Why Christine O'Donnell's "Witchcraft" Matters

Why Christine O'Donnell's "Witchcraft" Matters September 29, 2010

I half agree and half disagree with my respected colleague, the manager of Patheos’ Pagan Portal, who writes that the whole affair surrounding Christine O’Donnell’s “dabbling” in witchcraft is a non-issue.  It’s actually quite revealing.

Consider the three relevant parties in the story: (1) Christine O’Donnell herself, who “dabbled in witchcraft” as a teenager and once enjoyed an impromptu occult picnic with her Beelzebub-loving boyfriend on a blood-spattered sacrificial altar, (2) the media and Democratic partisans who seized upon this revelation and made it a story, and (3) conservative voters who have supported O’Donnell, at least in part, because of her Christian faith and activism.

Concerning (1) Christine O’Donnell herself, the story tells us nothing significant.  It is not that religious beliefs are irrelevant to the consideration of a candidate.  When you vote for a candidate, you do not vote for a machine that will automatically produce certain actions and results.  You vote for a human being, and every politician brings the whole of his or her convictions, personality and life history to the job.  Religious beliefs speak to the individual’s fundamental convictions and values.  Faith shapes character, and character matters, not only because it shapes the policies for which the individual will fight, but because it shapes how the politician will respond to the unexpected, respond to hardship, respond to temptation.  This is not to say that Christians should only vote for Christians, but faith — and especially the faith’s moral teaching — is far too powerful a shaper of action and personality to be dismissed as irrelevant to the voting decision.

But Christine O’Donnell’s dabbling in witchcraft when she was a teenager tells us nothing significant about her present religious beliefs and character.

The O’Donnell “witchcraft” affair is significant less for what it tells us about O’Donnell herself and more for what it tells us about (2) her detractors in the commentariat and in the Democratic party.  More precisely, it tells us what those detractors think of O’Donnell supporters.

O’Donnell’s detractors certainly don’t care that she dabbled in witchcraft (if that is even the right phrase; whether she was speaking of Wicca or outright satanism or some faux, dress-up, Dungeons and Dragons silliness is unclear).  They neither hold this against her nor believe that it’s further evidence of her insanity.  In fact, her detractors are generally in favor of sampling different religious traditions, even unorthodox ones.  They understand perfectly well that this was many years ago, when she was young and in love.  If Michelle Obama had dabbled in Vodou when she was a teenager, these same detractors would scoff at anyone who cared about it.  Years ago, they would say; ordinary teenage experimentation; not that there’s anything wrong with Vodou, they would say, but Obama has left it far behind and it’s what she believes now that matters.

Yet the witchcraft experimentation, they believe, should matter to her supporters.  Surely conservative Christians, they imagine, will be outraged that she dabbled in witchcraft — even if it was many years ago, and even if she was in high school at the time.  In other words, liberals who seized upon this story were not really offended; and they are, in fact, reasonable not to be offended.  But they do not grant that same rationality to their political opposition.

In this sense, it’s similar to the story of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy.  The liberals who thought this was a delicious scandal would never reject, say, Barbara Boxer simply because her daughter got pregnant.  They did not care, but because they assumed that religious conservatives would care, they thought they could use this as a wedge to separate the politician from her supporters.  They believe that conservative Christians are, by and large, irrational and intolerant people who do not understand that a parent cannot always control the actions of her children, and who will summarily reject someone they otherwise supported because they discover her daughter got pregnant.

What the episode reveals (3) of O’Donnell’s supporters is that they are, in fact, reasonable people who will not reject a candidate for a youthful indiscretion.  Outside the media and liberal bloggers, no one, and certainly not her supporters, have really cared that O’Donnell once dabbled in witchcraft.  Apparently the liberals who pushed this story were expecting that droves of O’Donnell supporters would desert her — and yet no such thing has happened.  The news of her teenaged dabbling fell upon the electorate and…nothing happened.

Conservative Christians actually have a well-trained sense for stories of sin and redemption.  Conservative Christians are so keenly aware of the sinfulness of the human heart that they expect indiscretions from absolutely everyone; in fact they will be wary of anyone who claims to have had none, because they will know that he or she is lying.  This is why they would not reject Sarah Palin for Bristol’s pregnancy, and indeed would not reject Bristol herself.  This is also why conservative Christians are never surprised when they learn that Christian musicians, politicians, and even preachers are guilty of their own indiscretions.  They may believe that the person should step down, should be held accountable for what he or she did as a mature and responsible adult; yet they will often welcome him or her back, because they believe not only in sin but also in forgiveness and redemption.

The episode reveals, in other words, that O’Donnell herself is precisely the kind of human being that Christians expect to encounter.  More importantly, it reveals that O’Donnell’s detractors believe her supporters are irrational and intolerant enough to reject a candidate for some silly thing she did as a teenager, long before she converted to Christianity in college.  And reveals that O’Donnell’s supporters in fact are nothing of the sort.

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  • Jim

    Excellent post! Totally agree. It is interesting to me that when Bill Maher runs the clip, he offers no commentary on it other than boasting that he has the goods on O’Donnell. He offers no reasons just implies it is damaging. Read an article recently in the New Yorker and they label Tea Party candidates “fringe” over the abolishment of the Depts. of Energy and Education–something Reagan was for and is an idea with real merit–and they trashed O’Donnell for opposing “self-gratification” in 1996. You put your finger on it. They misread what pushes voters buttons.

    That said, I did hear a good comment on NPR. Naphtali (forget his last name) of the Wall St. Journal said Republicans need to be reminded that in 2008 the undercurrent was a bad economy and not necessarily a commitment to the Democratic party and the same undercurrent is with us here in 2010. There is much disgruntlement over the economy and lost jobs not necessarily a commitment to parties, ideology or policy.

    • IrwinB

      “Dittoes” to “excellent post.”
      “Conservative Christians,” by definition, believe in forgiveness and redemption.
      Their critics don’t get that.
      Jimmy Swaggart is STILL on TV. Go figure.

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  • Dave M.

    To defuse this issue, all Christine has to say is this…”A lot of women can say that they have gone on a “date from hell”. Well, I can actually say that he really was from hell”.

  • Stephen Ryan

    Ms. O’Donnell is running for ex-Senator Biden’s seat. Biden has been talking like a nut for 40 years but that didn’t prevent him from being re-elected, nor did it prevent him from becoming vice-president. O’Donnell is an Einstein compared to Biden.

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  • OldOllie

    Funny, though, that Republicans/conservatives have absolutely no expectation that Democrats/liberals will be the least bit upset with their nominee, Chris Coons, having “dabbled” in Marxism.

  • nathan

    actually, I don’t think people see this as a potential wedge issue with her supporters. It’s always been presented as part of a constellation of public statements that just make her seem a little “wacky”. It’s a bit myopic to drill down on just the witchcraft comment as the significant moment. I think people see it for what it is…icing on a cake made of ingredients about “not lying to hitler”, but lying about one’s education, and the seeming inability to just simply filter yourself appropriately, and the implicit dishonesty of acting like you’re an “out of nowhere candidate” when you were on the ballot at the last election and ran in the primary before that one.

    You’re right, it’s not the witchcraft itself, it’s not the supporters, but it is the candidate–that’s what you’re missing.

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