At its inception in the first half of the 20th Century, modern neo-Pagan witchcraft was inherently political. It was a new religion for a new age. Disdaining the One God for a Goddess and her consort. Challenging mainstream religion with (then new, albeit now discredited) interpretations of historical fact. Giving religious authority to individual worshipers and, more frighting, to women.
In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Pagans of all stripes were closely allied with the environmental and animal rights movements. Witchcraft traditions, in particular, were almost synonymous with feminism. The Feri and Reclaiming traditions, just to name two, were political protest organizations as much as religious ones.
When I joined the movement in the mid 1990s that was still the case. The Satanic Panic was “officially” over, but the echoes had not yet died down. We were fighting for the right to serve openly in the military. Every Pagan web page on the internet had a link to, or the full text of, Isaac Bonewits cult identification rubric, and/or a disclaimer addressing law enforcement, assuring them that we did not believe in Satan, curse anyone, or perform human or animal sacrifices. A presidential hopeful (who went on to win) scored points with his base by condemning us as “not a real religion”. There were an increasing number of people who resisted calling any of that “political”, but that didn’t change the reality that it was.
In the 1990s and 2000s, though, an underlying current of assimilationism made its way to the forefront. I don’t know, exactly, what happened. Perhaps, like we’ve seen in the Gay Rights movement over the last few years, those with the least to lose decided that they had won enough recognition that they are prepared to throw everyone else under the bus in order to keep it. My own belief is that, in the wake of, first, the Satanic Panic, then the 9/11 attacks, fear and nationalism took over: “we’re just like everyone else” stopped being a strategically deployed shield, and became a goal.
People stopped looking quite so askance at Neo-Nazi Norse Pagans, and that – combined with the spikes in racism and sexism in mainstream society – backflowed into the Pagan mainstream like an overflowing sewer, reinforcing the underlying racism and swank pedestal sexism that had always been a part of the movement. Explicitly nationalist (and often implicitly heterosexist white supremacist) reconstructionist Paganisms emerged in both Europe and the United States.
Now event organizers pride themselves on their political neutrality. When Pagans discuss what they need to to to achieve greater “mainstream acceptance”, more than half will tell you that Paganism needs to keep out of politics. When trans folx demand to be included in gendered rites, half the opposition is from pole who don’t want their religion politicized. When others among us demand un-gendered spaces, or try to complicate gendered archetypes, we are accused of “overthinking things” or dismissed as having “an agenda”. When some of us point out that Native Americans have asked not to be counted among our number, have asked us to stop stealing their language, to stop aping their their rituals, to stop copying and selling their tools, we are accused of being too political. When some of us speak up against police brutality, against war, against rape culture, we are shouted down as being too negative, too divisive, too political.
That doesn’t work. Literally everything is political.
For Paganism to stay out of politics, it must become empty and meaningless. And, even then, it’s still political: it’s become a product to be sold, a lifestyle to be aspired to, an aesthetic without ethics or ecstasy.
Politics is ethics in practice. If our religion does not inform our ethics (and vice versa, for that matter), then it is nothing.
Paganism must be political. Pagans must take public stances, as Pagans, on the issues of our day. We must agitate. We must argue. We must take action.