Air Force Academy’s Pagan altar

Reporters have a very, very bad habit. It’s a vice I discovered while still a cub reporter at the UCLA Daily Bruin and watched colleagues fall prey to over the years that followed. I’ve got to admit I fell victim a few times too.

See, reporters are people, and people are prone to temptations, and when you’re a reporter on deadline, and you’re writing a story about something you know nothing about, you’re tempted to turn to someone who has been previously quoting as an expert on the subject you know nothing about. Later, this story might be subsumed into a reporter’s beat, but instead of then searching around for the real experts, it’s easier to keep turning to the same “expert” quoted in the first story.

This is the way little-known academics or think-tank folks or advocacy organizations become go-to sources. That’s not to say sometimes the reputation isn’t deserved; in many cases it is. But even when it is deserved, there is a dearth of voices that begins to appear over the life cycle of a newsworthy story.

Journalists know this, and KPCC’s John Rabe had some fun with this two years back, saying the station’s “Off-Ramp” program was imposing a 17-month moratorium on using Joan Didion quotes in stories about Southern California:

Reaction was mixed. … Bill Boyarsky, Erwin Chemerinsky, Connie Rice, Jack Kyser, and even Shirley Bebich Jeffe could not be reached for comment.

Those folks who couldn’t be reached for comment? They’re all legitimate experts on different topics of regular import to SoCal newspapers and radio stations. Unfortunately, they are some of the only voices Southern Californians hear.

I thought of this while reading yesterday an article in the Los Angeles Times about the Air Force Academy’s new area for Earth-based religions:

But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there.

“We’ve been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback,” said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and has often tangled with the academy over such issues.

Weinstein is an oft-quoted voice for stories about the Christianization of the military. Whether or not he deserves it is your call. Certainly, he’s put in the leg work.

Weinstein blew through The Jewish Journal offices when I was working there in 2007. From a column my boss wrote about Weinstein’s mission:

Even Abe Foxman, the taurine head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), doesn’t talk to Weinstein any more. “He said to me, ‘Why do you have to be so nasty? You’ll just make them madder.’”

When Abe Foxman finds you abrasive, imagine what the non-Jews think.

What bothered me about this story was not that Weinstein was quoted, though I’m certain that a better voice could have been found for the prime real estate of the third paragraph, but that it appears the LAT reporter relied on him almost entirely to shape the tone and perspective of this piece.

His name appears in eight of the article’s 20 paragraphs. In the Associated Press version of this story, which doesn’t even mention the cross that the LAT says “marred” this “sign of a more tolerant religious climate,” doesn’t quote Weinstein once. And unlike the LAT, the AP at least talks to someone who is a practicing Pagan. Kind of seems relevant.

This is not to say that the angle to the LAT article wasn’t a good angle, maybe even more important than the AP’s grand opening approach. But a reporter for any newspaper, let alone a former member of what used to be the Big Four (LAT, NYT, WaPo, WSJ), should know better than to just turn to one monotonous voice.

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  • BC

    The LA Times story was based on a Weinstein press release. The AP story wasn’t.

  • Chris Bolinger

    First the WaPost and now the LA Times publishing warmed-over press releases as articles? Sad.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The key to this whole story is that the Air Force is trying to find a way to embrace and “equal access” approach to the use of its facilities. This is hard when one or two minorities are so much larger than the others.

    But they can’t solve the problem by crushing evangelical efforts to hold events under equal access laws (they can, of course, enforce laws preventing students from being pressured to attend those events).

    They also have to allow facilities to be used by all kinds of religious groups, allowing for the usual church limits on profit, fraud and clear threat to life.

    That means they cannot listen to some evangelicals who would want to ban pagans.

    They also can’t listen to some anti-evangelical forces who want to prevent evangelicals from using their equal access rights, too.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Kudos to the AP for quoting an actual Air Force Pagan. Here’s the LA Times’ summary of Wicca:

    Modern Wicca is a reconstruction of ancient European pagan religions and is based on respect for Earth, nature and the seasons.

    No source is provided. From discussions elsewhere on GetReligion, I expect that some Wiccans would object to this description.

    Meanwhile, here’s the AP:

    “Being with nature and connecting with it is kind of the whole point,” said Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, who sponsors the group and describes himself as a Pagan. “It will dramatically improve that atmosphere, the mindset and the actual connection.”

    “Earth-centered” spirituality encompasses many beliefs, Longcrier said, many that recognize multiple gods and goddesses and observe holidays tied to the seasons.

    Longcrier said he personally doesn’t consider gods and goddesses to be actual beings but personifications of natural events that human ancestors wanted to put a face on.

    “The goddess is symbolic of the Earth,” Longcrier said. “Do I believe I’m worshipping this female entity living in the Earth or up in space somewhere? No. The symbolism is very important.”

    The group’s meetings are usually devoted to mediation, lessons or ceremonies, he said.

    Great quotes from someone who is much closer to the center of the story than Mikey Weinstein.

  • Dave

    From discussions elsewhere on GetReligion, I expect that some Wiccans would object to this description.

    Actually it’s not too bad for a one-sentence thumbnail. It gets you in the right ballpark.

  • Jerry

    You make a very good point about sources for information. Who is an expert and what the limitations of their expertise should always be on a reporters mind.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    It’s true. Would you believe that I was an expert on black Jews?

  • Judy Harrow

    As a Wiccan, I agree with Dave. That one-sentence summary is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The direct quotes from Brandon Longcrier are even better, of course, but also longer and much more nuanced. I’d say both versions are good for different purposes.

    Brad: GR often calls out writers for their use of “sneer quotes,” so back atcha. How does placing a cross in the middle of a Pagan sanctuary *not* mar the new and fragile climate of religious pluralism at the Academy?

    For those who don’t know Mikey Weinstein’s story: he is a Jewish graduate of the Academy. Both of his sons and his daughter-in-law were cadets there at the peak of the officially sanctioned efforts to proselytize cadets for one particualr form of Christianity, and the subsequent cover-up attempt. Weinstein used his experience as legal counsel in the Reagan White House to blow the whistle big-time on this blatantly unconstitutional behavior. He is an American hero, and a legitimate expert on freedom of religion, not just a talking head — although obviously Longcrier is much more expert on the religion itself.

    I’d be interested to hear what was on the mind of those who planted the cross — but, of course, they are unlikely to come forward since they would then be facing appropriate disciplinary action, the same as a hypothetical Pagan who spray-painted pentacles in the Christian worship space.

    Tmatt: of course Evangelicals should have the same right as every other American to practice their religion in peace. But nobody should have the right to push their religious beliefs into the faces of others, particularly those in a vulnerable situation like cadets at the Academy during the period when the Administration was condoning this imposition.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    One angle of this story that I find interesting would be an explanation of how the Academy makes decisions about which groups to accommodate and which are expected to handle their religious needs on their own.

    My brother attended USAFA and we’re Missouri Synod Lutheran. While the Academy includes a beautiful Protestant worship space — part of the signature Academy chapel — it’s a space for syncretized, sort of “generic” Protestant worship services. We don’t believe in syncretizing our worship and we have a sacramental understanding that is different from other Protestants. In other words, the worship situation that the Academy provided was unacceptable for my brother’s religious needs.

    So my brother simply went off-campus each week for worship. I don’t think he had any problem with this but I am wondering how the designation is made as to what is a reasonable accommodation and what isn’t and what the obligation of the Academy is to provide an agreeable worship space and service that works for everyone.

    Of course, the depth of stories that I’ve read thus far mean such discussions aren’t likely to happen.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Judy,

    Aren’t there Wiccans who reject the “reconstruction” language? I thought there was a group that insisted that Wicca had continuity with ancient times. But if my impression is mistaken, I’ll be happy to change it.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Aren’t there Wiccans who reject the “reconstruction” language?”

    There are, yes. But they no longer hold a dominant voice within the larger Wiccan milieu (as opposed to thirty years ago). Many Wiccans today either acknowledge a “revived” or “reconstructed” label, or admit that any ties to pre-Christian religion are tenuous or hard to prove.

    To answer Mollie, I think cost had quite a bit to do with the Pagans getting a circle. A new Lutherans-only chapel is expensive, a circle of stones, comparatively cheap and easy to build. It would have been interesting to see a journalist explore if that was indeed a factor. But then, the religion-beat is a bit under-staffed these days, so I doubt we’ll be seeing much follow-up on this story within the MSM.

    Also, to echo Judy, what’s with the scare quotes Brad? “Marred” is a good a word as any. I can tell you my readers are hopping mad about this, and that anger is reverberating throughout the larger Pagan community.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, Mike

    Thanks for asking. There’s no hard data, of course, but I think the majority of us now accept the reconstruction model. There are some who still believe that we carry on a continuous transmission, but nobody has found any objective evidence for this — and some pretty skilled researchers have tried. I recommend the book Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton, published a bit more than 10 years ago, for the definitive history.

    The continuous transmission story is our myth of origins — every religion has one — it is not our real history.

    It’s kind of like there are a few Christians who believe that the world was created in six literal 24-hour days.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jason and Judy,
    Thanks so much for that clarification and the book recommendation. I guess I was working from some older perspectives. I teach a world religions class at my evangelical church, and always try to be fair to each religion’s account of its own origins.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Mike,

    This reply may be a bit “inside baseball” for the forum here, but I just want to note that I understand how hard it can be for outsiders (and journalists) to keep track of shifts and developments within the Pagan community. A big problem is that the hoary “basic texts” that get recommended to folks (“Spiral Dance”, “Drawing Down the Moon”, etc) are often tomes written in the late seventies or mid-eighties. As such they can reflect attitudes and trends that may now be obsolete, or marginalized today. How can you know that Starhawk has subtly shifted her positions over the decades without reading her entire oeuvre? Or key into the rise of “reconstructionism” when few books have been published on the subject? Certainly no curious outsider, or busy journalist, is going to seek out the new-ish crop of scholarly works on modern Paganism, especially if they aren’t reading scholarly tomes on their own faiths.

    It is for this reason that I have been working to promote better journalism from within our communities, so that our own output on issues like the stone circle at the Air Force Academy can influence and inform MSM and folks like yourself who’d like to be kept abreast of ongoing developments. Just as many folks turn to Christianity Today for insights into evangelical culture, so too, there should be Pagan outlets that act in a similar manner. We are getting there, but it may take some time.

  • dalea

    Over at The Wild Hunt, there is a picture of the circle. It consists of a number of variously sized boulders arranged in a circle. I can not tell if any are meant to mark the four directions, which should be a consideration in any Wiccan setup. What does bother me is that in Wicca, accomodation to conditions on the ground is a major requirement. Our rituals are usually in the evening. Colorado Springs is over 6,000 feet above sea level. For most of the year, the circle will be too cold for ritual. In my experience, rituals are conducted in comfortable surroundings so that heat or cold do not distract from the experience.

    In other words, we have a site that generally will not work for typical ceremonies. How is this a solution? Having lived in Colorado, where it can snow on Beltane, I can’t see this as actually solving a problem.

  • Judy Harrow

    I just want to second everything that Jason said in post #14, and to honor all the work he is doing.

  • Judy Harrow

    dalea,

    An outdoor Circle was the choice of the Pagan cadets. Brandon Longcrier, who is the Distinctive Faith Group Liaison at the Academy, had constructed a stone Circle elsewhere on Academy property at his own expense and with his own labor.

    He had the Chaplain’s permission for this, but not the permission of the Engineering Department. They took the first Circle down, then a few months later constructed the present one. They feel it’s safer — better constructed — and it’s certainly more convenient for use. I guess those young cadets are hardier than you and I, and they bundle up well.

  • Maureen

    Working off anecdotal evidence (ie, I know some people), I’d say that male Air Force pagans are mostly not Wiccan, as such. Celticky, Native American-y, Norse-y stuff, a lot of it very tough guy. (But not Wicca or Asatru.) Wicca is for girls and civilians. ;)

    But like I say, this is very very anecdotal.

    The other thing is that… well, some of these guys are very contrarian, and they do stuff like insist that crosses are a pagan symbol. (Even if it’s a Celtic cross that’s a replica of a historical one with Bible stories carved all over it.) So I wouldn’t put it past some dissident pagan to plant a cross in the middle of somebody else’s stone circle, either. Heck, even atheists might do it, as some kind of prank.

    Oh, well, it’ll make a nice break for the AF security guys.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Maureen –

    Heck, even atheists might do it, as some kind of prank.

    Um… I agree that ‘might’ happen, but it seems to me rather unlikely. Can you point to an example of atheists carrying out a prank like that?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    But nobody should have the right to push their religious beliefs into the faces of others,

    The trouble is that some people appear to define “pushing your religious beliefs on me” as “anything that reminds me that They exist” — while treating the “courtesy” they demand as a one-way street. It seems to me that they are calling for the Soviet version of “religious freedom”… You are free as air within the walls of your own room, but anything someone else can see or hear becomes “religious propaganda”.

    As I have frequently remarked, people who want to change my views on politics, culture, music, literature or leisure pastimes are never accused of “Pushing Their Beliefs On Everyone”, or condemned for “prosleytizing”, no matter how aggressive or intrusive they are.

    And meanwhile, I am puzzled by the “taurine” Foxman. Does this mean that he looks and acts like a stereotypical Taurus? Or does ADL having a “taurine head” imply that he is bull-headed?

    I also notice there is no “Pagans” category. Aren’t there enough of these stories to warrant one?