“Our time has finally come”
— A Case study in Cultural Change
Fort Hood is America’s largest military base. It is sprawled across 340 square miles of sun-baked limestone and scrub brush in the Texas hill country north of Austin. It is also home to 42,000 soldiers of the 1st (Armored) Cavalry Division and the 4th (Mechanized) Infantry Division — dedicated, highly trained, no-nonsense warriors who are the top tier of America’s military forces. In the nearby town of Killeen, the civilian population is politically and culturally conservative, with religious sympathies that are strongly Christian and evangelical.
To all appearances, Fort Hood is the last place you would expect to be a hotbed of exotic religious experimentation. But in 1999, Fort Hood became the focus of an international media “flap” when word got out that Witchcraft ceremonies were being performed on the base, apparently with the blessing of the base commanders.
Actually the Wiccan rituals had been going on at Fort Hood for the previous three years — without publicity, without incident and without anyone really noticing. And, as it turned out, Fort Hood wasn’t the only military base where this was happening. In fact, it wasn’t even the first. That distinction goes to the Army post at Kaiserslautern, Germany, where Wiccan services were being held as early as 1992. So there was, strictly speaking, no “news” at Fort Hood, in the sense that there were no new facts to report, and no coverup of old facts to expose. But when an enterprising local reporter turned the known facts into a story, the story turned into an issue and and the issue turned into a national controversy.
The controversy in turn became an object lesson in cultural warfare for the Christian community. Unfortunately, the lesson for us was a rather uncomfortable one. As the controversy grew, Christians and other cultural conservatives began to wake up to the fact that the critical battles on the issue had already been fought — and lost — years ago, before most people even knew what was happening. By the time the dispute went public and a public reaction developed, it was literally all over but the shouting.
In addition, opponents of the army’s policy often spoke in ignorance and haste. Knowing little or nothing of the Neopagan movement, they rushed to make charges and offer characterizations that turned out to be false, often flagrantly so, thereby undermining their own credibility. For a few months that summer, the mis-steps and mis-statements of the “new witch-hunters” became comic fodder for the columnists and commentators of the cultural left. Gradually it became clear that those who opposed the army’s Witches had no real legal basis for their objections. Eventually, the opposition to military Witchcraft dissolved in disarray and confusion. Some opponents abandoned their positions publicly; most simply quit talking about the issue.
But at the outset, the story was surprisingly slow to attract widespread attention. On May 11, 1999, the Austin American-Statesman published an article by reporter Kim Perkes about the officially sanctioned Wiccan ceremonies that had been going on at the base for nearly three years. The centerpiece of that article was Perkes’s description of her attendance at a Wiccan ritual celebrating the Spring equinox, complete with photos showing the soldier-Witches “dancing the circle” and “jumping the fire.” The text of her article also set forth the Neopagans’ view of themselves as “a reconstruction of nature worship from tribal Europe and other parts of the world.” Almost as an aside, Perkes remarked that officials at the base seemed reluctant to discuss the matter, and also noted that there had been protests from a local Baptist church.
Strangely, the article had no immediate media “bounce.” No other American media outlets picked the story up and repeated it right away — although both the Times of London and the London Daily Telegraph published “filler” articles on the Witches of the American Army (“Onward Pagan Soldiers” read one headline). The story finally went national in the U.S., ever so briefly, on May 15 when Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly used the Fort Hood Witches as his “most ridiculous item of the day,” quipping that there was “no truth to the rumor that the Army is developing a Bradley Fighting Broomstick.”
Apparently based on that media mention, Representative Bob Barr of Georgia raised both the stakes and the national profile of the controversy three days later. On May 18, he he issued a press release announcing that he had written to the Secretary of the Army and Fort Hood’s Commanding Officer, insisting that they cease allowing Witchcraft practices at the base. Barr charged that sanctioning Witchcraft as a religion was destructive to “good order and discipline” and warned against starting down that slippery slope: “Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?” he asked in his letter and press release.
Meanwhile, back in Barr’s home district, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported that Georgia’s Witches were publicly protesting his pronouncements. Barr responded to their protest with a hometown public event of his own:
At a May 29 “town meeting” filled largely with supportive constituents, Barr declared that elected leaders should decide which religions could be practiced in the military. (Silk, 1999; p.1)
Barr’s activism stirred up familiar partisans on both sides of the culture war. The Washington Post gave major “bounce” to the story with a June 8 article that contrasted Barr’s uptight attitude (and the hostility of local Christians) with the relaxed and tolerant outlook of the Army and its Witches. The Post’s story even invoked the “diversity is strength” mantra, leaving no doubt which side of the argument wore the mantle of political correctitude:
Barr is threatening hearings and legislation, but, so far, the Army brass at Fort Hood is shrugging. In the new equal-opportunity military, where diversity is strength, minority religions are not merely tolerated but welcomed . . . Far from clashing cultures, the wiccans and the military coexist cheerfully. To the Army, the wiccans are part of a proud American tradition, proof that “people with different religious beliefs are all working together successfully” . . . To the wiccans, the military is an adopted home, far more tolerant than the world outside. (Rosin, 1999; emphasis added)
After the Washington Post joined the debate, developments began to unfold more rapidly.
The saga’s next chapter — possibly occasioned by the report in the June 8 Washington Post — began with a June 9 announcement by conservative activist Paul Weyrich that his Free Congress Foundation and 12 other conservative groups were calling for Christians to stop joining or re-enlisting in the Army until it prohibited witchcraft rituals on posts.
“What is it going to take, you believers in God?” he cried in an op-ed piece distributed by Knight-Ridder and published in Austin, Fort Worth, Omaha, and Salt Lake. “Do we just accept what is happening as normal? Or do we believers finally say we’ve had it? We are not going to let pagans claim an equal footing with God. Institutions that go that route are institutions that will just have to function without young people.” (Silk, 1999; p 2)
Weyrich’s call to boycott the military proved immediately controversial among conservatives. Several of the groups that were part of his alliance publicly backed away from the idea — including the Christian Coalition and the American Freedom Institute. It was suggested that the boycott call reflected “Weyrich’s own post-impeachment view that religious conservatives should separate themselves from corrupted American institutions.” (Silk, 1999; p. 2) Whatever its intent, it was not a strategy designed to attract broad support. Strict cultural separation has always been a minority option, even among American fundamentalists.
Most of the major denominations declined to participate in the anti-Wiccan crusade. So did most politicians, sensing, perhaps, that it was not a politically winning issue. One exception was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who lodged a protest with Pentagon officials and threatened to introduce legislation banning Witchcraft from the armed forces. Another exception was Presidential candidate George W. Bush. As he was then Governor of Texas, Bush’s hometown paper had broken the story, and he could hardly profess ignorance of an issue that had raised a minor publicity storm in his own backyard. The subject came up during his June 24, 1999 appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Bush said “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it.” He has not commented further on the subject since becoming President.
Media pundits and opinionizers (the so-called “chattering classes”) had a great time poking fun at “the real witch-hunters” during 1999’s “silly season” — the traditionally slow news period of summertime, when minor matters often receive exaggerated media attention. Reporters travelled to Killeen looking for local Christians to indulge in ignorant, bigoted behavior that could be held up to ridicule and disdain.
They were not disappointed. Beginning with the Washington Post report, anti-Wiccan Christians rose to the bait, apparently lured by the prospect of major media coverage for their ministry and their message. An article in The Texas Monthly (“Witch Hunt,” by John Ratliff) was typical. The author opens his article with a rhetorical question: “Who’s scarier: the circle of Wiccans leaping bonfires at Fort Hood or the Republican congressman and the Baptist preacher who want them thrown off the base?” He then answers his own question with a verbal portrait of the Baptist preacher that depicts him as part dumb hayseed and part Grand Inquisitor — a freakish combination of Forrest Gump and Torquemada:
They’re devils!” cries the Reverend . . . whacking his meaty palm against a Bible densely annotated with blue ballpoint scrawlings. “They’re wicked! And they’re letting them dance around a fire out there!”. . .
“I don’t judge these people; my Book does,” (he) says, quoting Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” . . . his message is plain, at least when it comes to what he says is the Bible’s prescribed punishment for unrepentant witches: “They should be warned, and then if they come out in the open with their evil, they should be done away with,” he says. Although stressing that he has no intention of violating man’s law to enforce God’s, he makes a point of mentioning public stoning as the designated means of execution for witches. Toward the end of our discussion he apologizes for his fervor. “I hope you didn’t think I was hateful,” he chuckles. “I get a little excited.” (Ratliff, 1999; pp 1 & 3)
After a sustained period of that kind of coverage, public opinion was lining up solidly behind the Witches, while the movement against them was torn by disagreements and running out of steam. At the end of June, the Neopagans held a “Full Moon Circle” and rally in Washington D.C. to support the Fort Hood Witches and protest Barr’s anti-Witch agenda. The event was poorly attended by the media — at seven o’clock in the evening, it was out of synch with the normal news and deadline cycles. Ironically, one of the few national news outlets to cover the event was the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Their report was aired on the 700 Club June 30, and it effectively signalled the end of the organized national resistance to Witchcraft in the military (Barr tried in July to amend the defense appropriations bill to ban Witchcraft in the armed forces, but was usuccessful).
CBN’s report was evenly balanced in that it gave equal time to comments from Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and John Machate of the Military Pagan Network.
Sheldon stressed the cultural danger that religious Witchcraft represents: “They are inviting Satan into our military. Whether people like it or not, this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles . . . this Witchcraft is an anti-religion, and it is denigrating and it does undercut the military.” (CBN, 1999) She also repeated Weyrich’s call for a boycott of the armed forces.
Machate presented the dispute as a matter of religious liberty and constitutional law: “The Constitution doesn’t say only Christianity is valid. If you start taking away one religion, you’re going to start picking at the other religions.” (CBN, 1999)
But the most significant comment in the report came from CBN’s founder and chief commentator, Pat Robertson himself, who left no doubt where he personally stood on the issue.
After the story concluded, Robertson, as is his wont, delivered his own assessment: “I’m not worried about a little coven of witches running around…. Rather than suppress us all, we might give them their freedom.”
To which Machate, in a prepared statement, replied: “Religious tolerance is the price of religious freedom for all. We were pleased that the Christian Broadcasting Network attended our press event. Their story was fair and balanced. We thank Reverend Robertson for his support of religious freedom.”(Silk, 1999; p. 4)
Robertson was far too glib in his dismissal of the Neopagan movement. There is considerably more going on here than “a little coven of witches running around.” But he was undoubtedly right to back away from this issue — and from Barr’s claim that elected officials should decide which religions pass muster and which do not. Christians need to consider what that kind of arbitrary power might come to mean in a culture that is turning less friendly to Christianity every day. Robertson does seem to understand that dimension of the problem at any rate.
Witchcraft and the military seem like strange bedfellows. If asked to name a place in society where Neopaganism might find a cozy home, most people would not think first of the army. The military, after all, has traditionally been seen as a socially “conservative” institution, while Witchcraft clearly represents a departure from society’s traditional norms and forms. But that appearance of incongruity is misleading because it is based on superficial contrasts.
Students of history will know better. Armies have often been agents of cultural change, completely apart from anyone’s attitudes or intentions. The armies of Alexander the Great marched to the limits of the known world — and beyond — in search of conquest and plunder. And when they came home, they brought with them not only the physical spoils of war but cultural plunder as well, in the form of foreign philosophies and religions. In doing so, they started a process that has characterized Western empires ever since — severing cultural products (such as religions) from their cultural setting and turning them into detached options for people with completely different cultural assumptions (or none at all). After Alexander died (323 B.C.), the process he started eventually led to two centuries of religious borrowing and blending (“syncretism”) that we know today as “the Hellenistic Age.”
Rome repeated the same pattern, sending her armies, her highways, her merchants and her bureaucrats out to far-flung lands in every direction, from Britain to Western Asia. And again, the traffic on Roman roads ran in both directions — the traffic in gods as well as the traffic in goods. The imperial capital became a magnet for religions, creeds and superstitions from all over the world, and by the time of Nero (54-68 A.D.) the historian Tacitus was scandalized by the influx of alien faiths. With the new religion of Christianity specifically in mind, Tacitus complained that the city of Rome itself had become a place “where all kinds of shameful and sordid activities are attracted and catch on.” (Tacitus, Annals 15:44) Rome was the undisputed center of cultural gravity for the ancient world, and everything detachable was drawn there — often carried by returning Legionaries.
In our own day, the Beat movement of the late 1950s (predecessor to the hippies and the eastern religious boom of the 1960s) was fed by American soldiers returning from the occupation of Japan with an enthusiasm for Zen Buddhism — and an aversion to conformity. The pattern does not vary, no matter the era or the society in view. Expeditionary armies acquire, harbor and bring home alien and destabilizing influences. Even the soldiers who never leave home become more open to the exotic, as the unfamiliar becomes familiar through the recounted experiences of their comrades. By virtue of such practical worldliness, the military may have offered a more agreeable atmosphere for Witches and Neopagans than society at large.
By the early 1980s, that kind of tolerant attitude was evident in a Handbook used by the military Chaplains’ Corps. The Chaplains’ Handbook uncritically repeated the claim that Neopaganism is a descendant of ancient paganism by way of medieval witchcraft — a claim now largely abandoned by the Neopagan movement (see Chapter Five). Nevertheless, that claim from the Chaplains’ Handbook was cited by the Federal Appeals Court as a basis for its 1986 decision in the case of Dettmer v. Landon, which declared Witchcraft to be a constitutionally recognized “religion,” with the same rights and protections that other religions enjoy.
But for the military, the Dettmer ruling simply made official what was already happening unofficially. The Chaplains’ Handbook included Neopaganism in its pages because the Army already included Neopagans in its ranks. By 1992, there were enough of them to form a support group (the Military Pagan Network) to lend them aid and comfort and to provide pagan contacts on and near military bases around the world.
The military has already shown itself to be one of the factors driving our cultural transformation, as indeed it has been throughout history. It is likely to continue its role as an agent of cultural change, as America continues to extend its military presence around the world.
The 1999 controversy over military Witchcraft seems like a trifling matter in the larger scheme of things, and in many ways it was. It was purely a media episode, a war of words that became a summertime diversion for writers and readers alike, with little real-world impact. After all was said and done, a lot was said and nothing at all was done. At the end of the day, all of the rhetoric fired back and forth produced absolutely no changes in anything — except for the public’s attitude toward the Witches and their critics. And that changed substantially.
For Christians and other cultural conservatives, the Fort Hood Witchcraft flap was a public relations debacle. The anti-Witch crusaders entered the fray with great fanfare and left it looking foolish. Indeed, their campaign failed so completely that every item on their agenda was rejected. Worst of all, the crusaders themselves were widely perceived to be intemperate and uninformed. By the time the affair finally played itself out in the fall, it had vigorously reinforced every negative stereotype of Christianity available. It also conveyed the impression that when Christians create a public stir over something, their concerns are likely to have little merit and less relevance to the rest of society.
It was also a public relations triumph for modern Witchcraft. In effect, the episode put an exclamation point on a decade filled with changes in the way that Witchcraft is seen and understood. It both symbolized and speeded up the process of transformation that was already taking place.
The military Witches are aware of that cultural transformation — and very aware of their place within it. At Ft. Hood, Marcie Palmer, high priestess of the base’s Neopagan group (and a decorated military policewoman) made the point to some of her Wiccan students at a Wednesday night class: “We are at the end of one age and the beginning of another,’ said Palmer . . . Our time has finally come.” (Rosin, 1999)
© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]