2016-06-30
In the news, at public worship ceremonies, and in the publishing and entertainment industries, pagans and Wiccans are garnering increasing attention. Is this paganism's moment, the time to assert its presence on the national religious scene? By coming out of the broom closet, Wicca--and paganism more generally--could join Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism on the list of religions that are recognized as exerting legitimate social, political, or ideological influence in America.

Wicca has had a formal presence in the United States since at least 1962, when two British witches, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland, began teaching the religion here. Their teachings were based on the work of early 20th-century writer Gerald B. Gardner, who taught publicly in England after anti-witchcraft laws were repealed in 1951.

From there, Wicca expanded, with covens, or groups of witches, meeting across the country. In 1975, a group of covens whose beliefs ranged from Wiccan to other forms of pagan worship incorporated in California to form the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG), a non-denominational pagan church that is recognized by the IRS.

It is near impossible to pinpoint the number of pagans in the United States. The Army chaplains handbook says there are 50,000 Wiccans. Others estimate as many as four million adherents of Wicca and other pagan religions in the U.S. Public pagan religious celebrations, as well as Internet mobilization, are on the rise. Pagans in 34 cities observed "Pagan Pride Day" in mid-September with worship, rituals, and advocacy and consciousness-raising activities by groups that focus on social and political issues that affect the pagan community, such as environmentalism, feminism, and especially, religious freedom.

The Wicca movement is, some say, the fastest-growing religion in America. The heavily trafficked, 1,763-page Witches' Voice web site has 25,988 "connections" to individuals, covens, teens, and other member groups all around the world. More than 200 representatives from pagan groups participated in the 1993 Parliament of World's Religions in Chicago, and recent years have witnessed an influx of pagans into the 250,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association, which claims "earth/nature centered" as the second most popular theological perspective among members.

Increasing numbers of pagan organizations are becoming incorporated as churches, both for the purpose of tax-exempt status from the IRS and, explains Patricia Telesco, author of 30 books on pagan practices and traditions, "for protection" from discriminatory acts including violence, vandalism, and harassment.

The heightened presence of paganism has reached the political world, where some leaders feel that its proliferation in mainstream society threatens traditional American values. Last June, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) lashed out against Wiccans in the military with a failed legislative attempt to ban the practice on military posts. In response to Barr's proposed legislation, 13 political groups, including the Christian Coalition and the Free Congress Foundation, called for a boycott on the Army by Christians until Wicca is banned from the posts.

But challenges facing paganism come not only from external groups. Even as witchcraft and paganism are enjoying growth and expansion, the question of whether they constitute a religion comparable to others is one that is being mulled over from within the movement as well as from without. While organization offers social and legal benefits to pagans, some pagans believe that there is something distinct about paganism that will--and should--prevent it from ever joining the ranks of American religions.

The nature of pagan worship, which emphasizes individual experience and embraces the spectrum from the highly formal to the wildly eclectic, combined with a tradition of secrecy and a memory of persecution, trial, and burning, should keep paganism apart from "mainstream" American religious traditions, some say. As Telesco explains, "By the very definition of our beliefs, this is a tradition that grows and changes with the individual and with the social climate."

Pagans also disagree about the best way to reach the goal of freedom from persecution and discrimination. Said Darla Kaye Wynne, assistant national director for Witches Against Religious Discrimination (WARD), "We want to be recognized as equal with other religions." But there are those in the movement, Ward said, who feel that publicly asserting a national presence will only invite further discrimination. "There are some pagans, Wiccans, and witches who sort of stand back because they still fear the burning times are going to come back."

"Pagans want to not suffer discrimination, they want to enjoy religious freedom, which is not the same thing as wanting to establish themselves like other religions," said Grove Harris, an associate at the Pluralism Project at Harvard Divinity School and a practicing pagan in the Reclaiming tradition, which does not separate the spiritual and the political.

"People may think that pagans are trying to emulate mainstream religions when pagans organize churches, but that form is used because the IRS requires it. Actually, a church format doesn't necessarily fit pagan organizing very well," she said. While the predominant organized religions in America have explicit or implicit guidelines for practice, the guiding principle of Wicca, the "Wiccan Rede," simply states, "an it harm none, do what you will."

This sensed incompatibility with mainstream American religions is in tension with paganism staking a claim on the religious landscape. But many say that demographic changes in the movement are necessarily leading to a more public presence.

"[Pagans] have families, they have children, they have careers, they have jobs, they aren't counter-culture hippies anymore," said the Rev. Pete "Pathfinder" Davis, archpriest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, an incorporated pagan church in the Seattle area. Davis, whose organization has more than 30 congregations nationwide and in 5 countries, says that a majority of pagans in his community see a social function to belonging to the pagan church, as opposed to a time when the movement was, as he puts it, "secretive."

Whatever the challenges, the Rev. Wren Walker, chairperson of the Witches' Voice and an ordained Wiccan, says that the public and private expansion of paganism is slowly going to earn the group equal treatment to other religions. "Pagans, like any other group, know what their rights are now, and more and more are becoming vocal and more and more are going to go to the ACLU or take it to court," she said. "And by and large we always win. It's a no-brainer, it's the first amendment."

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