October 28, 2005

Americans Seeking Witchcraft (For a Reason You Might Not Expect)

By Catherine Edwards Sanders

In early October, former Clinton pollster, Dick Morris wrote a column about how the issue of environmentalism, long consigned to the sidelines, was about to take center stage in American politics. And, he said, politicians&mdash'especially Republicans&mdash'had better take notice lest they be caught flat-footed.

Morris delineates three reasons why average Americans will soon be demanding a coherent environmental policy from their candidates running for office: Rising gasoline prices, oil and home-heating fuel costs make looking for alternative fuel seem necessary; hurricanes like Katrina and Rita make Americans worry seriously about global warming; and the global focus on terrorism and the need for oil from the most volatile region for terrorists&mdash'the Middle East&mdash'makes Americans want to reduce a reliance on oil.

While politicians will hash things out on the national level, many Christian legislators might be surprised to learn that environmental issues have long been one reason why spiritual seekers leave the Church and embrace Pagan witchcraft, or Wicca.

I spent a year traveling the country interviewing Wiccans and Pagans for my book, Wicca's Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality and found that witchcraft in America is not relegated to dress-up at Halloween or scary movies anymore

The Covenant of the Goddess, the nation's largest organization of Wiccans and Pagans, estimates from its polling that there are almost 800,000 Wiccans and Pagans in America, although academic research puts that number a little lower, at 150,000. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of Americans doing anything should get our attention, especially since Harvard University lists more than one hundred Wiccan and Pagan groups on college campuses nationwide. Wicca was declared a religion by a U.S. Appeals Court in 1986, and some universities now allow Wiccan students to take their holidays in the same way Jewish students celebrate Yom Kippur and Christians celebrates Christmas.

Wicca, or modern witchcraft, is a modern pagan, earth-based religion with a philosophical lineage in pre-Christian paganism. Wiccans are generally pantheistic or polytheistic and believe in a Divinity expressed in nature as having both masculine and feminine aspects&mdash'in other words, they believe in a God and a Goddess as twin halves of the Divine. Wiccans believe in the manipulation of the supernatural through rite, ritual, and spell-casting.

Since Wiccans essentially deify the earth, a key element of Wicca is having a positive impact on the environment. Wiccans have become active in environmental circles, and I discovered that many Wiccans had been spiritual seekers or raised as Christians but felt that the Church had little to say about the care of the environment. Many felt that conservative Christians were downright hostile to the issue. Wiccans view Christianity as the oppressor religion, whose followers care only about saving souls, while paying scant attention to stewarding our planet's resources. When considering American evangelicalism, the question that troubled me was: Are they right? Has the Church engaged the culture on this issue?

While I was researching my book, I came across a story in the Los Angeles Times.

It described an incident where a group of Wiccans in Orange County had woken up early to welcome the sunrise with a ritual on Midsummer's Day.

They had set up in an empty parking lot, and events were peacefully underway when a group of Christians surrounded the group with their cars. One gentleman blasted loud Christian rock music out of his SUV car stereo and called on the Wiccans to repent. Unfortunately, the very fact that Christians were driving gas-guzzling SUVs would have been the first turn-off to these earth-loving people, plus it is simply rude to blare loud music at anyone early in the morning. The Wiccans complained, and the event came to be known locally as "Wiccagate."

"Wiccagate" only reinforced the stereotypes Wiccans have of Christians as being completely unconcerned with caring for the environment. In thinking about this, I had to admit that I couldn't remember many sermons about creation care. But if this lack of attention is turning people away from Christianity toward witchcraft, should we not take notice? As Christians, don't we have a responsibility to care for creation? What does Scripture say about this?

The Bible tells of a God who delights in the act of creation, makes humanity from dust, and has a covenant with earth itself. In the ultimate act of solidarity with His creation, God takes on material, earthly flesh, undergoes a bodily resurrection, and promises renewed heavens and earth. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that through His Son's sacrificial death on the cross, God brought back to Himself all things both on earth and in heaven. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes that there are "strange, exciting hints in the Bible that once we are drawn in, a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right." In Romans 8, Paul talks about creation groaning and waiting to be set free from its slavery to decay that it too would share the glorious freedom of the children of God. God cares about creation, and we ought to as well.

But do Christians need to be involved in the politics of this? Some will be called to craft policy. But the rest of us should consider what this might mean for us in our daily lives. Christians themselves are the only Bible many people will ever read, says British evangelist J. John. Christians who can speak authentically and thoughtfully on environmental matters will be noticed.

One group that carefully considers these issues from a Christian perspective is a Christian conservation group called A Rocha, which means "The Rock" in Portuguese. Started by an evangelical British vicar named Peter Harris in the 1980s, A Rocha is committed to recovering a biblical approach to the study and care of creation. Its first project was a field studies center and bird sanctuary on Portugal's Algarve coast. Since then, A Rocha's work has expanded to Lebanon, Kenya, Canada, United States, England, and other countries. Members are motivated by their biblical faith and by God as Creator to focus on the conservation of God's planet through the scientific study of plant and animal life. A Rocha seeks to work with the local community to balance its needs with sound conservation. All scientists, students, and conservationists who live and work at the project live in community with one another, sharing much of what they have.

It doesn't take much to care for creation and begin to be good stewards of God's resources. Simple projects like Sunday school lessons or working to restore a local wilderness area are small things we can do. Unlike Wiccans, we don't have to worship creation to care for it.

During my travels, I met a young woman, who was a college senior and member of her university's Pagan club. She was raised by dedicated Baptist parents and baptized at age 14. But she had a deep concern and love for nature that simply wasn't shared by her fellow congregants, and no one ever explained to her the biblical view of creation stewardship. She found witchcraft in college, eventually embraced Druidism, majored in wildlife conservation, and hasn't looked back.

Whether or not environmentalism takes center stage in national politics, as Dick Morris predicts, Wicca will continue to grow as people seek an "earth-friendly" religion. Christians should be able to articulate what our God says on the matter.

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