The Bay Area Pagan Alliance kindly asked me to speak at their annual festival this year. What follows is an edited version of that speech.
This year's theme is "paradigm shift." In Reclaiming, the Pagan tradition I was most involved with starting in the early 1980s, the ideal of unifying Earth-based spirituality and progressive politics is a core value. But over the past few years my own stance on that has shifted markedly, and I want to explain why.
The best place to begin is with James Watt, Reagan's Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to '83. James Watt was awful, one of the worst cabinet members in U.S. history. He pursued terrible environmental policies, and he seethed with hatred toward environmentalists. Watt was also an evangelical Christian who believed in the "end times," and only wanted to assure that the earth's resources held out till Christ returned. To the end, he was engaged primarily in a religious war.
After his craziness got him kicked out of the Dept. of Interior, someone interviewed James Watt and asked what his biggest fear was about environmentalists. And he said, "that they're all secretly Pagan." That comment was a huge in-joke for me and all my friends, because of course we WERE secretly (or not so secretly) Pagan.
We were environmentalists for many sound economic and political reasons, but at the core we were horrified at the abuse of the earth's resources, and wanted to restore the spirits of the wild to the land. We wanted to protect the earth, and to do that we had to overthrow the evangelical Christian worldview. James Watt provided an excellent target, and so we built our Pagan identity around opposition to him and people like him.
But oppositional identities are tricky things to control once they get started, and recent events give us a timely opportunity to do some course correction of our own before things get out of hand. James Watt was a true believer, and in that sense he is the forerunner of everyone we see on the far right rising to political power in the states and nationally.
We've seen blatant efforts to roll back voting rights, women's health care, fair wages, due process and the right to organize. The fight is on to destroy the separation of church and state in this country. This is horrifying. If we don't vote and get involved politically, our country could very quickly revert to an oppressive theocracy, just like back in Salem in the 17th century.
But I am grateful that we can now see their goals so clearly, because it is this view down into the abyss that has caused me to change how I feel about mixing spirit and politics. In the religious right, we can see the shadow of what we might become if the shoe were on the other foot.
What do I mean by this? Zealotry begins with a deep sense of frustration at the slow pace of change. That urgency, combined with strong religious beliefs, means that we turn to a sympathetic deity or presiding force to intercede in human affairs. And of course, because our deity is sympathetic it seems to validate even our most extreme views. We have now created a closed loop of influence, within which we feel increasingly justified and self-righteous about our cause.
One thing I didn't understand when I was young is that broad cultural change happens very, very slowly. Getting involved with charismatic Pagan traditions like Reclaiming felt like having the inside track to change, and a greater collective ability to affect things. But the closed loops I experienced encouraged emotionality and discouraged analysis and debate. The more radical and inspiring the leaders, and the more doe-eyed the sycophants or initiates, the more likely that the group's tactics will be misguided at best, and at worst potentially destructive to the very people and causes they support.
It is easy to see the shadow of our own actions and beliefs magnified a hundred-fold in the religious right today. I am so very grateful that radical activist Pagans have never (yet?) been bankrolled by eccentric billionaires and thus allowed to create more harm than good in a supposedly pluralistic society. It would be hard not to see all that money and influence as confirmation that God/dess was on our side, and that now was our time to strike out against the enemies of Gaia, or any other sympathetic deity of our choice.
Fighting a religious war is no way to maintain a democracy. It's not even a great way to maintain a religion. The challenge for Pagans, today and over the long haul, is to use our spiritual beliefs to galvanize us to action, but to stay focused on the goal: a country in which politics and spirituality are NOT unified. Where the separation of church and state is intact, and everyone's basic civil rights are valued and protected.
In closing, here is what I now believe about spirit and politics:
Things that matter most require long fights. In those fights the air, fire, water and earth will support us. Community will ground us. But we need to hold our own center. So check yourself. In your heart, do you carry the flame of the true believer? If so, is there also space there for others to believe differently?
May our hearts be large enough to hold multiple possibilities of connection to Spirit, and let there also be space to listen and speak clearly; to learn from others; to be decent neighbors, citizens, parents, and friends; and through the long struggle, to hold fast to our aspirations of a more just society for all.
A version of this essay was originally published at the Blog o' Gnosis.