Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

by Mark SilkWiccan_GIF.gif (9582 bytes)

It was one of those slow-motion stories that begin with an enterprising reporter in the provinces. On May 11, the Austin American-Statesman published religion reporter Kim Sue Lia Perkes’s take-out on the three-year-old practice of Wicca at Fort Hood, the huge Army base in Killeen, Texas. The main story took readers to the celebration of this year’s vernal equinox by 40 female and male witches (mostly active-duty soldiers); explained the nature of Wicca ("a reconstruction of nature worship from tribal Europe and other parts of the world"); and traced its growth in America and its acceptance as a religion by the U.S. military.

Perkes reported that Army brass were touchy about discussing their accommodation of neo-paganism, and that at Fort Hood it had elicited an ongoing protest from members of a local conservative Baptist church. There were also sidebars on Wiccan beliefs and on how the stereotype of witches arose in early modern Europe.

Sensationalistic the story wasn’t. Intriguing it was.

At first, the outside world took little notice. In Washington, correspondents for the Times of London and the London Daily Telegraph knocked out articles on the U.S. Army’s witches, while in New York, Bill O’Reilly (on Fox News’s "The O’Reilly Factor") called the Army’s recognition of "white witchcraft" as a religion "the most ridiculous item of the day," quipping that there was no truth to the rumor that the Army was developing a "Bradley fighting broomstick."

Then, on May 18, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Clinton impeachment fame announced that he had written letters to the Secretary of the Army and Fort Hood’s commander demanding that the Army cease sanctioning Wiccan practices. The scene shifted to Atlanta, where the Journal and Constitution reported on protests by the local Wiccan community. At a May 29 "town meeting" filled largely with supportive constituents, Barr declared that elected leaders should decide which religions could be practiced in the military. To that end, he attempted unsuccessfully to amend the Defense appropriations bill to ban the practice of witchcraft on Army bases.

In letter, press release, column, and interview, Barr, a former U.S. Attorney, distinguished between civilian and military religious rights. Wicca and other unconventional religious practices would, he said, undermine military effectiveness: "[W]ill armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastifarians [sic] demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in the rations?" But the prospect of such horribles seemed to bother him less than the symbolism of a non-Judeo-Christian military. "The fact of the matter is—and witches won’t like this—our country was founded on a basic belief in God," he told the Journal and Constitution’s Gayle White. (Barr’s personal religious proclivities made the news in June, when the New York Times reported that he and his wife had left the 5,000-member First United Methodist Church of Marietta with 450 other families because of what they regarded as an insufficiently strong stand against gay marriage by Georgia’s Methodist bishops.)

The saga’s next chapter—possibly occasioned by Hanna Rosin’s report on the Fort Hood Wiccans in the June 8 Washington Post—began with a June 9 announcement by conservative activist Paul Weyrich that his Free Congress Foundation and 12 other conservative groups were calling for Christians to stop joining or re-enlisting in the Army until it prohibited witchcraft rituals on posts. But Perkes, still keeping her beat on the story, quickly elicited retractions from two of the alleged boycott’s most prominent members, the Christian Coalition and the American Freedom Institute. "This brings back the specter of the Salem witch trials," Marc Levin, the Institute’s vice president, told her. "In addition to being wrongheaded, conservative calls for a boycott of the military are politically suicidal. Support for the military is a bedrock conservative principle." A spokesman for the American Family Association said that while the organization supported the effort to ban Wicca, it was "totally blindsided" by the boycott call—which seemed largely to reflect Weyrich’s own post-impeachment view that religious conservatives should separate themselves from corrupted American institutions.

"What is it going to take, you believers in God?" he cried in an op-ed piece distributed by Knight-Ridder and published in Austin, Fort Worth, Omaha, and Salt Lake. "Do we just accept what is happening as normal? Or do we believers finally say we’ve had it? We are not going to let pagans claim an equal footing with God. Institutions that go that route are institutions that will just have to function without young people."

The free exercise of religion is in fact a more limited right in the armed forces than in civilian society. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that a Jewish officer did not have the right to wear a yarmulke while on duty. But restricting specific practices—Fort Hood refuses to permit naked Wiccan rituals, for example—is a far cry from drawing the kind of invidious distinctions among religions that Barr and Weyrich proposed.

In Katcoff v. Marsh (1985), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the government’s practice of hiring military chaplains did not violate the First Amendment’s ban on religious establishments because of the need to support military personnel in the free exercise of their religion. The court indicated that the military’s religious program should be "neutral," should limit competition among religious groups, and should leave the practice of religion solely to the individual soldier, "who is free to worship or not as he chooses, without fear of any discipline or stigma."

Under the circumstances, spokesmen for the military thus insisted at every point that they were under an obligation to accommodate whatever religious services their personnel desired, consistent (as the chief chaplain at Fort Hood told National Public Radio) "with maintaining good order and discipline." As Louisiana State University history professor Anne Loveland points out in American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993, it was only a generation ago that evangelical Protestant organizations battled with the military to assure the free-exercise rights of evangelical military personnel. For that reason alone it is not surprising that older and more experienced conservative evangelical Protestant bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals did not join the anti-Wiccan crusade.

Most politicians, too, declined to tread where Barr rushed in—but there were exceptions. Ninety-six-year-old South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, responding to an alert from President Bob Jones III of Bob Jones University, summoned Pentagon officials to his office June 16 to lodge a protest, Charleston Post and Courier Washington correspondent Steve Piacente reported. In a follow-up letter to Undersecretary of Defense Rudy de Leon, Thurmond threatened to introduce legislation to halt a situation he believed would be "devastating to the future of the military."

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who presumably had followed the story from the beginning in his hometown paper, told ABC’s Good Morning America June 24, "I don’t think witchcraft is a religion and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it."

Within two months, Wicca in the military had achieved the status of a full-fledged minor national news item. Those in the opinion business in particular had had a field day, in a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sort of way.

First out of the blocks was Tom Teepen, the Atlanta-based national correspondent of Cox Newspapers and a past master at baiting the religious right. Not only was Teepen the first of many opinion writers to observe that Barr’s anti-Clinton witch-hunt had given way to a hunt for real witches but he got off the best crack, expressing the hope that a good witch "might get close enough to Barr one day to kiss him and turn him into a prince."

Among a flock of frisky editorials, the friskiest was the Philadephia Daily News’s: "Witches in the Army? Wouldn’t they be more comfortable in the Air Force?…Gentlemen, start your bonfires….Of course, Wiccans are entitled to practice their religion, even if they cook eye of newt (not necessarily Gingrich) over bubbling cauldrons—just as that pesky Constitution allows Bob Barr to display his awesome ignorance yet again." Conservative columnists and editorial pages by and large kept their own counsel, although the Indianapolis Star soberly conceded, "The Army would seem to have the better part of the argument."

If professional opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of the Army’s defense of religious freedom, so was public opinion, as far as can be told. Letters to the editor showed virtually no support for Barr and Weyrich. When the Atlanta Journal and Constitution asked in its weekly "ethics question" whether Wiccans in the military should have the same right to worship on military installations as adherents of other faiths, all but one of the 40 e-mailers who replied (twice the usual response) answered in the affirmative. "I have voted for Bob Barr in the past, and I support him in his defense of the Constitution and the rule of law," wrote Jennifer Young of Carroll County. "However, I believe his statement that Wiccan beliefs are not protected by the first amendment is an egregious blunder on his part. A defender of civil liberties such as Mr. Barr should know that his endeavor is a violation of personal liberties."

Responding to the Weyrich column in the Salt Lake Tribune, Jack Cook of Salt Lake wrote, "My Mormon brothers and sisters, before you brush this off, the other four major Christian religions in this country (Protestants, Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals) already refuse to call you Christians and recognize your sacraments. Can you be sure you’re not on the hit list too? How long until they call you heretics? How long until the Inquisitor comes for you?"

For their part, the organized Wiccans did what Americans of all persuasions do when they want to take their case to the nation: They held a rally in Washington—in this case a Full Moon Circle at the Jefferson Memorial June 28. Perhaps because the 7:00 PM event was too late for normal deadlines, the event drew scarcely any media attention beyond a report by Paul Strand of the Christian Broadcasting Network that aired June 30 on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. Strand showed viewers the two sites of the debate, interviewing both John Machate, coordinator of the Military Pagan Network ("The Constitution doesn’t say only Christianity is valid. If you start taking away one religion, you’re going to start picking at the other religions.") and Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition ("This is very dangerous to the military.").

After the story concluded, Robertson, as is his wont, delivered his own assessment: "I’m not worried about a little coven of witches running around…. Rather than suppress us all, we might give them their freedom."

To which Machate, in a prepared statement, replied: "Religious tolerance is the price of religious freedom for all. We were pleased that the Christian Broadcasting Network attended our press event. Their story was fair and balanced. We thank Reverend Robertson for his support of religious freedom."