So is this what ‘Islamist’ means?

GetReligionBear2So here we go again.

For several days, I have been trying to decide what to write about the teddy bear named “Mohammed” in the Sudan. I was trying hard to avoid it, since the GetReligionistas strive to write about how the press covers religion events, as opposed to commenting on the religion events themselves.

But the issue will not go away and, in fact, events seem to be getting worse. Here is part of a typical CNN report:

Hundreds of angry protesters, some waving ceremonial swords from trucks equipped with loud speakers, gathered Friday outside the presidential palace to denounce a teacher whose class named a teddy bear “Mohammed” — some calling for her execution.

The protesters, which witnesses said numbered close to 1,000, swore to fight in the name of their prophet.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was given 15 days in jail late Thursday after she was convicted of insulting religion. She was cleared of charges of inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, her lawyer, Ali Ajeb, said.

But is this nationalism or religion? This is the standard question. The details, again, point to direct links to religious institutions.

This part of the standard wire-service reports is especially chilling:

The demonstration began around 2:30 p.m. as worshippers spilled out of mosques in the capital after Friday prayers. They marched to the palace, which is on the same street as Unity High School, where Gibbons taught grade school students. Those who named the bear were 7 years old.

… Armed with swords and sticks, the protesters shouted: “By soul, by blood, I will fight for the Prophet Mohammad.”

The bear in question was, of course, named “Mohammed” by a boy named “Mohammed.” The rest of the class liked the idea.

So what is the journalism question? What does all of this mean, in terms of the language that we use to describe the different forms of Islam that keep making news around the world? Stated another way, what is the difference between “Islam” and “Islamist”?

Gibbons is, of course, an “infidel.” She is also in a land where the common law is sharia. That is the only law in Sudan (and forget the U.N. Charter of Human Rights). So is the whole land of Sudan “Islamist” and, if so, what makes it “Islamist” or an “Islamic” state, instead of simply being a “Muslim” state?

I am seeing little evidence that journalists are drawing, or being allowed to draw, these kinds of lines clearly. I know there are journalists who know these lines exist.

There are government angles to all of this. There are public policy and political angles to all of this, too. Everyone knows this. But this Time passage seems to state the obvious.

I’m not saying that I know exactly what these “obvious” facts mean, right now. But here’s the bottom line:

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University’s peace research institute.

“There is a sort of ‘who is the best Muslim?’ competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down,” he said.

Surely that statement is depressing reading for mainstream Muslims.

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Time resolves theodicy

Time Good EvilIn a cover story for the Dec. 3 Time, Jeffrey Kluger quickly jumps into a collective voice, oddly crediting humanity as a whole for the most noble behavior while also blaming it for the worst horrors. As early as the second paragraph, he’s revealing a tone of scientism that weaves throughout the piece:

We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves — in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania — all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame — and our paradox.

Spread across pages 56 and 57 is a photo gallery of the noble (Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama) and the savage (Stalin, Pinochet, Hitler, Bin Laden, Pol Pot). The one-sentence summary for each precludes saying anything of substance, other than to list a few facts of history as if they are an athlete’s statistics.

If ever a cover article cried out for a contribution from the world of faith — which has said more than a few things about good and evil — this one does.

Still, the only appearance of faith comes in these amazingly glib sentences:

One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning — though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping.

The deck headline on Time‘s cover promises far more than it delivers: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures — and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” Kluger reports on studies showing what happens in people’s brains as they make decisions or feel sympathy for the pain of a spouse, but he comes nowhere near answering the question of why humans are noble or savage.

To think that science ever could explain the why speaks of a curious certainty that science can solve life’s deepest mysteries through chemistry and brain waves and sociobiology. To publish an article that not only makes such triumphalist claims for science, but fails even to acknowledge millennia of religious thinking about these mysteries, is one of the most ridiculous stunts in journalism this year.

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Revising a reading of Joseph Smith Jr.

book of mormonPeggy Fletcher Stack has been all over a story coming out of Utah, where she reports on religion for The Salt Lake Tribune. A week and a half ago, she wrote about an interesting change being made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

The LDS Church has changed a single word in its introduction to the Book of Mormon, a change observers say has serious implications for commonly held LDS beliefs about the ancestry of American Indians.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith unearthed a set of gold plates from a hill in upperstate New York in 1827 and translated the ancient text into English. The account, known as The Book of Mormon, tells the story of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book’s current introduction, added by the late LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, includes this statement: “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The new version, seen first in Doubleday’s revised edition, reads, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

The change continues a debate about the book’s — and the church’s — historical claims, Fletcher Stack explains. She shows how the new wording is different from what many Mormons, including several church presidents, have taught and how DNA testing came into play. But she is very fair and bends over backwards to provide the church’s explanation for its teaching.

Her follow-up stories in the last couple of days have also been interesting. In a special report on Saturday, she spoke with a Mormon apologist who thinks he might have been the cause of the change. She also explored how the Book of Mormon is understood by its academic critics and champions.

DNA is not the only challenge to the Book of Mormon’s version of history.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith said the book was written in “Reformed Egyptian,” which he claimed to translate from the writings on gold pates he unearthed in Upstate New York. Non-Mormon scholars have never heard of such a language and wonder why Jews would use the language of their oppressors rather than Hebrew to record their sacred history.

The book mentions metals, elephants, horse-drawn chariots, wheat, and barley — all of which had yet to be discovered in Meso or South America during the scripture’s time period, 2200 B.C. to 400 A.D. Critics see no sign of Book of Mormon kings, no palaces or tombs, no mention of important names from the scripture, no site of the book’s final battle that included thousands, if not millions of soldiers.

DNALDSBut the bulk of her story is an exploration of how Mormon scholars explain these aspects of the Book of Mormon. It provides an interesting insight into Mormon apologetics and is well worth a read.

Another story looked at how the thousands of changes to the Book of Mormon are seized upon by opponents as evidence of LDS problems.

Starting in the 1980s, longtime anti-Mormon researchers, Sandra and Gerald (now deceased) Tanner have charted nearly 4,000 changes from the 1830 version and the book as it reads today. To them, such a magnitude of difference suggested Mormon leaders were playing fast and loose with the sacred text and contributed to the Tanners’ view of the book as fake.

Mormon researchers agree with the Tanners’ numbers, just not their conclusion.

The majority of the changes were punctuation and spelling differences between the handwritten manuscript Smith dictated to scribes in 1829 and the printer’s first typeset, according to Brigham Young University linguist Royal Skousen, who has studied all the versions side by side.

Skousen later says that there are only about 250 changes of meaning to the text. Fletcher Stack quotes Mormons explaining how those changes came about. Smith himself revised the text twice. Apostle Orson Pratt added chapters and verses in 1879, for instance, and a committee of apostles altered it in 1981. Fletcher Stack mentions the most controversial change, which related to racial issues, but she quotes Skousen defending the change. The package also included a summary of what the Book of Mormon says, provided by a Mormon apologetics group, and how Native American Mormons feel about the change.

It’s so nice to read a series of stories about what a church body believes and how it engages in apologetics. I wish that other reporters had noticed the change (it’s not like Mormons only live in SLC) so we could look at more coverage but, at this point, it looks like only Fletcher Stack is on this story.

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L.A. Times mangles some Anglican lingo

CenterburyNuke1 01This weekend, I went out of my way to praise a Washington Post story covering the Anglican property and doctrine wars here in the greater Washington area. The discussion of that post rolls on and you can follow that by clicking here.

However, let me flip the coin over and briefly note an article that I think does a rather bad job of covering some similar territory. This article by Rebecca Trouson ran in the Los Angeles Times under the headline “Episcopal leader seeks to mend church rift — In the face of defection threats, the bishop urges members to look beyond divisive issues and focus on helping people in need.”

This is a perfect example of a story that covers the Episcopal/Anglican wars only from the perspective of the national church and from those who share its viewpoints. What made the Washington Post story so good was the attention it gave to all four levels of the combat — local, regional, national and global. In America, the rebels are a small band of traditionalists, defending what they see as the Anglican approach to 2,000 years of Christian doctrines and moral theology. Obviously, the left disagrees with that stance.

As I have said before, if you view the story from the national perspective only, the rebels are small and the U.S. Episcopal Church is big. But, viewed from the global perspective, the liberals are a small — but very, very rich and powerful — segment of the global Anglican Communion. Both of these facts, both of these perspectives, need to be included.

So read the Los Angeles Times account and note how far one has to go in the story to discover even the slightest challenge to the stance that the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the mainstream American church, is playing a centrist role as she strives for peace and unity. Is the church in a stalemate?

“I’m not sure it is a stalemate,” she said. “I think this church and others may just be becoming clearer about who they are.”

And she reminded her audience that small groups of believers had previously left both the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican fellowship, and both entities survived.

Perhaps, Jefferts Schori said, if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could “hold their truths more lightly,” they might yet find a way forward — together.

“I believe we only know the fullness of God’s truth at the end of time,” she said. “And in the meantime, we have to be careful about being so sure that we understand it all.”

The whole question, of course, is, “Who is leaving who?” That is a question that will, eventually, have to be answered in England (for better or for worse).

So I ask the same question to readers that I asked after the Post article. Readers on the left and right, what sections of this Los Angeles Times article ticked you off? What changes would you seek or demand?

Meanwhile, Jefferts Schori — says this report — will bravely march on, seeking the middle ground, while flying the via media banner of compromise and dialogue:

Reconciliation can come only through engagement, Jefferts Schori said, adding that it pained her that some on both ends of the theological spectrum seemed no longer able, or willing, to discuss their differences. And this in an American church with a long history of tolerance for diversity of all sorts.

“I think the center of the church has heard the message,” she said. “But it’s more of a struggle for people on the edge of the progressive part and the edge of the more conservative part. Both believe in utter faithfulness that they’re right … and there’s less patience that God will work all things out in the end.”

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The Economist on the resurgence of religion

religion in the economistIf there is one edition of The Economist you should pick up off the newsstand, it is this week’s because of its special report on the state of religion in the world.

Quite appropriately, The Economist notes that it was wrong when it wrote in December 1999 that God’s career was over. If any other journalists felt the same way lately, they should have reconsidered that thought a long time ago.

There is so much that could be said about this report. Generally from what I have read they get it. The general message is that religion matters in the world. Moreover, you have to get it to function.

As you can see from the cover, the big issue of the day is why religion has inspired violence in the modern era. Much of the leading report discusses how the world should “deal with” religion as if all its readers are secular and are frustrated with religion’s role in the world. To me that’s a flawed approach, but not that surprising from The Economist:

Part of that secular fury, especially in Europe, comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity — that heady combination of science, learning and democracy — would kill religion. Plainly, this has not happened. Numbers about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, but most of them seem to indicate that any drift towards secularism has been halted, and some show religion to be on the increase. The proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and may reach 80% by 2050 (see chart 2).

Moreover, from a secularist point of view, the wrong sorts of religion are flourishing, and in the wrong places. In general, it is the tougher versions of religion that are doing best — the sort that claim Adam and Eve met 6,003 years ago. Some of the new converts are from the ranks of the underprivileged (Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in the favelas of Brazil), but many are not. American evangelicals tend to be well-educated and well-off. In India and Turkey religious parties have been driven by the up-and-coming bourgeoisie.

With modernity now religion’s friend, an eternal subject has become fashionable. Father Richard John Neuhaus points out that when he founded his Centre for Religion and Society in 1984, there were only four centres of religion and public life in America; now, he thinks, there are more than 200. Religious people are getting more vocal in all sorts of fields, including business. Religion is also cropping up in economics. Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian, re-examined Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic to explain why Europeans work less than Americans.

One of the things I enjoy most about reading The Economist is its respect and understanding of the broad scope of history. If there is a news report from a far-off place, such as Pakistan, The Economist generally makes the background of the story, particularly if there is a long history behind it, fairly clear. You can debate the conclusions, but at least something is there and it’s generally fairly sound.

In this instance, the report takes a step back and tries to pinpoint when religion in the world decided it was not going anywhere:

In retrospect, the turning point came long before Osama bin Laden declared his jihad on Jews and Crusaders. For Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who is writing a book on secularism, the symbolic turning point was the six-day war of 1967. It marked a crushing defeat for secular pan-Arabism; meanwhile Israel’s “miraculous” triumph gave God a stronger voice in its politics, emboldening the settler movement. In the same year a Hindu nationalist party won 9.4% of the vote in India.

By the end of the 1970s this counter-revolution was in full swing. America had elected its first proudly born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter; Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority; Iran had replaced the worldly shah with Ayatollah Khomeini; Zia ul Haq was busy Islamising Pakistan; Buddhism had been formally granted the foremost place in Sri Lanka’s constitution; and an anti-communist Pole had become head of the Catholic church.

Is it fair and accurate to lump those religious movements together like that? Are they responding in unity to the first revolution of the 1960s?

If you do not have time to read the entire special report or cannot find a place to buy it, check out this free audio interview with John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist and author of the special report. This is Micklethwait’s first special report, and he says he chose religion because of the demand for religion news and commentary.

I hope other journalists are hearing that. If a leading numbers-crunching, libertarian-leaning publication finds religion news in demand and important in today’s society, how can other newspapers serving a more general interest see otherwise?

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Scientology-embracing pastors craziness

south park scientologyWe’ve received so many of your notes regarding this bizarre story that we just had to address it. Maybe it’s because so many people check CNN.com so frequently. The story, headlined “Some Christian pastors embrace Scientology,” is fairly shallow and shabby in its lack of proper definitions.

Reader Jason had this to say about the story:

The reporter seems to frame this as a mixing of theology — “theological hybrid” — but most of the quotes –and there are a lot of them, to the reporter’s credit — are about just using some of the philosophies to help affect changes in peoples lives with the Gospel. I am curious to know about Ross’ religious beliefs and would like to know what kinds of criticism “other pastors” offer.

Ross is, according to CNN, a “court-certified Scientology expert,” whatever that means, and is quoted warning that “mainstream acceptance makes it easier for the Scientologists to achieve their ultimate goal — new recruits.” It’s a scary world we live in, isn’t it?

Here’s the heart of the story. In typical television journalism fashion, the potential reach of Scientology is unbounded and could even be in, heaven forbid, your own community!

The Rev. Charles Kennedy, of the Glorious Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church in Tampa, Florida, and the Rev. James McLaughlin, of the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, are among the theological hybrids.

… Kennedy, McLaughlin and a handful of other Christian church leaders — no one can say how many — are finding answers to their communities’ needs in Scientology’s social programs.

For Kennedy, it began two years ago when he attended a meeting at the Church of Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. He was introduced to a book called “The Way to Happiness” — Hubbard’s 64-page, self-described “common sense guide to better living.”

In the book, which lays out ways to maintain a temperate lifestyle, Kennedy found a message he believed could help lift his predominantly lower income African-American congregation. He said the book’s 21 principles help them with their struggle in an urban environment where there is too much crime and addiction and too little opportunity.

Kennedy knew that before he could introduce any Scientology-related text to his congregation, he would have to prove that it did not contradict his Christian beliefs. And so, he found Scripture to match each of the 21 principles.

What are published reports and what does “other religions and ethnic groups” mean?

And there are more questions. What are social programs and “temperate lifestyles”? How do church leaders see Hubbard’s book as better than the millions of other self-help books out there? Do the members of a church become part of Scientology automatically, or do they have to be admitted individually?

These and many other questions come up in a story like this, and considering that the reporters on this story only found a couple of examples, I question whether this is very significant as a trend.

The reporters’ reliance on Ross gets out of hand, and it’s fairly clear that the piece is less about exploring how inner-city churches are looking to Scientology for help and more about scaring people into believing that churches are adopting cult-like practices.

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Parsing pagans properly

pagan holidayTom Breen is an extraordinarily good newsman in the Associated Press’ Charleston, West Virginia, bureau. He manages to write compelling national stories by focusing on local trends and events. I’ve been reading his coverage of the sad case of a 20-year-old black woman who was raped and tortured. Six white individuals have been charged in the crime. Terry highlighted his story this past summer about small-town churches struggling to keep their doors open. His thoughtful comments have enlightened many discussions here at GetReligion, too.

I was happy to see the way he covered the news coming out of Marshall University. Here’s how he gets us into the story:

When George Fain visits a grave to mark a pagan holiday, she won’t have to worry about the work she’s missing in her classes at Marshall University.

That’s because her absence Thursday on the Samhain holiday has been approved by the Huntington school, which for the first time is recognizing pagan students’ desire to be excused from class for religious holidays and festivals.

The university with an enrollment of about 14,000 may be the only school in the country to formally protect pagan students from being penalized for missing work that falls on religious holidays, although others have catchall policies they say protect students of every religious faith.

The story has been getting a lot of play, so I’m thankful for how thorough and illuminating his story was. Breen took it beyond West Virginia to find out how other universities handle pagan holidays and to look at broader developments with pagan religious recognition, such as the Pentagon’s recent decision to allow pagans a five-pointed star on veteran gravestones.

Breen took the time to interview reliable authorities on paganism, including Ronald Hutton and Helen Berger. He also interviewed our very own Jason Pitzl-Waters. And by “our,” I mean someone who is a valuable member of our commenting community. Pitzl-Waters’ Wild Hunt blog is a must-read for those interested in news and events dealing with the modern Pagan and Heathen communities — and religion coverage in general.

With the general lack of information about pagans, and the diverse group of people who fit under its umbrella, Breen’s story clarified what the term means:

The term “pagan” encompasses a diverse array of faiths that can include Celtic, Druid, Native American and various earth-centered and nature-based beliefs.

“What binds us together isn’t our theology, necessarily,” Pitzl-Waters said. “What binds us together is a sense of communal practice and togetherness.”

I asked Jason about the story and he said it was an important step in journalistic coverage to address modern paganism as a diverse movement of unique religious faiths, rather than as, say, a generic term for Wicca. Pagans have a broad diversity of thought within their religious culture, in the same way that monotheists do. One thing I find interesting is that The Associated Press Stylebook calls for a lower-case p when referring to pagans. And yet most pagan resources one finds in print use a capital p. Which do you think it should be?

Anyway, a shout-out to Tom Breen, for another well-researched and reported story. And to Jason Pitzl-Waters for his helpful quotes in same.

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Wicca in the heartland

pagan circleThe Chicago Tribune had a potentially tremendous story to tell Sunday about a witch school setting up shop in Rossville, Ill., a small, economically struggling town in the heartland. The perspective of the story — about Wiccans trying to fit into a Bible Belt community — is what first jumped out at me.

By the fourth paragraph, a resident was quoted saying the Salam Witch Trials were back and traditional churches and members of the community were rallying against this strange group that had set up shop in a local storefront. The story, which has a reasonably interesting ending that I won’t share in this post, seems headed toward a brawl:

In a town that sometimes feels closer to the Bible Belt than to the city, churches had been holding weekly prayer sessions for months in hopes of driving the outsiders away. They also had erected a billboard denouncing Wiccan beliefs, proclaiming, “Worship the Creator not Creation.”

Fueling their sense of urgency was a ball held by the Wiccans last weekend to celebrate Samhain, their new year’s festival, which falls on Halloween.

As more than 150 people filed into the shuttered high school Wednesday night for the meeting, Andy Thomas, youth minister at the Rossville Church of Christ, said residents had a spiritual responsibility to drive the witches out. If they didn’t, he said, young people were in danger of being pulled off the Christian path.

“Rossville has fallen on hard times,” Thomas said. “The school closed. This is a popular place for meth. We’re like, ‘Great, now a witch school.’ It feels like we’re being attacked.”

Donald Lewis, who serves as CEO of Witch School International, said it was the other way around.

“They’re trying to make us scapegoats,” he said as he slipped into the meeting unannounced.

Lewis, a rotund 44-year-old with a silver ponytail and goatee, said he started the online school in 2001 with two friends he met through the neo-pagan community in Chicago. All three were devoted practitioners of Wicca, a controversial movement that, by some estimates, has hundreds of thousands of adherents nationwide.

Five of the school’s administrators operate out of a humble, white building with a green awning on Chicago Street, the main strip in downtown Rossville, which looks like an abandoned Hollywood set of a small town. Their office, which consists of five computers, copiers and a fax machine, is in the back of a store that sells silver wands, incense and colored candles wrapped in spells.

Attached to the story is a decent video that does a good job of putting names with faces. This was the future of journalism 10 years ago. It’s great to see it in practice.

The Wiccans’ side of the story isn’t entirely ignored. They get their quotes in there, but this story is definitely less about them than about the town’s residents. A reader of ours, Christopher, mentioned in a note to us that the story is largely about a community dealing with “economic decline, arson, and drugs.”

Megan Twohey, the reporter on this story, delves into the background of the Wiccan group. They left Chicago in search of cheaper rents and headed for small-town America. They moved to Rossville after a “lynch mob” drove them out of another town, and now they’re dealing with hostile neighbors once again. And by the way, Rossville’s downtown probably doesn’t look as much like a Hollywood set than, um, a downtown of an average Midwestern small city. (Since when does a Hollywood set make a better illustration than real life?)

A lot of this reminds me of the “pentancle wars” that the Department of Veterans Affairs dealt with over that last few years.

The story ends up being about how the Bible Belt responds to outsiders and less about what Wiccans believe. There are references to their beliefs, but there is little mention that Wiccans represent a very diverse group of traditions. From what I understand, Wicca isn’t exactly some strange East Coast religion that Middle America knows nothing about. Middle America is where Wicca has quite a number of followers, depending on how you count them, but that doesn’t mean they’re always accepted, as we see in this story.

This story had only broad, unsubstantiated estimates on the number of Wiccans. The general point of the story is about whether other religions are tolerated in the heartland. As Christopher said in his note, “the story is really about the local Christian community” and Wiccans are “little more than a foil for the community’s fears and anxieties.”

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