often dangerous–consequences. Though there was likely some hubris involved in the decisions of Pagan leaders to use these strategies, I don’t intend to cast blame upon them. I’m more interested in what we can do instead, now that we find ourselves governed by a virulent strain of nationalist, dominionist, racist, and fascist ideology.
Pagans are likely in danger, some much more than others. Pagans of color, queer and trans witches, disabled and the politically-radical folks amongst us have the most reason to fear. If you are not already convinced of this, there’s little I can do to persuade you, but if you need more proof, ask them personally. They’re the most educated regarding the sudden changes in the political climate in the United States, and I suspect some would be happy to teach you what they’ve learned.
While they will not be the first to experience suffering, white Pagans won’t be spared either, unless they choose to make certain alliances with the new government. It’s the same opportunistic option that exists for most whites; side with the powerful above you, claim the identity politics of whiteness, and you might survive. To do so, though, you’ll betray all the intersecting relationships you have with those for whom this isn’t an option.
For Pagan leaders, particularly, this would mean throwing vulnerable people under the oncoming fascist bus in order to save yourself and your groups. Such a decision might look like an attempt to preserve witch, Heathen, Druidic, and Pagan beliefs in the face of government repression, but it would also mean permanently transforming those beliefs into something none except perhaps Stephen McNallen might recognise.
Understandably, you’re probably reluctant to become politically involved right now. In fact, if you head a non-profit religious organisation, you’re barred by law from getting involved in electoral politics through your position. You’ve probably already made a habit of steering clear of all other political engagements as well. However, if there was anything to be learned from the failure of the Democratic party to defeat an unqualified tyrant’s presidential ambitions, it’s that electoral politics are no longer even useful.
Traditional political engagement isn’t necessarily what is needed, anyway. Just as the last few decades of Pagan attempts to increase religious freedom came with some unfortunate consequences, openly urging your groups towards direct political struggle now could mean serious backlash.
The best leaders follow. They listen to the people who look to them, rather than accumulating authority and power. Those of you who find yourselves in positions of influence who haven’t come to this truth likely will soon, or find your influence and relevance diminishing quite quickly. I don’t mean that as a threat: it is an inevitable process, affecting politicians, bosses, activists, and religious leaders equally.
What Can We Do?
I have suggestions, informed by my understanding of our situation and the feedback I hear from the readers of Gods&Radicals. Take them as you will, leave them if you must. As you are no doubt aware, I’m an anarchist, so I won’t be telling you what to do. I do have some requests, though, and I hope you’ll consider them.
1. Support and Defend Vulnerable People in Your Groups
AS I MENTIONED above, certain people are more likely to be in danger now than others. This is especially true for nonwhite, gender-variant, trans, queer, disabled, and politically-radical folks. They will be in danger not just from government policies and decisions, but from what appears to be a rising tide of far-right/fascist organising.
Supporting them may mean just listening to them as they try to work through the fear and terror of this new political order. It may also require physical support, help with access to medications, legal defense, and even safe-havens.
Supporting them may also require defending them. This hopefully will not mean physical defense (though it may), but it will definitely require defending them against ideological hatred. A floodgate opened with the recent electoral campaign: it’s become ‘okay’ to degrade women, Blacks, queer, disabled, and trans people in many social circles, and this may only increase. You can weigh in on the side of vulnerable people, using your influence against rising hate.
This may mean alienating some of your audience or members of your group, some who hold rather extreme opinions about minorities. The decisions you make regarding this are vital, and will reverberate far past private and personal interactions.
2. Be Secretive, But Don’t Go Silent
THE “BROOM CLOSET” is a thing in Paganism and witchcraft, one that’s helped protect people who face discrimination for their beliefs in jobs and communities. If you’re one of the leaders I’m talking to, you’re probably already out. Please resist the urge to go back in.
A brief Google search of my own name reveals quite a bit about my polytheist, druidic, and witch beliefs, as well as my political affiliation. That puts me in obvious danger if the tolerance of our beliefs changes in this new political climate, both from Christian dominionists and alt-right fascists. After all, I am the managing editor of a left-wing Pagan publisher. That’s not gonna make me lots of friends with fascists.
Your visibility and risk may be less. It might also be more. Either way, going silent, though it might give us some modicum of protection, will cause others to do the same. It will also mean isolation of those who are looking for guidance, wisdom, and hope at times they might need it most.
There are very good reasons to keep certain practices and beliefs quiet, and silence and secrecy are core values in many traditions. Those are important, and I do advise being more cautious about what we tell the world we do. In fact, the more gregarious and self-aggrandising marketing antics of some puts many people in danger.
We can be both secretive and visible at the same time. Those of us willing to risk public attention can help draw attention away from those who need to stay out of the public eye.
3. Avoid Alliances With The Government
THE PAST THREE decades of political and legal work to gain recognition for our beliefs and traditions has come at an unfortunate cost, and that cost will only increase under a hostile government. Beyond the institutionalization which chased thousands of people into solitary and isolationist practice, it has made many groups beholden to government policy.
The situation for non-profits and religious organisations is particularly dire. Groups (including Gods&Radicals) which rely on tax-exemption to raise funds for their work or to own land where they teach, meet, or practice could be pressured to comply with new laws. In many countries and in some jurisdictions within the United States, for instance, mosques have been pressured to report on the political activities of their members. It isn’t unreasonable to see such a thing extended to other minority religions in the United States, and the consequences should be obvious.
The strategy of securing government recognition for our beliefs in order to protect ourselves may have been useful in more tolerant times under more sympathetic governments. Those times no longer exist.
4. Build Networks of Support Across Traditions
WE’RE ALL an argumentative lot, and that’s one of our strengths. But where fighting between factions turns into extreme isolation or even hatred, our fractiousness will only endanger us.
Many attempts to create inter-faith or cross-tradition institutions have been made in the last few decades. They all failed spectacularly, often because they were top-down and attempted to codify doctrine and even speak on behalf and define entire beliefs. (You may remember: I’ve helped stop several such attempts myself.)
Instead of hierarchical groups claiming authority over Paganism, we need horizontal networks of communication and mutual support. We need this more than ever, particularly to support groups more likely to be targeted than others. Such networks would insist on the complete autonomy of each group and must be founded on the two principles of mutual aid: “An injury to one is an injury to all” and “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” (For more on these principles and building solidarity networks, see this guide.)
AS WE WATCH the world we thought we knew begin to transform into a world where our beliefs are again no longer tolerated, where are fellow practioners are targeted for the color of their skin, the expression of their sexuality or gender, or their physical ability, we must take seriously the influence we’ve accumulated.
Whether you ever meant to be seen as a leader or a guide, you’re there now. What you do with that influence will matter greatly, both to those who look to you for help and those outside looking to harm.
Imbolc comes upon us very soon. What is that Brighid teaches more than anything else, except that we need the light of others by which to see?
Be that light, please.
Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or see his oft-shirtless selfies and read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. You can also support him on Patreon. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.
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