Separation of Coven and State

Separation of Coven and State March 17, 2019

It is hard, and getting harder, to distinguish between the Pagan community and the American political left. Perhaps, like the rest of America, we have abandoned the separation of church and state(1) that is enshrined in our Constitution.

Our lack of separation between the two is especially true in the new online socioeconomic environment of influencers and pay-per-click everything. In the world of social media, popularity is power and identity is currency. Constructing and curating social identity is not a game. It is key work of this new era.

With that in mind, any call to abandon social media would be both naive and hypocritical. Whether we like it or not, for many people (Pagans included) their public profile is directly linked to their economic and social status.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West

People like to talk about, and hear about, things that are important to them. This is the true value, and mechanism for the success of, social media writ large.

But there are good reasons that religious speech and political speech should be kept separate. Our inability to distinguish between the two only sows confusion.

In recent political discourse, it has come en vogue for politicians to break down that wall. Such a move benefits certain politicians in the short run, harms America in the medium term, and makes religion irrelevant in the long view.

Separation of Church and State

Most Americans tend to think about the separation of church and state from the side of government. That is, we understand that the U.S. government is bound to take no role in regulating religion.(2)

But in theory that works both ways, and for good reasons. With recent attacks on the Johnson Amendment in mind, I would argue that religion benefits from staying out of direct politics. Even were it allowed by law, I would not do so.

The question that religious leaders should be asking themselves is whether they want their systems of belief and activity subsumed by politics and social action. Is their role to inspire, or simply to be another constituent group?

In America, we have priests and, separately, politicians and pundits. There is no room for priest-kings.

Religious Identity

It is true, for most people, that the separation of church and state is more notional than actual. It is an idea that we aspire to, and has little direct impact on our lives.

In the West, religion is one of a handful of identities that shape our social experience. Others include employment, social class, gender, and marital status. And religious identity is important. Even a swathe of our atheists hold up their own position as a part of identity.

Isidore of Seville's De natura rerum
Isidore of Seville’s De natura rerum, via Wikimedia Commons

In everyday life, religion is no more or less than a social grouping of people who share certain assumptions. Religion is about belief, and then shared beliefs, and finally a solidified identity.

Religion in Crisis

My takeaway is that religion in America has been failing to do the work it is meant to do. Hang out in religious circles for more then five minutes, and you will almost certainly hear someone lamenting how American religion struggles to keep butts in the seats. This is just as true of the Christian churches as covens and magical orders.

In trying to understand what is happening, religious leaders point to changes in social organization, technology, and economic activity. That is all true as far as it goes.

But the real failure is in religion itself — how we conceive of it and how we participate. As long as religion caters to people where they are, instead of leading them based on the direction of Heaven (however defined), it is just another social club.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Most Americans do not want, need, or seek direct experience of what lies beyond the everyday. But being a member or a religious community was supposed to mean, at least, reaping the benefits of associating with people who do. And for those called to go further, it provided context and language for that journey.

But in this new social and economic landscape, religion has been struggling to find its footing. Its role as part of identity has, it seems, become more important than its actual purpose. It has become political.

American Paganism and Politics

Americans assume, as part of public discourse, that we cannot truly know what lies in people’s hearts. Religion, on the other side of things, concerns itself with those same unknowable hearts.

But the public face of Paganism has clearly been co-opted by the massive fissure in the middle of American society. And Pagans have not been shy taking sides.

The Paganism that came out of the 60s and 70s needed little help to find a side in this culture war. During that time, Wicca, which had previously been an occultist hangout and fertility cult, was re-imagined as a feminist, Earth-worshiping counterargument to modernity.

Image by Kalhh via Pixabay. CC0 License.
Image by Kalhh via Pixabay. CC0 License.

With its higher profile, Wicca also became, for a time, the spine of American Paganism. With Wicca in the forefront, Paganism positioned itself as part of a counterbalance to the rise of the Moral Majority and similar movements (a euphemism for the intrusion of conservative Christian churches into politics).

And then, in the 90s, we saw the rise of a far-right counterbalance within Paganism. Grounded in “blood and soil” arguments, it was unashamedly (if sometimes cagily) racist and nationalist, and part and parcel of the White Power movement.

Our difficulty in maintaining the separation of church and state is not a new thing in either the global or historical sense. The division between religion and politics is neither ancient nor natural. It is a choice, made to keep harmony in a diverse society.

If All Acts Are Political, then None Are

As a writer here on the Patheos platform, I am by default some kind of religious leader. And in my heart of hearts, it is not my job to play to the crowd. Instead, it is my role to assist people in understanding themselves. It is my work to forge their own relationship with that which exists beyond the everyday world.(3)

If I can spark in someone clarity and compassion, some self-respect and understanding of the deeper consequences of our actions in the world, I have done something worthwhile. And if that influences how a person votes or speak up or even protest actions done in their name, I am fine with that.

But as a religious leader, engaging with the ineffable is something that is more real than political discourse. If, religiously, I take sides in political debate, then I am assuming that those debates are a priori of my religious activities. I have become a pundit.

The American Divide In Inside Us

The separation of church and state is not only for government. It is an organizing principal America.

That which we know from ineffable sources is not the same as our social knowledge. And as religious leaders we cannot, and must not, let those ways of knowing fall into the same basket.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (American Bald Eagle), via Wikimedia Commons
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (American Bald Eagle), via Wikimedia Commons

Bluntly, if my experience of the ineffable makes me understand the inherent equality of people, then I am someone who models the kind of behavior a liberal might look up to. But I am no liberal. By my own standards, and by my commitment to a deeper reality, I am something more.

No matter our religion, we who are expected to live the experience. We have no room to behave inauthentically, and we do not get to pick and choose our beliefs.

Instead, we must reach the deepest part of ourselves and express what is there. That is the job, whether we like it or not.


(1) The use of the term “church and state” is, obviously, phrased in a way that posits Christianity as the default religion. Here in America, that is simply true. Our time is better spent “doing” religion than having social debates about it.

(2) Like in so many things, the reality hardly lives up to the aspirations here. Religious identity and political identity have always interacted in America. But there is a world of difference between playing one off against the other and subsuming one identity under the other.

(3) My thinking on this topic was informed by a blog I read on Patheos, written by James Ford over at Monkey Mind on the Patheos Buddhist channel.  His examination of questions around the Zen Buddhist Sangha in America and its clearly left-leaning leadership

Christopher Drysdale is an animist, martial artist, shamanic practitioner, healer, psychopomp, and meditation teacher. He’s been pagan for more than 30 years, has a master’s degree in anthropology, and thinks making the world a better place is a pretty good idea. He makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read more about the author here.
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  • kenofken

    Separation of church and state in no way requires, nor even contemplates, that individuals maintain some sort of artificial firewall between their religious beliefs and how they vote. It requires only that government refrain from favoring one religion over another and that a person’s religion not be used as a test of fitness for office. I have never heard of any modern Pagan who wishes to see their religion enforced by the state, nor make any serious suggestion that only Pagans should hold office. In fact we have had a good bit of fun at our own expense on that count. Pagan author Brendan Myers did a hilarious parody piece some years ago about the absurdities likely to arise if we ever formed a modern Pagan state. There are OTOH, tens of millions of Christians pushing to have their faith as the official state religion in fact if not in name.

    Religion should have a much deeper and wider focus than politics, but any religion which cannot help inform the values on which we vote is a worthless belief system. It is in fact not a spiritual system at all but a mode of lifestyle or an aesthetic. If you can’t form any moral judgement from Pagan religion, including those which manifest at a polling place, then it is true what our enemies say about us: we’re just hippies LARPing in the woods in velvet capes.

    We talk of “politics” here as though it was some base occupation unfit for people of the mind or of spirit. Politics is nothing more or less than values translated into policy decisions. The question becomes what is the nature of modern Paganism’s perceived alignment with the Left ? Is it that Pagan identity is really just shorthand for a particular flavor of environmentalism and socially progressive policies? Or is is that our conception of humanity and the divine and our experiences of deity lead us toward support of the aforementioned policies and political affiliations?

    I think both can be true in some measure. I think first we need to engage with the idea of “leftism”. Our politics in the United States have become so distorted that the spectrum itself is bent beyond recognition. These days Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would be termed “leftist”. If you advocate for any policy which is sane, rooted in science and verifiable reality and does not mindlessly adhere to a cult of personality and white nationalism, you’re termed a “leftist” if not “socialist.” I’ll happily own that, in this context, even though I get as tired of shrill SJW orthodoxy as anyone else. So I vote “leftist” as a Pagan not out of some sort of tribal loyalty but for a variety of reasons informed by a variety of aspects of who I am. Some of the ways I vote are informed by my backgrounds as a scientist. Some are informed by my background of a graduate degree in public policy studies. Some are no doubt formed by conscious or unconscious effects of my education, race, economic standing, age…you name it, it factors in somewhere.

    And yes, some of the reasons I vote the way I vote derive directly from my Pagan religion. Though I have plenty of criticisms about Democrats past and present, I tend to vote for them because I find the alternative to be not merely inferior but profoundly evil in many cases. I advocate a middle path on immigration rooted deeply in my Pagan understanding of hospitality as both a grace and an obligation, but a reciprocal one, requiring (among other things) that the hospitality not be abused nor regarded an an unconditional entitlement.

    I also weigh candidates on character based on what I have learned from my personal journey and encounters with the gods as a Pagan. Not all of that breaks down along partisan lines either. I find our president to be so craven and dishonorable as to be beneath contempt and utterly unfit to hold office. That judgment would not change if reversed course tomorrow and supported every particular of my policy preferences and became a Pagan.

    In the same vein, I hold John McCain in the highest regard, despite the fact that his politics were in most cases opposite of mine. Likewise George Bush the elder. Lots of failings and terrible policies, and often a smarmy and condescending bastard, but he, like McCain and so many men of that generation, answered the call of service and took fire for their country. These men were cut from an entirely different cloth than the…creatures…who have replaced them. Character counts, for me, and a way which would not have fully formed without my Pagan identity and journey.

    Politics is a crude, awkward, proximate and utterly necessary tool for bringing my values, including my religious values, into reality. Politics are the means, not the end of my religion, but no religion of any worth is truly “above politics.”

  • “Separation of church and state in no way requires, nor even contemplates, that individuals maintain some sort of artificial firewall between their religious beliefs and how they vote.” Individuals? No, obviously not. But religious leaders are not simply individuals.

    Whether we lead congregations, classes, or circles, whether we write blogs or simply offer spiritual comfort quietly in our lives, we have taken a mantle of a certain type of authority. That done, we have a choice to maintain that firewall or risk having our real work subsumed (as so many have) into cultural struggles.

  • kenofken

    Should MLK have kept out of “cultural struggles”? He was, after all, a religious leader. What was the “real work” he should have been doing instead?

  • The Reverend Doctor King was doing the work. Further, he did not promote his own politics. “I don’t think the Republican Party is a party full of the almighty God, nor is the Democratic Party. They both have weaknesses. And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.”

  • Gordon Cooper

    Political activity not driven by purely economic interests tend to reflect values.

  • kenofken

    So are we really talking about simply partisanship vs some broader ideal of being “apolitical”? They are not nearly the same things. King’s mission of racial equality was, and remains, probably the most intensely political issues in any living memory in this country. Only the Vietnam War even registered on the same scale in his day. He wasn’t interested in partisan politics as such because they were just means to a larger political and cultural end.

    Pagans leaders, at least those who have shown themselves worthy of such a title over time, have been deeply engaged in politics. All of those who fought for and won our rights to practice in public, and the military and to receive equal treatment in tax codes etc. were engaging in deeply political acts and the Culture Wars. The modern environmental movement, which modern Pagans were hugely instrumental in creating….insanely political. We have been, on the whole, some of the earliest and most energetic proponents for LGBT rights including marriage equality. Our leaders, the best of them anyway, were front and center for these fights and continue to be so.

    If you’re talking about politics in the narrow partisan sense, I’ve never once heard a coven leader endorse a political candidate “from the pulpit”, which, apart from fundraising, is the only activity prohibited by the Johnson Amendment (which has essentially been a dead letter for decades. It is virtually never enforced even in the face of calculated public violations of it). Pagans who are leaders outside of the confines of untaxed non-profit organizations have no legal obligation whatsoever to refrain from politics, and I would argue, no moral obligation to do so either.

    Paganism has no popes or bishops (may it ever be so), nor any credible ambition to become the One True Universal Faith. It’s not as if you have no choice of pastor and your soul stands in peril if they shun out of of political or personal spite. It’s very much a free market proposition.

    If you don’t like the personal political leanings of a Pagan leader or think them ineffective because of their preoccupation with political issues, the open road awaits. It’s also true that most real leaders arise by simply being the change they want to see in the world. Create a coven or meetup which is strictly non-partisan, or Republican, or Libertarian, or….Basque separatist, if that’s your thing. The only real source of authority for Pagan leaders, far more than any subject matter expertise, is the credibility that comes from walking their walk and showing up consistently over time.

  • I don’t know what to tell you, man. If you don’t like my suggestion that my personal choice of circumspection about my political leanings might have value for others, or think me ineffective because of of my lack preoccupation with what you consider valuable political issues, the open road awaits.

  • Mark Green

    “But as a religious leader, engaging with the ineffable is something that is more real than political discourse.”

    With this declaration, you become someone worthy of no more consideration than a flea.

    The world is real. The political reality of the crises facing the world is real. If you really believe that your “ineffable” is somehow more important, I invite you to masturbate in a corner while real leaders address said crises.

  • Mark Green

    King “did not promote his own politics”?????????

    You clearly do not know one damned thing about Dr. King.

  • You really can’t see the difference between being socially involved in changing the country (doing the work) and being “political” in a partisan sense? That’s not on me.

  • I’m out there doing the work every day, same as you. I just don’t hang a political label on it.

  • kenofken

    Where is the bright line in Kings work between “social change” and politics? Where is the line even discernible? He wasn’t a shill or a partisan operative for either party, but he was in no way removed from that process either. He had a particular vision of racial and economic justice, and it was never a question of either “hearts and minds” social change OR politics. It was both in equal measure at all times. His movement couldn’t begin to hope for real change without effecting social changes and attitudes. At the same time those changes would be meaningless unless you translate them into law and policy at some level. In a democracy the only way to do that is by voting (and choosing parties and/or individual candidates who support your agenda), and sometimes by judicial action. The victories of King’s civil rights era came about through politics. Hearts and minds were swayed through a lot of hard work and martyrdom, but the infrastructure and practices of Jim Crow were broken by partisan politics – the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 etc. King was an extremely active and skilled player in the arena of partisan politics. He not only solicited the support of presidents but also knew how to maneuver them and to force their hand where they would have preferred fence sitting on divisive issues of race. He was eyeball deep in partisan politics.

  • “Like in so many things, the reality hardly lives up to the aspirations. Religious identity and political identity have always interacted in America. But there is a world of difference between playing one off against the other and subsuming one identity under the other.”

    When you say that it was “both in equal measure” we’re most of the way to agreeing. When we add Dr. King’s lack of ascription to either political party in his public persona (whatever his personal views) we’re at least on the same page.

    But neither of us are Dr. King, and this is not the 1960s. We live in a world of hyperpartisan social media dialogue, and I have seen religious leaders (for certain on both sides) subsuming their religious beliefs to their political ones, at least publicly. That’s going to cause problems in the long term.

  • Gordon Cooper

    Is it appropriate to diminish the status of another human being as human based on your perception of their perception?

  • Anne Hatzakis

    The only time I’ve been PUBLICLY tying my polytheistic religious faith to my political views have been to: 1) stand against the RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) bills that are in vogue right now that give tacit support to a Christian “right to discriminate” as the majority religion against everyone else; 2) Anti-Abortion bills that are based on junk science which are supported by religious groups because of their morality that doesn’t necessarily jibe with the morality of everyone around them (I don’t agree with abortion in all cases, but recognize that IT’S NONE OF MY BUSINESS WHAT ANOTHER PERSON DOES WITH THEIR BODY IF IT DOESN’T IMPACT ME NEGATIVELY); and 3) to PUBLICLY DENOUNCE WHITE SUPREMACIST TERRORISM as a representative of the faith I practice.

    Otherwise, my faith may inform my politics, but I don’t need to publicize how.