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A Pagan Republican: Trick? Or Treat?

5 years ago
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Political junkies across the country are fixating on Tuesday's vote in otherwise unremarkable congressional district in upstate New York because of the ominous portents in the race -- chief among them the Republican split over whether to support the party's nominee in the special election, Dede Scozzafava, a GOP moderate, or the Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, whose rightward tilt has gained him high-stakes endorsements from the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

The outcome of the Nov. 3 balloting, as much as gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey, is expected to be a bellwether for Republicans: Can they accommodate pro-choice moderates like Scozzafava to "grow the party," as Newt Gingrich wants? Or should they push rightward to renew the party ideologically, as Glenn Beck advises? Will their divisions in a reliably Republican district boost the Democrat -- and thereby help Obama? Or will a win by Scozzafava or Hoffman signal a resurgent Republicanism?

Well, here's a vote to forget all that tea leaf reading and instead turn your attention downstate, to a city council race in the borough of Queens that under normal circumstances wouldn't get locals terribly excited, much less have any national implications.

Why is this year different? For starters, the race between the Democrat and the Republican is actually competitive, which certainly isn't always the case in New York City. (The mayoralty is different, for some reason, as Republicans from LaGuardia to Lindsay, Giuliani to Bloomberg, have shown. But the council reflects grassroots reality: 47 of the current 51 council members are Democrats.)

Far more important, however, is that the GOP nominee, Dan Halloran, is a practicing Pagan. And not just any Pagan. Halloran is the "First Atheling," or King, of New Normandy, which is the Greater New York Area branch of the Théod faith of pre-Christian Heathen religions.
The Web site of Halloran's tribe says it is "dedicated to reviving the folkways of the northern European people" and that its followers practice "Théodish Belief, which emphasizes the bonds of the community and the development of a worldview and cultural ethos that our ancient forebears would have honored, and uses these tools to forge a connection between the individual and the divine. We believe in and honor the Gods and Goddesses of the North, spirits of the land, and the memories of our ancestors."

Not exactly the kind of campaign literature the Republican National Committee would write, and indeed, Halloran's faith isn't necessarily going to make his public life a walk in the park.

When the Queens Tribune, a local weekly with close Democratic ties, wrote a front page story about Halloran and his Heathenism back in September, Halloran was already hesitant to speak about his beliefs.

"I am not comfortable with injecting my religion into my politics," Halloran told the paper. "I grew up born and raised Roman Catholic. I went to Jesuit schools. Most of my life has been in [a] traditional Irish household."

"I don't think any of this is really relevant to the City Council race," he added. "It's like talking about what church you pray at. That you understand the divine is the most important part."

Since then, the novelty of Halloran's religion -- as well as photos of him in various regalia celebrating Théodish rites -- have made for great play, and plays on words. "Grand Ol' Pagan" said the Village Voice headline. "Out of the broom closet," Sarah Pike, a religious studies professor, wrote at ReligionDispatches.

No surprise that Halloran has generally declined to speak in detail about his religious practices since then, except to assert that he believes in God and is "a man of faith."

In truth, "Pagan" still isn't a label that resonates with most voters, even in New York City, which is not -- contrary to widespread red-state belief -- a hotbed of Paganism. (Why else would Michael Bloomberg have spent so much time and money cultivating the black churches if they weren't a potent force? Not to mention Irish Catholics and the Orthodox Jews of the outer boroughs.)

Outright hostility to Pagans is still all too frequent, especially around Halloween, when the seasonal highlight on Paganism spooks some Americans.

This year's scaredy-cat award might go to Kimberly Daniels, whose column at the web site of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network asserted that during this Halloween season "demons are assigned against those who participate in the rituals and festivities" (e.g. trick-or-treating) and that "most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches." Other dangers of Halloween's paganism, Daniels said, include sex with demons, orgies between animals and humans, sacrificing babies to shed innocent blood, and the rape and molestation of adults, children and babies. (Daniels' column has since been removed, but CBN still maintains a resource page of similar essays.)

Such suspicions, not always so literal, are almost commonplace in Christian communities, despite the fact that Pagans of all stripes say consorting with demons or promoting evil in any way is against their religion. But the real problems for Pagans are not theological arguments, but more mundane matters such as possible workplace discrimination.

For example, the former sales manager at a Bath & Body Works store in Connecticut this month filed a lawsuit claiming she was unjustly terminated for making her annual pilgrimage to Salem, Mass., to celebrate Samhain, considered the Pagan New Year, which starts at sundown on Oct. 31.

Plaintiff Gina Uberti says she applied for vacation time for the trip for six years and it was always granted, and had been approved for this Samhain (pronounced "SAH-win") as well. But a new manager, Sandra Scibelli, recently took over and, the suit claims, allegedly rescinded Uberti's vacation request, saying, "I will be damned if I have a devil-worshipper on my team."

If true, you would certainly have to give Scibelli points for a good turn of phrase. But whatever the merits of a single lawsuit, all Americans -- and maybe even political parties -- may also need to start adapting to the reality of Paganism.

Pagans began emerging, or re-emerging, as they might put it, decades ago as American spirituality broke away from traditional religions and sought new forms of expression. Some seekers found a home in New Age movements while others looked backward, into the deep recesses of pre-Christian culture, to "reconstruct" faiths such as Druidism or Wicca (the proper name for witchcraft) or any one of a host of polytheistic, often Earth-centered religions. (See ReligionLink for a good summary.)

Like New Age religions, Paganism often combined or recreated traditions so that defining just what a Pagan or Wiccan or Druid is can be a challenge. (There is a vigorous debate within the community as to whether they should be called Pagans or Neopagans or something else entirely.)

Either way, Pagans are growing and finding a degree of acceptance.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of Wiccans went from 134,000 in 2001 to 342,000 in 2008, and self-described Pagans also more than doubled, from 140,000 to 340,000. Pagans have their own media, their own seminaries to train clergy, and the Internet to connect far-flung adherents. The numbers also don't reflect the degree to which Earth-based spirituality and other beliefs that are not explicitly Pagan have spread through the culture.

In 2007, the U.S. military even agreed to add the Wiccan pentacle to the list of 39 "emblems of belief" allowed in national cemeteries and on government-issued headstones of fallen soldiers. Gay servicemen and women are arguably more closeted than Pagan soldiers. (Then again, the Pentagon is a pentacle, too. Hmmm...)

But if the GOP is serious about its "big tent" ambitions, it may want to think about leaving the flap open just a bit for folks like Dan Halloran. For one thing, not all Pagans are tree-hugging feminists. As Sarah Pike noted at ReligionDispatches, "Neopagans fall everywhere on the political spectrum, serve in the military and as police officers, and work in other professions that do not seem to fit their countercultural image." (Halloran himself used to work at the NYPD.)

"If feminist Witchcraft with its emphasis on egalitarianism and individual spirituality is at one end of the Neopagan spectrum," Pike adds, "then Théodism's hierarchy and tribalism is at the other."

The Village Voice profile noted the links between some manifestations of Norse Heathenism and white supremacist groups, but Halloran and others reject those groups as corruptions of the traditions. And efforts seen as attacking Halloran's faith may backfire. According to an Oct. 1 article in another Queens paper, the Chronicle, the earlier profile by the Democrat-connected Tribune was seen by many as critical of Halloran's religion and resulted in a surge in support for him.

Local Republicans are also standing by their man.

Queens GOP Chairman Phil Ragusa said that he and the Republican executive committee knew about Halloran's religion, and that it was not an issue. "If a person performs and does what he has to do for his district, then he will be a welcome breath of fresh air," Ragusa said.

Halloran, he added, "seems like a regular guy."

In Queens, if not the rest of the country, that's all that matters.

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