Those pentancle wars, again

altarLong ago, when I was a graduate student in Baylor University’s church-state studies program, one of our professors liked to cut to the chase by saying the following: “Your religious liberties have been purchased for you by many people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner.”

What did he mean? He meant that it is important to recognize that our laws protect the human rights of all kinds of people, including people that some of us may consider a bit on the wild side. But that is what religious liberty is all about. You must fight for the rights of others to speak freely and to disagree with what you believe.

There are times when this really bothers people on the right. There are also times — keep your eye on freedom of association cases involving clashes between gay-rights organizations and traditional religious groups — when this same tradition really ticks off people on the political and cultural left. Click here for a Weekly Standard piece mapping out that conflict.

Here at GetReligion, we have been trying to keep up with what we think is a highly symbolic case, which is the battle by Wiccan believer named Roberta Stewart to have her late husband’s faith formally recognized — by having a pentancle on his military tombstone.

The pentancle offends some people, in part because they strongly oppose neo-paganism.

However, the truth of the matter is that almost all religious symbols are offensive to somebody and they always have been. Rare is the New York Times columnist who is not offended by the sight of a cross in a public place. And on the legal side, this is not a simple church-state question — as anyone who has followed the fights over holiday trees and secular menorahs will know.

In this case, President George W. Bush was provoked into making an important gesture, by contacting Roberta Stewart as a sign that the government needed to recogize her faith tradition. Here is the background section of that story in The Washington Post:

Stewart, also a Wiccan, fought an 18-month battle to get the Wiccan symbol — a five-pointed star within a circle — engraved on a brass plaque for war heroes at the veterans cemetery in Fernley, Nev. Patrick Stewart, who was in the Nevada Army National Guard, is believed to be the first Wiccan killed in combat. The helicopter he was riding in was shot down.

The Wiccan faith is based on nature and emphasizes respect for the earth. Some Wiccans call themselves witches or pagans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs turned down Roberta Stewart’s request because the Wiccan symbol was not among the 38 emblems, including ones for atheism and humanism, allowed for inscription on military memorials or grave markers. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued the department on behalf of Stewart and other Wiccan spouses, and in April, the VA agreed to add the symbol to its approved list.

A question: Are there really Wiccans who do not consider themselves pagans? Really?

And there is one other thing that I would like to know: Did conservative religious groups take a stand on one side or the other in this case, or where they divided? I think many journalists would assume that conservative believers oppose the Wiccan case. I do not think that can be assumed, because many conservatives now realize that equal access means equal access and freedom of association means freedom of association.

Journalists must remember that in America, the legal goal is “political toleration,” not “theological toleration.” Our government is supposed to insist that all faiths are equal in the eyes of the state, not that all faiths are equal in the eyes of God (a point of confusion all too common in many public schools).

The pentancle case is a classic example of the difference. The Post told us where a key group on the left came down on this matter. What about the activists on the right?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    A question: Are there really Wiccans who do not consider themselves pagans? Really?

    There’s the “Christian Wicca” people such as who have a belief in the Father, the Mother and the Holy Son Jesus. It’s syncretism at it’s finest. Of course, there’s a wikipedia page devoted to their varied theological perspectives.

    I wandered around google/wikipedia and found a discussion about how various groups and writers, including some mainstream Christian, look at the Holy Ghost as feminine

  • Jerry

    I hit the submit button too soon.

    So, after all, it seems that the black/white Pagan/Christian distinction can have interesting ‘grey’ areas.

    As to the basic question, I could not find any comments about the pagan symbol as a recognized symbol from the activist right. Maybe someone else will come along with that information.

  • Donna

    I’m going to post a link to this over on a forum I co-host, The Cauldron: A Pagan Forum. You’ll possibly get some people here commenting that don’t normally come out of lurkdom.

    What you’re asking about Wiccans who don’t consider themselves Pagan is something that we occasionally toss around. I will say that most BT Wiccans (British Traditional Wiccans) and other Trad Wiccans will tell you that to be Wiccan means there isn’t a combination of other religous beliefs.

    Being an Hellenic Reconstructionist Pagan (though non-practicing), I will tell you that my personal take is that all Wiccans are pagan. I also don’t believe one can be a Christian Wiccan (or as I occasionally see it a Christo-Pagan). But again, I’m not Wiccan, so I don’t have a horse in that race.

    Donna (aka LyricFox)

  • Donna

    Oh, and I forgot to mention this, but it’s “pentacle.” Or “pentagram.” :)

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Did conservative religious groups take a stand on one side or the other in this case”

    I’m not sure if Christianity Today is considered “conservative”, but they did publish an editorial taking a stand for the Veteran Pentacle Quest.

    “Although our country was founded on a Judeo-Christian base, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone, not just Christians. In other words, the only way that freedom can prevail for Christians is for Christians to stand up and fight for the minority beliefs and religions of others.”

    Beyond that the pickings become quite slim. There have been plenty of conservatives (typically with military backgrounds) who also sided with Stewart in her campaign (and no doubt some of them must have been Christian), but few Christian conservative pundits/groups (to my knowledge) weighed in favorably (and I was paying close attention to this issue). But then the religious liberty of modern Pagans has often been a sore spot for some Christian activists fighting to expand the role of religion in the public arena (schools, courthouses, etc). I dare say it is a reason we don’t see far more legal challenges.

    This isn’t to say conservative Christians haven’t sided with Pagans in legal battles over religious freedom, they have. But I also see many cases in which conservative Christians recoil from a “religious freedom” fight once they learn it will benefit Pagans and other “cults”. I’m sure it brings up a “lesser of two evils” dilemma for some Christians looking to brings a case to court.

    A question: Are there really Wiccans who do not consider themselves pagans? Really?

    I suppose anything is possible, but it is generally understood by most that Wiccans are indeed Pagans (keeping in mind that there is no uniting dogma within modern Paganism and invariably “exceptions” pop up for any pronouncement). Now, one can practice “witchcraft” (a spiritual technology found in many cultures and faiths) without holding allegiance to Pagan gods and goddesses, but they (generally speaking) don’t call themselves “Wiccans”. In most cases the simple phrase “All Wiccans are Witches, but not all witches are Wiccan” holds true.

    I will be interested if any editorials from conservative Christians (and not simply conservatives who also happen to be Christian) speaking in support of Roberta Stewart pop up.

  • Mattk

    I find it strange that the pentagram isn’t allowed on a soldier’s tombstone. When I was a U.S. Army chaplains assistant (mid 1980s) my field manuals told me how to set up the chapel for the services of every religion under heaven, including Satanism. I know Satanism is not even close to being the same thing as Wicca but it seems to me that if the government can make reasonable accomodation for a faith that is as anarchic and destructive to civic order as Satanism, then it should have no problem making a reasonable accomidation for a faith that is mostly harmless (in a civic sense) as is Wicca. I’d be interested in knowing exactly who in the DVA is holding this up.

  • Brian Westley

    Rare is the New York Times columnist who is not offended by the sight of a cross in a public place.

    Which columnists would these be? I find most opposition to crosses are not because they are in a public place, but because the city, state, or federal government decided to promote Christianity by erecting a cross on public property, which is entirely different. I haven’t seen a columnist complain about a cross on a church’s property.

  • Jinzang

    Pagan is sometimes a term of abuse. I guess that some Wiccans don’t like it for that reason. It’s the same reason that Hindus and Buddhists don’t like to be called pagans or idolators.

  • Red Cedar Owl

    Mr. Charles Haynes of the First Admendment center was on the side of Wiccans and Pagans (in general) about this issue. You can go to this web address to read his latest article concerning this issue–

    I am a gnostic Pagan and I live in central Louisiana. I am also a conservative Republican and this issue DID distress me. I feel that it is one of the conservative principles to stand up for religious freedom. I attempted to engage several conservative talk show hosts over this issue. By and large, any conservative forum (such as O’Reilly and Sean Hannity) blithely ignored this topic while the debate was occuring. I guess they felt they could not alienate the Christian Right. In the words of Professor Lupin–”Ree dik yu las!!”

    Blessed Be to one and all
    Red Cedar Owl

  • Reynolds Jones

    As a liberal Christian from a mainstream church — who also attends my partners ceremonies at the Correllian Natavist Church — and who is involved in interfaith work that includes neo-pagans, Wiccans, and Spiritualists. Let me assure you that while those in the Christian Center (Christianity Today) and Left often sided with the Wiccans in this case — those on the Right did not.

    There is no more tolerance for difference on the Christian Right (read extreme) as there is on the Muslim Right (read extreme). Both groups would prefer to burn witches, and in areas where the Muslim Right has gained full control — they do. Expect nothing different if the extremists in the Christian Right gain control here.

    I too grew up Conservative, I learned NOT TO BE if I believed in the founding principles that my great grandfather – 12 times removed — Colonel Ebenezer Reynolds, fought for in the Revolution.


    Reynolds Jones

  • Jeffery Humphrey

    As a practicing Pagan I can tell you where the religious right fell on this issue.

    “We don’t support Satanists!” ACLJ, American Center for Law and Justice.

    I am a 8 year combat veteran of two wars, well three if you count the drug war, and on 8 july 2004 I was wouunded in Samarra Iraq in a suicide bombing that took 5 of my freinds. I left the Army and sought out a college education. While doing some research for a public speaking class I ran across a news article in time magazine hailing the ACLJ as the leader in fighting for religious freedom. I called up the radio hotline they have everyday at 11 central to ask for help in the Sgt. Stewart problem with the V.A. and the screener for Jay Seckulow’s radio show flat out told me, “We don’t support satanists.”.

    The problem is that the moderate and liberal Christians are quiet about this issue and so many other issues, save for Rev. Barry Lynn at Americans United for Seperation of Church and State, and the Religious Right wages a constant P.R. amd Information War on groups like these, demonizing them with the help of media outlets like Fox News.

    When the moderates and liberals of the Christian faith stand against there fundimentalist halves, same goes for the Muslim’s and the problems we have now with thier worse halves, then my respect will return for the Abrahamic faiths and maybe a healing can take place on the Earth and we can move forward as one race, the human race, into a better furture.

    Until then, you will never see a Pagan/Witch hate or kill in the name of the Goddess.

    Sgt. Jeffery Humphrey (Honorably Discharged)
    U.S. Army Infantry 1998-2004
    Samarra Iraq 2004-2005
    Purple Heart Recipient
    For Wounds Received in Combat 8 July 2004

  • BadgerBreakingGround

    There are of course Wiccans who don’t think of themselves as Pagans, just as there are Pagans who do not think of themselves as Wiccans. It is a VERY diverse religion.

    Pat Robertson actually stated on his 700 club program that he believed that Wiccans deserved their own grave marker. I don’t have a link to that unfortunately.

    Pentacles are the star symbols made of some thing, like jewelry or a dream catcher. Pentagrams are inscribed on some thing, like the floor or your forehead(JOKING!).

    To learn about Wicca and Paganism go here.

  • zhayin

    I asked the same question in a Pagainism chat room once. The reply was staggering. To sum up the replies I got… Pagans and Wiccans do have the same beliefs -in and of themselves. “Pagans” think “Wiccans” are a bit “fluffy”; and “Wiccans” think… well, they just laughed. I myself, I feel I should say I am both. (If you ask me if I’m pagan or Wiccan, I’ll say yes to both). I study from “Pagan” books, and “Wiccan” books, and I really don’t see much of a difference at all. Hope that helps a little bit. Blessed be!

  • Donna


    “Pagans and Wiccans do have the same beliefs -in and of themselves. “Pagans” think “Wiccans” are a bit “fluffy”; and “Wiccans” think. . . well, they just laughed. I myself, I feel I should say I am both. (If you ask me if I’m pagan or Wiccan, I’ll say yes to both). I study from “Pagan” books, and “Wiccan” books, and I really don’t see much of a difference at all.”

    It sounds like you’re reading from the more popular authors from publishing houses like Llewellyn. If you look further into other pagan faiths, you will find little to no resemblence to Wicca. That is particularly the case with the Reconstructionist beliefs (Greek Recon, Roman Recon, Kemeticism, Asatru, etc). It is also one reason most Recons don’t get along with most neo-Wiccans…conflating religious beliefs is rarely a good thing to do.

    Many popular press authors conflate Wiccan and Paganism and that is probably one of the biggest complaints I see from non-Wiccans. In general, you won’t find most non-Wiccan Pagan books in the New Age or Spirtuality section. FWIW, there simply aren’t that many books written (except, perhaps, on Asatru). Most of what Recons read and pull from will be found in primary text materials or in the Archeology/Anthopology areas.

    If it helps, you can follow this link over to take a brief look at some of the other Pagan religions that have nothing in common with Wicca.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    If we really believed in religious freedom then everyone would had supported the pentacle case out of principle. So first we have to realize there are some in this country that really can’t stand the idea of any other religion or religious denomination but there own.

    President Bush gave a speech at the American Legion in Reno Nevada and invited the war widows, except for Roberta Stewart, though he invited her in-laws. Now he has apologized for that error and I appreciate that he did.

    Yet it was his publicly stated belief that Witchcraft was not a religion, expressed on Good Morning America back in 1990 that was used as an excuse by the VA to delay their decision about the pentacle [for 10 years] and that forced the lawsuit in the first place. That was shown in internal memos and e-mails collected from the VA under the Freedom of Information Act. That was the reason that the court ruled it as a clear case of religious discrimination, and forced the VA to allow the pentacle.

    So his “accidental” snub hurt, but his apology is accepted and I am thankful we can get that behind us now.

    I have following the case from its beginning.

  • Pingback: Religious Left Online

  • DarkDancer

    That whole snub and apalogy reeks of publicity hounding to me…but I could be wrong.

  • John Nelson

    Nothing vexes me much more than those (especially reporters) who insist on catalog people through the use of labels. It just doesn’t work. By most application of the most generally accepted definitions of the terms “Wiccan” and “Pagan”, I am both, but trying to pin down my beliefs simply by going down the list under “Wiccan” or “Pagan” would yield mostly misses.
    That an awful lot of Wiccans and Pagans (those of one dogmatic stripe or another) would insist that I am not “really” either is ironic proof of the folly of the use of labels.
    Find another way to identify people, please.

    As for President Bush’s apology, I should think that anyone who has bothered to pay attention would have realized that the “mistake” in not inviting Roberta Stewart to the events in Nevada was nothing of the sort. It was a very calculated move, designed to (yet again) avoid unwanted attention to his Administration’s sorry record when it comes to actually “supporting the troops”. Come on, people. They invited the rest of the late Sgt. Stewart’s family and not his widow? Please…

  • Grandfather Oak

    I to am going to post this adthe link on my sites. The Enchanted Society, Paan Friends to name but a few.I am Christian-Pagan but I am not Wiccan. The pentagram isn’t allowed on a soldier’s tombstone (why not)? We have as much right with the pentagram on our tombstone as the Christians do the cross. Wiccan is a legal religion and should be treated as such.

    Blessed Be

  • Stephen A.

    As I’ve said before, it was ludicrous for the VA to drag their feet on this, especially since they had approved athiest and humanist symbols.

    Despite the distaste most liberals (and apparently Wiccans) have for labels, they matter. That said, the distinctions are even more murky here than with the “evangelical” label that has often been debated on these pages. Perhaps that is by design, because of the negative connotations both labels have in the media and among Christians, and I can certainly understand the apprehension of those are seeking to find a way to self-identify in some delicate way that doesn’t cause a scene. Those who fear labels have most to fear from being labeled, I suppose.

    The excellent Witchvox site noted above has an informative article dealing with the pentagram/VA issue as well as the Witch/Pagan name issue.

    Another, dealing just with the “labeling” issue, here:

    Yet another addresses the “impossibility” of being a “Christian Wiccan.” I expect some Christians have written in agreement, though form the OTHER side of that argument.

    (links didn’t seem to work here – I don’t think it liked the numbers at the end, rather than a “.com”)

  • Stephen A.

    …never mind, the links worked automatically.

  • Grandfather Oak

    I disagree with what is said but to each their own….. Christian and Pagan lives rather wellunder one roof here. It has for some time. It isn’t for everyone nor is any religion. One must discover his or her own path.

    Love & Light – Blessed Be
    Grandfathr Oak

  • Jennifer Emick

    Badger, the difference is simply the circle or lack thereof, not the manner of inscription.

    “Rare is the New York Times columnist who is not offended by the sight of a cross in a public place.”

    Do you guys ever pass up an opportunity to rag on the NYT?

  • Michael

    Just a few things that I wanted to put down.
    1) The difference between the pentacle and the pentagram is actually in the name. Pentagram means five points and it refers to the five pointed star. Pentacle means five within and It refers to the five pointed star within another shape(most commonly a circle, but also a pentagon(five sides), a square, ext…).
    2) What constitutes paganism is largely up for debate. If you try to make the claim that Wiccans aren’t pagan because comparatively they have differences with more traditional pagan religions(i.e. the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, ext… which is almost silly because these religions differed from each other) then you are also in essence alienating reconstructionist because they aren’t following the original religions. Even if they are trying to piece the original religion back together from what they can find in Archaeological/Anthropological text/evidence, they are still not following the original religion. Also, what about reconstructionist of Celtic beliefs systems? Almost all of our modern knowledge of Celtic religious practice is lost or speculative at best. I think it lies more in the modern definition of paganism as an umbrella term for Earth based religions. Also, in credit to Wiccans, traditional witchcraft runs through the religion and arguably the majority (depending on who you talk to) worship the Goddess who’s archetypes follows suit with goddess archetypes throughout the ages. The ones who don’t worship the Goddess tend to be hard polytheist and usually worship from a more traditional pantheon. In my opinion(which i realize everyone has their own) Wiccans are Pagan( atleast in a modern sense of the word if not in a traditional), and I think people tend to make a bigger deal out of the issue than it deserves.
    3)(and this one is short) I did see some support from more conservative figures for the pentacle to be included, although not much, but hey, atleast it was there:-)

  • Don

    The Pentagram and the Pentacle have the same root. The 5 pointed star (Penta star). This same star is emblazoned
    on every military warbird in the US. It is pined to the collar of every General officer in the US Military. It is emblazoned on every military vehicle, and the chevrons of USAF personell.

    On the point of the chevrons used by all branches of the military they are compositions of phallic and chalice symbols
    to the effect of the more penises the higher the rank.

    As to the terms Pagan, and Heathen for that matter. I gladly and willingly claim both. As both were used by the early Pauline church and since to denote people of the country (the heath/ heather)that did not follow/accept the
    terms and conditions of said church.

    Christian- Wiccan. Given that there are many sects of xianity and have been from the beginning the probibility
    and possibility of this group is inevetible.

    In the beginning of the xian era there were 2 “churches”.
    The Church of Jerusalem, headed by James the brother of
    the Rabbi Jeshua and Mary the Magdalene, companion and spouse of R. Jeshua. NOTE Peter was never head of this or any group.
    The other was of course the heretical church of Saul the killer of Jews later refered to as Paul. tHIS IS OF COURSE THE leader that Peter the thick followed after like sheep to the slaughter. The same church that sold out to Constantine.

    The Church of Jerusalem and Jeshua did and does survive in many forms.

    In short, symbology and beliefs are a very inexact study. They mean different things to different people.

  • Maureen

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the Jewish Wiccans yet.

  • Laurie

    Personally, part of my problem with labels is that they are frequently misused. A headline here recently blared: “WITCH RESPONSIBLE FOR DEATHS.” (This before the trial, even.) And, more notably, the man noted he was a Druid, not a Witch.

    You never see “CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBLE FOR DEATHS” blared across the newsprint. Maybe, at most, you see Priest held in abuse scandal–but rarely is the faith mentioned until further in the article, when you learn the denomination of the priest in question. Even some of the 9-11 hijackers got off from being notated in headlines as: ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS DESTROY TOWERS! The closest I saw was EGYPTIAN TERRORISTS…

    Even in casual speech, there is a willingness to bandy about terms that have a specific meaning. You never hear anyone say, “Oh, she is such a Christian!” instead of a certain 5-letter “b” word.

    Despite being out of the broom closet, some of my friends and family will still do that, until I stop what I am doing, fix them with a stare, and coldly say, “Excuse me?” At which point, I usually get a laugh, and a “you know what I mean!” When I tell the offender (who is more often than not my mom) to claim the language s/he is using, since words have their own power, I am laughed at.

    Keep track in your own reading, how often religion is used in article headlines in which religion is a non-issue and how many times the “Big 3″ make the headline.

  • Will

    A pentacle is a plate engraved with occult symbols. As I have repeatedly posted, the popular “wisdom” stems from Waite’s tarot deck which changed the suit of coins to “pentacles” inscribed with pentagrams.

    In my Magicknet days, the Cherokee-poster-with-the-Jewish-name objected to being greeted as “fellow pagan”. He complaned that “If I wanted to identify myself by what I am NOT, I might as well call myself ‘Not Tom Mix’.”

    Anyone who disagrees should try telling atheists who use “pagan” and “heathen” that they are violating your trademark, and see if they treat you with any more respect than they did me.

    As for it being derogatory… check a sociological atlas, and you will find that there are no more “pagans” in Africa, only “animists”.

  • Chad

    Pentagram + Circle = Pentacle.

    Wicca comes from Gerald Gardner, who was an active member of Ordo Templi Orientis, a Thelemic fraternity.

    These Rosicrucian or Hermetic fraternal organizations, such as Thelema and the Golden Dawn utilize the pentagram or pentacle in their rituals.

    The pentacle comes from many sources of course. Perhaps any Hermetic magicians would like a symbol of Horus or Hermes engraved in their headstones.

  • Jennifer

    The word “pagan” is derived from the Latin word “paganus” meaning “peasant” or from the Latin word “pagus” meaning “village.” The word “heathen” in the old tounge means “one who dwells within the heaths or the scrubland.”
    Pagan in today’s tounge means an “earth-based religion or path” I was born and baptised Catholic now I’m a Celtic Witch. Through nine years of personal study and practice, I have never found a more truthful caring commuinty of people. Other faiths and beliefs are not just tolorated, we rejoice in our differences and learn from those ideas that our not uniquely our own. The majority of us believe in “an ye harm none, do what will” which means if it does not harm anyone physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritual you can do at your own will. Many of us believe in the Eastern teachings of Karma – What you say or do will come back on you three fold – a sorta “what you sow is what you reap.” Love, complete Truth, balance, and respect of nature and life is the mainstay of our paths we individually aspire in our daily lives. We DO NOT believe in the devil like so many belive we do. We do not believe in heaven or hell. Wicca is the modern term for Witchcraft. Many use the term Wicca because of the propaganda of the past and the belief that we are “devil-worshippers.” Those you seek truth will find it. Witches were and still are the healers, the midwives, and seekers of truth (through divinatons and so forth). Like a ripple in the lake, love and divine inspiration is set into motion. No one religion is unique with this task or is the recipent of it all because we all share this beautiful planet called Earth. We are here to learn to love one another, if the rights of a another is compromized then we have failed in this task.
    Many Blessings

  • Stephen A.

    I’m very glad to have been introduced to What an insightful and interesting site about Wicca and Paganism.

    Wicca is indeed a theologically (if I can use that word) complex religion, and discussion is very lively, to say the least.

    In light of Jennifer and other Witch/Wiccans comments here, check out this rather contrarian piece that debates the notion that the “modern” Wicca Craft, which dates back about 50 years, isn’t exactly carrying forward the Old Ways, but instead, is in thrall of the “new age” – a term I hear conservative Christians throw around, but few Pagans, and in the right context, too! Link below.

    As a bookstore employee for many years, I was also always amazed that those seeking truth about Paganism (especially those of the Celts, Norse, Egyptians and others) were seeking the “new age” section rather than the ancient history section, or the local college library, which were rich in old texts and the newest archeological discoveries. The writer of that article wonders the same thing.

    I would urge reporters to do some historical digging themselves on Wicca and Paganism, and not rely on the subject of a story to be a fount of knowledge on this stuff, just as they would in covering a Christian story, for example, a “Womanpriest” Catholic’s view of the Roman Catholic Church’s supposed dealings with women.