Middle Class / 'Out Class' Roles for Pagans in Bridging Faith and Freedom

Michael York
Bath Spa University College


This paper examines the contemporary emergence or re-emergence of paganism as an important spiritual orientation within both the American nation and the global arena. As many of the essential assumptions of pagan religio-spiritual outlook and practice are in radical variance to those of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has been seminal to the development and self-understanding of the American nation, an examination of the role – or possible role – that paganism might play in bridging the perceived gap between faith and freedom in America is now necessary. While Robert Bellah's concept of `civil religion' offers one possible route in the national dialogue for the participation of minority, marginal or new religious movements – such as paganism and others, upon closer inspection Bellah's `civil religion' not only is not supported by many of the same factions with which American pagans overlap, but it proves to be too narrow a construct – one that entails a transcendent standard – to include the fuller range of religious and non-religious diversity that comprise the American people. By contrast, McGraw's concept of `America's sacred ground' offers a model of a `bottom-up' rather than a `top-down' forum of debate and exchange which allows and even encourages paganism as a contributor to the strength and greatness of the American experiment.


As a neglected and misconstrued congeries of spiritual practices and outlooks, paganism is a notoriously difficult religious orientation to define. It includes the folk practices of China, Shinto of Japan, indigenous religions of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania, the Afro-Latin diaspora faiths (e.g., Santerìa, Candomblé, Voodoo) and what we are permitted to identify as contemporary Western forms of paganism (e.g., Wicca or witchcraft, Druidry, Asatru or Heathenism, Neo-paganism, and Goddess Spirituality among others). For contemporary Western paganism as a whole, along with its extreme emphasis on individuality and freedom in terms of self-exegesis, self-determination and self-responsibility, there is little in the form of institutional mandate that can legitimately articulate consensus concerning articles of belief or practice. In this, present-day Western paganism conforms to such other emerging but largely amorphous religious movements as Human Potential, New Age and Creation Centered Spirituality. However, we find that most pagan practices, both indigenous and contemporary, include many if not all of the following: understandings of nature worship, this-worldliness, corpo-spirituality, enchantment, hedonism, deific pluralism, humanism, locality of focus and ethical concern. With this broad outline in mind, paganism differentiates itself from such world religions as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.

But as the theological distinctions between abrahamic, dharmic, secular and pagan religions grow clearer, so too will the lacuna in the world's theological roundtable comprising all religious views also become more obvious – allowing a more necessary future presence for paganism that has been denied for the better part of nearly two millennia. In the very least, the growing awareness of the dangers to the eco-system of the planet through industrial agriculture, massive defoliation, chemical pollution, global warming and over-population – all central concerns to a spiritual consciousness that focuses on the sacredness of the land and its prospects of sustained viability – virtually guarantees that paganism has a major place and vital stake in the American and global future.

It is important to stress that, in essence, contemporary Western paganism is as denominational or sectarian as is Christianity – ranging in its case from Wicca and contemporary witchcraft to Discordian and Magickal traditions and the various reconstructions of Druidry, Heathenism (Asatru, Vanatru, Odinism, seidr), Kemetic or Egyptian spirituality, the Baltic recoveries of Romuva and Diev Turiba and the various expressions of Greco-Roman Classical religion among others. It is also important to note that while Goddess Spirituality, that is, religious orientations that focus on or at least include understandings of godhead in feminine terms, is a central feature of much contemporary Western paganism, not all Goddess Spirituality is pagan but is a development we can witness in other traditional faiths as well (note, in particular, Roman Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether and Canadian Anglican theologian Grace Jantzen). While much of contemporary Western paganism is either generic – consisting of solitary, folk and earth-oriented practices, that is, `geo-pagan' – or reconstructed - consisting of ritual reconstructions allegedly belonging to now superseded European and Egyptian cultures (`reco-pagan'), the dominant form in the West is what we may identify as a religion sui generis, namely, `Neo-pagan' - identified by its bi-theistic theology, its employment of the ritual circle, its specific identity between the elements and the cardinal directions, and its eight-festival religious calendar. Though broader, Wicca and modern witchcraft are largely subsumed within this Neo-pagan identity.

Overall, contemporary Western paganism is not simply a faith or practice that involves religious rituals and any gathering together to honor earth and the seasons. It is as much a political expression – one that is directed against desecration of the local forests and wildlife preserves and, even more importantly, the global destruction of the planet's natural ecological balance seen to be a consequence of closed-door collusion between big government and multi-national corporations. It is for this reason that the anti-globalization protests that occurred in Seattle, Sacramento, Chicago, Washington D.C., Quebec, London, Genoa, Naples, Barcelona, Seoul and elsewhere were often spearheaded by such pagan agitators as Starhawk and friends. As the Christian fundamentalist is as likely to place God above country, the contemporary pagan is apt to consider the planetary well-being (Buckminster Fuller's global village) over national interest. While the freedom both `for' and `from' that is implicit in Bellah's understanding of `civil religion' is fully compatible – perhaps even central – to the American pagan ethos, since the present-day pagan resurgence seems to be as much about the perceived threat to the environment, any nation-state civil religion is likely to become increasingly a secondary consideration to pagan identity.

By default, with its particular emphasis on the local, on the immediacy of the environment and community, American paganism begins with, and builds from, foundations rather than any a priori over-arching hegemonic principle. Despite its more global or planetary concerns, it is directly in accord with the sacred roots of the nation. On the basis of their own religious beliefs in, and understandings of respect for, the intrinsic dignity of both human beings and nature, American pagans in principle are not opposed, but are actively open, to the inclusion of other viewpoints to the public fora whether they agree with them or not. Although following a different spiritual trajectory, paganism in the United States may be seen as overlapping with both the religious right in terms of addressing the influence of the divine and the secular left and its concerns with constitutional liberty – thereby helping to dismantle the current divide between faith and freedom.

In the wake of the profound social changes witnessed as occurring throughout American society in the second half of the twentieth century and the advent of the twenty-first – changes that are reflected more broadly throughout Western culture as a whole, institutional religion is increasingly having to compete with more amorphous and consumer-oriented forms of religion. While Europe has moved steadily toward a secularized state of affairs and corresponding loss of religious conviction, the United States continues to exhibit consistently strong belief in God – one that compares chiefly with the high levels of religious identity and affiliation to be seen particularly in Muslim states. There are two issues that arise in this connection. One concerns the impact of paganism with traditional American religiosity. The other relates to the question of how to assess the strength of the newer forms of non-institutional spiritualities – ones that tend not to keep registers of membership or have established or recognized authorities that can speak for the collectivity as a whole.

The sociologist of today confronts the difficulty of locating measurable profiles of participation in such orientations as Human Potential, New Age and Neo-paganism. The closeness to and ephemeral emergence from the persistent American or Western Metaphysical Tradition that Colin Campbell refers to as the `cultic milieu', the quasi-invisible counter-spiritual presence that runs through Western culture, mean that the demographics of these newer spiritual orientations are difficult at best to pin down and determine vis-à-vis the membership and institutional data of the established religions.

William Bloom makes the claim that the thrust of the newer forms of privatized spirituality is the emerging refusal on the part of people to be told what to believe or how to practice. There is, in our increasing `information age', a rejection of institutional authority and a greater locus of the responsibility of spiritual choice being assumed by the individual himself/herself. Much of this trend relates to the `spiritual consumerism' deplored by traditional religionists and secularists alike. The metaphor frequently used to describe this phenomenon is that of a shopper in the religious supermarket who samples a bit of this and a bit of that – with each check-out basket containing a different and personally selected assortment of the spiritual varieties and practices on hand. But since the cashier is only a metaphor, there is for the sociologist no readily accessible means to assess the trends of these newer `market' selections.

Nevertheless, on a more ad hoc basis we can surmise along with Ronald Hutton and Selena Fox that the pagan population ranges around 20,000 in Britain and 200,000 or a quarter of a million in America. But whatever the actual figures are for contemporary Western paganism, we may at least note the increase of pagan websites on the internet, the increasing number of pagan email lists, the growing presence of university and college academics who identify themselves as pagan, the governmental acceptance of prison pagan chaplainry, the expansion of pagan publication sections in retail bookstores, the growth of pagan journals, permission of Wiccan and other pagan ceremonial practice on U.S. military bases, and the acceptance of pagan representatives and their participation in the World Council of Religions during the 1993, 1999 and 2004 Parliaments of the World's Religions in, respectively, Chicago, Cape Town and Barcelona. While in the United Kingdom, the pagan umbrella organization, the Pagan Federation, has yet to be granted trust status by the British Charity Commission after nearly ten years of application, the same is not the case in the United States. Here we find such pagan organizations as Circle Sanctuary, EarthSpirit, and Covenant of the Goddess that have been granted charity status by the US government. While the progress is piecemeal and uneven, there is nonetheless a detectable presence of pagan spirituality that clearly suggests an increase in numbers of participants and in awareness of paganism among the general public.

Politics as Nature versus Politics versus Nature

As with religion, politics originates under the aegis of the pagan mind-set. Part of the ensuing philosophical debate that has its first clear expression in the writings of the classic pagan philosopher Aristotle (384-323 bce) concerns whether the political is an aspect of nature or, instead, a defiance of the natural. In his Politics (1.1 [1252a]), Aristotle begins with the observation that every state is a type of association and that all associations are formed for the purpose of achieving some good. The all-embracing association that contains other associations, i.e., the state, is directed toward the most sovereign of all goods. But Aristotle continues that it is a fallacy to assume a monarch, master or manager is the same as a `statesman' who, instead, merely exercises his (or her) authority as it conforms "with the rules imposed by the art of statesmanship" (1.2). The state is seen as itself an act of nature, and its end is to bring about the best since that is the very purpose of nature. According to Aristotle, nature's intent for the individual is that he or she is part of a political whole.

When the collective governs the state for the purposes of common interest, it constitutes a `polity'. For Aristotle, democracy is a perversion of the polity because its interest is that of the poorer classes alone (while kingship might degenerate into tyranny and aristocracy into oligarchy). The balance or middle-way that Aristotle advises is the establishment of a constitution to enshrine the way of life of any citizen-body (Politics 4.11.3 [1295a]). Aristotelian pragmatics stress the necessity of a large and dominant middle class to prevent either of the opposing extremes of rich or poor becoming authoritarian and assuming a tyrannical form of government. He insists that a constitutional democracy's underlying foundation is liberty. In politics, liberty's political form consists of the interchange between ruling and being ruled (6.2.1 [1317ab]).

While Aristotle launches a political philosophical tradition that stretches through Thomas Aquinas and John Locke to the Founding Fathers of the American republic, not all thinkers necessarily are in agreement with the idea of politics being an act of nature. Both Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) recognize the state of nature as one of self-interest alone – without any intrinsic notion of right and wrong. In his famous comment in the Leviathan, Hobbes describes the natural condition as `solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' – one in which the potential for strife and conflict is always paramount. Consequently, Hobbes claims that it is necessary to establish a society based on civil law to supersede the right of nature. In contrast to Aristotle, the political state is not seen as an act of nature but a fictional contract between people for a life not perfect but at least better than that of our natural condition. But while Hobbes develops the likelihood of an autocratic government in which the notion of obedience to a single ruler or a sovereign assembly is paramount, Spinoza instead, in both the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and the Ethics, while recognizing the state of nature as our natural condition, advocates the necessity of democracy in soliciting the voluntary cooperation of the people in optimal and stably enduring conditions.

While Spinoza favors a democratic political arrangement in contrast to both Aristotle and Hobbes, he also disagrees with Aristotle's assertion that politics is to be understood as an objective of nature. In fact, in Spinoza's pantheistic understanding, Nature (Deus sive Natura) has no purpose, and the attribution of such is simply an imaginary human projection. Consequently, while neither thinker may be understood as pagan per se, both Hobbes' materialism and Spinoza's pantheism delineate central features of the now re-emerging theology of paganism – one which, for lack of a better expression, might be termed `corpo-spiritual intoxication'. For the very least, neither Hobbes nor Spinoza assume a position that is in any way rejecting of the physical. In understanding the Aristotelian-Lockean-American spiritual-political development as it relates to contemporary Western pagan emergence – one that exalts the tangible and, especially, the tangible as spiritual, it is necessary to examine paganism's ethical position and articulations and their implications for the separation of church and state in American political debate.

As John Locke and the Founding Fathers did later (vide McGraw, 2003), Aristotle sought to ensure that the popular assembly is sovereign in all matters concerning the civic body. The uniqueness of the American Constitution is that it is designed to guarantee the public forum and keep it open to one and all - whether Aristotle's wealthy or poor, or McGraw's secular left or religious right - without providing the opportunity for any particular sector to impose its will on the others. McGraw makes abundantly clear that freedom of conscience (along with its corollary concerning freedom of speech) must be the central issue of the nation. The good of society is to be gleaned from all the different sources that are available to it and brought into the public forum.

As a contemporarily emergent religio-spiritual orientation, the role of paganism may assume either nominal mainstream or dissenting outsider status. However, in its relationship to both serious religious pluralism and democratic spiritual politics, the pagan emphasis on the sanctity of nature and the natural, and its reclaiming of earlier modes of religious expression, allow paganism to play a transforming task in the dynamics that concern bridging the current divide between faith and freedom in the Civic and Conscientious Public Fora comprising the United States of America. In answer to the question whether contemporary Western paganism can play either a mainstream or marginal role concerning civic law and moral duty, the answer depends in part on the position of the spiritual practice as a New Religious Movement and the concomitant social tolerance, incorporation or rejection its NRM status engenders.

Bellah's concept of civil religion:

One possible approach for American pagans – indeed, for all religiously minded Americans who wish to engage in either public forum that constitutes American political life – is through the vehicle of `civil religion'. In 1967, Robert Bellah published his essay, "Civil Religion in America" in which he identifies the cultural phenomenon of a national religious language that allegedly belongs to the American people as a whole rather than to any particular social component. In Bellah's understanding, the concept of civil religion expresses a transcendent religion that belongs to everyone in America. But as turns out to be the case, and as Bellah himself has subsequently acknowledged, this `everyone in America' is either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. In fact, Bellah's American civil religion is essentially a denuded form of Protestantism.

While other nations may also possess civil religious beliefs, symbols and rituals that furnish a religious dimension to the entirety of national life, Bellah's American civil religion attempts to comprise the institutionalization of concepts of transcendence and the sacred in connection with the American nation. Its particular religious principles provide a transcendent standard against which the country is to be assessed, and while the national motto of "In God We Trust" suggests a non-denominational confidence in God's protection of the United States, this belief has been thrown into doubt through the debacle of the Vietnam War, the crisis of Watergate and, more recently, the 2000 Presidential election and the 911 catastrophe. However, in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, sociologist Bill Swatos has noted the numerous subsequent appearances of the words "God Bless America" on commercial marquises and elsewhere as indicative of the revived sense of the holiness of the American mission. The first issue that comes to mind in this development is whether this renewal of America's ideals in terms of religious zeal either helps to bridge the present conflict between religion and freedom for the country or exacerbates the divide yet further.

The collection of empirical evidence in such assertions that "America is God's chosen nation today" and "God can be known through the experiences of the American people" and the like suggests that civil religion is a social fact that is other than American politics and denominational identity. In their study, Wimberley and Swatos (1998:95) have found that Catholics and traditionally denominational Protestants demonstrate consistent degrees of civil religiosity – with such groups that historically originate in the United States as the Mormons, Adventists and Pentecostalists showing the highest levels of beliefs that could be identified as civil religion. By contrast, according to the Wimberley and Swatos findings, those who are in general the lowest in commitment to or belief in American civil religiosity are college graduates, political and religious liberals, Jews, Unitarians and those without religious preference, namely, those very people who often include America's

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