(RNS) — In 2017, witches around the United States, and a few around the world, turned their magic to political activism, performing a spell to “bind” then-President Donald Trump “and all who abet him.”
While the former president had this politicizing effect on many pagans, the spell was not the first pagan mass action aimed at furthering progressive causes. Over the past decade, pagan groups have vocally participated in the People’s Climate March, rallies for marriage equality and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
But until recently, nobody seems to have questioned whether these events reflect the ideology of the 1 million-strong U.S. pagan community.
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In one of the few profiles of this understudied religious population, Kathleen Marchetti, an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College, discovered that pagans’ politics are not as predictable as all that.
“If you ask us if we prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream, we will pick strawberry. Or vegan mocha with almonds,” said Cara Schulz, a City Council member in Burnsville, Minnesota.
While pagans trend toward moderate to left viewpoints and vote with Democrats more than nonpagans do, Marchetti’s study found, they are also more likely to identify as true political independents, with a few voting third party.
Schulz, who is also a candidate recruiter for the Libertarian National Committee, said that pagans are “people who are already outside the box.” Being different is “a core part of our identity.” When she goes to a Libertarian event, Schulz said, she “knows there will be pagans there.”
“The core ethic of the Libertarian Party also matches the core ethic of most pagans’ religions,” she said. “And ye harm none do what ye will” is one of those baseline ethics that is “strikingly similar” to a Libertarian core value.
Marchetti, who based her study on data from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, found that pagans skew left uniformly on at least two issues: the environment and sexuality.
Pagan support for LGBTQ protections, which Marchetti also called a “unified measure of pagan religious identity,” comes from an adamant belief in respecting others’ personal identity, according to author and witch Lasara Firefox Allen, who identifies as nonbinary. “This is a stated value,” Firefox Allen said.
Firefox Allen, however, added that while there is a “baseline of acceptance” for the LGBTQ community, some “sectors of the community will accept lesbians, let’s say, but not transgender identities.”
“We have a lot of work to do,” Firefox Allen said.
As pagan rituals are often centered on the natural world, it makes sense that environmentalism would also be a shared ideal. Most pagans are striving in some way for a “spiritual relationship with the Earth,” said Andras Corban-Arthen, founder and spiritual director of the Massachusetts-based pagan organization EarthSpirit Community, which advocates for eco-stewardship through its annual festivals and events. Part of that relationship is “undoing the harm” humanity has inflicted on the ecosystem, he said.
Beyond these two issues, pagans can’t be broadly categorized, politically speaking. Despite the population being “women-dominated” and some pagan religions being goddess-centered, they “hold no distinctive views on women in the workforce,” Marchetti said, and men actually hold a disproportionate number of positions of authority within pagan organizations.
The community is “upwards of 80% white,” according to the study — thanks probably to the Eurocentric origins of most pagan religions — and pagans exhibit no strong feelings as a group about immigration. That statistical lack of diversity, said Crystal Blanton, an author, speaker and licensed clinical social worker, lines up with a more general “discomfort related to topics of race.”
But Marchetti also described a small thread of “folkish, ethnocentric and nationalist” elements in her study, a strain particularly evident within heathenry, a Norse-based religious group affiliated with paganism.
The rise of white power and white nationalist politics over the past few years has highlighted, if not exacerbated, this element, according to Jennifer Snook, senior lecturer in sociology at Grinnell College. “Given the current political climate, extremism has increased — or at least become more visible,” she said. It is not uncommon to find heathen religious symbols, such as the Mjolnir, at white nationalist rallies.
Extremists are often attracted to Norse mythology’s “warrior aesthetic,” which feeds “hypermasculinity and militancy,” Snook explained.
However, white supremacy is not a heathen problem, Snook cautioned: “It’s an American problem.” Rather than joining heathenry because of any political ideology they find there, she said, white supremacists are “reinterpreting heathenry to fit their particular vision.” There is growing movement within the community to “reclaim heathenry from the loud voices of these white supremacists,” Snook said, as both inclusive and diverse.
If pagan politics are hard to pin down, some say, it’s partially because these proudly individual pagans will often hide their religious identity for fear of backlash, or a simple wish not to be lectured by members of other faiths. This may also explain why Marchetti found that pagans are less politically engaged than nonpagans.
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But not all pagans agree with that finding. Some, such as Schulz, believe political involvement is vital to their lives and even intrinsic to their religious beliefs. A practitioner of Hellenismos, a religion based on ancient Greek beliefs, she explained that in ancient Greece “to be a devout person was to be an active community member.” While Schulz believes religion and government should be kept separate, her own involvement in politics is “deeply tied,” she said, to her religious beliefs.
Blanton goes further, saying that all religions are elementally political. “Politics are baked into religion, just as they are within life,” she said. “In living, valuing and embracing spirituality we are recognizing the connections between humanity, integrity, accountability, commitment and responsibility.”
Firefox Allen agreed, adding, “Political engagement is not optional for any living, breathing individual.”
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.