On Sunday, October 16th, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson held a virtual “town hall” meeting with members of Pagan and Hindu media organizations. When asked by one of the participants why Johnson, a dark horse contender for the Republican presidential nomination race, would take the time to talk us, he replied, “I am going to go out on a limb here and say that you are opinion makers. People look to you for your opinions because you take the time to be well informed.” Still, few candidates from either of the dominant political parties are willing to take the time to speak to religious minorities, and even fewer are willing to risk a photo-op with those who label themselves as Witches, Druids, or Pagans.
Usually, when a candidate for national office in the United States is tied to our faiths in any way, it’s either seen as a liability (see Christine O’Donnell’s unfortunate “dabble-gate” fiasco, or the flurry of press around New York City Councilman Dan Halloran’s Heathen faith), or used as a target to shore up one’s Christian bona fides (as when Republican politicians like Bob Barr and George W. Bush pushed to limit the free exercise of Pagan faiths on military bases. Pagans, for the most part, have gotten used to either being ignored, or sensationalized by hacks. We’re still seen by many journalists as oddities to be dragged out in late October for “real live Witch” stories, and then quickly forgotten.
When the Johnson town hall was organized by a co-worker within the Pagan Newswire Collective, I was proud of the achievement, but didn’t think it would be noticed outside the scope of our media outlets. I joked with my colleagues that few politicians ever want to see “Candidate courts the Witch Vote” as a headline, as it sets them up for mockery from the punditry, or revulsion from the Christian conservative king-makers. So I was surprised to see that the Congressional paper The Hill ran a story on it, headlined “GOP presidential hopeful courts Pagans.” I was even more surprised when the story itself was respectful and straightforward, and didn’t make any jokes at our, or the governor’s, expense. Suddenly, what could have been a small yet positive step forward for our interconnected faith communities, was now being given a far bigger (and potentially more influential) audience.
What does it all mean? I think it represents two opportunities. First, there’s an opportunity for politicians to realize that America’s religious diversity isn’t simply a stock phrase to pull out when describing the virtues of our country. According to the Pew Forum, 16.1 percent of Americans claim no formal religion, while another 2.3 percent are part of religious tradition outside the Christian-Jewish-Muslim monotheistic paradigm. Those aren’t insignificant numbers, and they put the often lumped-together “other/unaffiliated” category on a statistical par with evangelical and mainline Protestants. Despite this, moral debates are almost always framed along a left-right Christian axis; Rick Warren gets to interview Obama and McCain, while Hindus, Pagans, Buddhists, and practitioners of indigenous traditions rarely get to ask questions on a national stage. Gov. Johnson’s courage in talking to religious minorities might have been driven by a modicum of desperation in getting his message out, but it should be seen as a harbinger of what campaigning to religious groups will be like in the future.
Secondly, this attention presents both journalists and politicians a chance to experience the modern Pagan movement as a grouping of distinct faiths who have pertinent questions and concerns that should be addressed. We aren’t a joke; we face real issues in the realms of religious freedom, military and prison chaplaincy, family custody battles, and equal treatment. There are around one million adherents of modern Pagan religions in the United States today. We serve in the military, work in schools and hospitals, and are part of the modern American experience. When we are told by politicians that this is a “Christian Nation,” it implies that we are not to be allowed a say in its shaping. When leaders privilege Christianity as the default setting in politics, and set up lavish Christian-only rallies to further their careers, it’s a message that our votes are meaningless to them.
In the 2008 presidential elections, a joint poll conducted by The Witches’ Voice and The Wild Hunt found that 74 percent of Pagans voted Democratic. Exit polling backed up that number, noting that among religious “others” Obama won 73 percent of their vote. Christian polling firm The Barna Group went on to note that “among voters who had a favorable view of Wicca, Sen. Obama was the favored candidate 64 percent to 35 percent.” In short, Republicans did an excellent job of alienating the bulk of non-Christians (and their friends) in this country. Gary Johnson, by most standards, has little chance of getting his party’s nomination, but he did give some hope to fiscal conservatives outside the conservative Christian paradigm, that maybe things could change. This also sends a message to Democratic candidates that our votes are theirs to lose, and that we can be ignored only for so long.
If you’re reading this, President Obama, give me a call! I’d be happy to set up a Pagan press conference for you at any time.
Jason Pitzl-Waters | Oct 20, 2011 1:49 PM