We Must Hide No Longer
Author: Ryan Smith
Welcome to America, the self-proclaimed land of the free and home of the brave. The country where, at least in theory, one can practice any faith one wishes and can fully exercise as the Founding Fathers put it the “freedom of conscience.”
The First Amendment, which starts with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, ” while plain on its face has had a lot of footnotes attached to it over the years by the Christian supermajority. Freedom of religion as long as your faith is Abrahamic in origin. Freedom from persecution as long as you kneel before the Cross. Freedom to worship openly and unhindered only if your faith is one that was thrust on your ancestors by foreign missionaries who claimed to have their best interests at heart.
As a member of what is America’s Invisible Minority, I am no stranger to what happens to Pagans when one is ‘outed’. While I have not been physically assaulted or fired because of my faith I do know what it is for people to go oddly silent when I offer a blessing. I know what it is to be mocked as “insane” and/or labeled a “devil-worshiper”. And of course, I have heard the ever-popular chastisement of, “You’re going to Hell.” I’m fairly sure that anyone whom is not Christian reading this knows what I’m talking about. I’m also fairly sure most people reading this, if they personally have not been the victims of it, at least know someone who lost their job shortly after being outed for “personality issues” or because “didn’t quite work out” or because “we no longer have need of your services.”
Then we have the worst examples: Brandi Blackbear, who was suspended from school for fifteen days in Oklahoma due to accusations of witchcraft (1) . In 1999 Tempest Smith of Michigan who, after school administrators washed their hands of the ongoing harassment by Christian students at her school, hung herself rather than deal with it any longer in 2001 (2) .
Palmdale, California, the state that is seen by many and prided as the most forward-thinking in the country, in 2002 had a local Christian group invade a Pagan store and harass, browbeat, intimidate, and threaten patrons who were honoring Ostara. The best part was when the Sheriff’s Department refused to investigate because, oh by the way, a volunteer department chaplain was at the attack and helped organize it (3) .
2004 in South Carolina saw local prosecutors state that a man accused of murder did so because he was Wiccan (4) . There is of course the infamous case of the Wiccan Nevada National Guardsman denied a pentacle on his headstone by the US government (5) .
In 2007 an Army Chaplain, in spite of his stellar record as a soldier and Chaplain, was not only denied his request to serve as a Wiccan Chaplain but also removed from the Chaplain’s Corps (6) . I’m sure there are plenty of other incidents like these that are as bad, possibly worse, that have not been mentioned here.
So what, you may be wondering, is the point of all this? The point is simple: we as a diverse group of Earth-based faith traditions are routinely disrespected and disregarded by American society as a whole.
Now I know a lot of Pagans are likely thinking to themselves, “Why should we care what a bunch of superficial ‘sheeple’ think? We’re free spirits who dance to the beat of our own drums and don’t care what other people say about us!” There is a very serious problem with that kind of thinking.
In the United States of America today there are about 300 million people (7) . Of that 300 million it is estimated only 1.3 million are Pagans of some kind or another (8) . As much as our independent spirit and willingness to question convention is probably our greatest strength it cannot be ignored that we are a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Christian nation.
What would happen if, for example, the good people at Operation Rescue who had regularly targeted Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Kansas for protest (9) were very directly confronted in the national media and asked if their accusations of him being a mass-murderer (10) were responsible in some fashion for his cold-blooded assassination inside his own church? You would have wall-to-wall coverage of pundits, preachers, and politicians tearing their hair out and wailing about “persecution.”
Now what happens if, say, a Druid Grove is accused of human sacrifice? First off you probably wouldn’t see any media attention given to such a story unless someone decides to go and actually do something about “those dangerous cultists.” You would probably also see outrage and condemnation on the web on Pagan blogs. And just like many other instances of persecution after we as a whole vow “Never Again” and some group or foundation takes up the incident as their championed cause, it sinks back into the morass of apathy.
Why does this happen? Are we not devoted enough to our own dignity? The answer is rather more elementary than Pagans being undeserving or incapable of organizing or any of the other excuses bandied about.
With only a small handful of real victories against our persecutors and attackers, any move to do something about it is already seen by many as doomed to fail. Too many Pagans give our independent nature and notorious difficulty in being organized in any meaningful fashion as cop-outs to really having an impact on society and improving our standing in it. It is, sadly, understandable why many would do so.
Who wants to exhaust their time, money, and energy fighting for a cause pre-determined in the minds of their colleagues as lost? Everyone wants to be the hero riding over the hill; no one wants to be the person who makes the glorious last stand for a greater moral victory. Far better, it would be argued, to think small.
Better to gain a seat on an Interfaith Council or use of a Unitarian Church than to run for public office. Better to make small, easy victories than to organize, mobilize, and take the fight to where it matters most: the public square. Better to cede the debate to people who do not understand us and in many cases are actively hostile to us.
To take such an approach is to sacrifice the future of our faith, of our community, and of the next generation of Pagans for the sake of questionable comfort and unsteady safety in the immediate present. As Ben Franklin once said, “He who would give up a little liberty for a little security will gain neither and lose both.”
We cannot continue to “wait and see” or “let our moment come” or “try not to upset people.” We upset a sizable fraction of the population simply by breathing; staying quiet and walking small will not change that. I see no reason why we, a community that wears our free spirits as a badge of honor and believe in the importance of personal responsibility, should be afraid of standing up for what we believe. Every other group striving for rights and dignity in American history has been told the same thing when they began their push.
If all the other groups had listened then we probably would still have slavery in the South, women as property of their husbands, and only those with land of their own having the right to vote. Discretion is said to be the better part of valor, but when discretion is forced by circumstance then it is no longer a guardrail against madness but a straightjacket for the soul.
So long as we allow inaction we will remain the Invisible Minority. So long as we act in reaction to fear Pagans will continue to be harassed, attacked, fired, and forgotten. The promise of the Declaration of Independence of, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” will remain unfulfilled for all of us. The effort will be long. It will be hard. Only a fool would promise that it would be easy. But America now is no longer the America where the Religious Right stood unchallenged in their agenda by the masses.
The time is now. We stand at a vital crossroads in history. With the power of the social conservatives, at least for now, broken and our numbers on the rise we must seize the moment and begin the long journey to respect and acceptance. In so doing we must remember, for all who join us in the cause, that we do not just do so for ourselves. We fight for each other, our fellow Kin regardless of Tradition.
Most importantly, we are fighting for the future. The future of our Traditions. The future of our community as a whole and the health, vitality, and success of our local communities in particular. Most vitally we are struggling for the next generation. We must take up the cause to demand respect and dignity and work long and hard now so that when the next generation comes of age they will not know the fear, uncertainty, loneliness, and hardship that many of us have been forced to live with.
We begin today so tomorrow we may openly stand on the mountaintops and in the public square with each other, our children, and our fellow Americans and have no fear anywhere in this nation, from Seattle to Atlanta, from San Francisco to San Antonio, from New York to New Orleans there will be no place where we must hide the truth of who we are for the sake of survival or propriety.
We must take up the cause of liberation. We can no longer let fear instilled by our attackers to keep us shoved into the shadows. We must stand up and get involved in our local communities. We need to actively participate in local, state, and federal politics whether or not it is directly Pagan related or not. To give us a voice in public offices, we need to cultivate, assist and support people to run for these offices including those within the existing two major parties.
We must aggressively dispel the lies perpetrated by our foes by coming out to the public where it is safe to do so as a Pagan, as a Druid, as a Witch, as a Heathen so they know we are not some mysterious dark cult but real people they know. We must do this for what are our natural rights as human beings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on our terms according to what we believe not what others say we must believe.
We have no time to wait, no time to allow our moment to come. Our time is here.
Every act we take, great or small, alone or in a group, which is one made for the good of our greater community is one worth doing. Every act no matter its impact is one more step on the road to victory.
We cannot wait for heroes to come riding down from on high to our rescue. We must answer the call and rise to the challenge that we all face.
3. Rich Breault, “Wiccagate: What do Witches Grove protesters have to hide?, ” Valley Press, 2002-APR-8.
4. http://www.wistv.com/Global/story.asp?S=2347141 and nav=0RaPRIlo