Patricia Nell Warren

Liberty, and Being a Pagan in America

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 07, 2007 9:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: American history, bisexual, Goddess Liberty, lesbian, Questions, transgender

These days the religious right is on a roll with imposing conservative Christian belief in American life. Hence the liberty of Americans is now at risk if they want to publicly identify their personal belief or spiritual view as anything "non-Christian.” In fact, the religious righters try to claim that their own “right to liberty” includes their perceived right to forcibly convert the rest of us.

Yet paganism is at the core of American history. Many of our American founders -- men like Jefferson and Franklin, women like Mercy Otis Warren -- had political ideas that were rooted in classical (i.e. Greek and Roman pagan) institutions of government. The very idea of an "American republic" was based on a pagan idea, created by B.C. Roman tribes who threw off a cruel monarchy and took back the political power over their own lives. The word “re-public" means "back to the people."

Many Americans are pathetically misinformed about what "paganism” is. They swallow everything that the religious right tells them -- that all pagans practiced human sacrifice, ate babies for breakfast, practiced devil worship and sex orgies, etc. etc.

Americans have also devoured PBS and History Channel shows alleging that Adolf Hitler was a "pagan." If PBS says this, it must be true, right? (The producers of these shows never explain why, if Hitler was a pagan, his rise to power was supported by so many Catholics and Protestants, not to mention the Vatican.)

The fact is -- the early Church warred against "pagans" because these people were the enduring masses who still followed the old pre-Christian ways. Latin pagensis means a person who lives in the country, not the city. By the closing days of the Roman Empire, Christianity had captured the empire’s old urban centers and government bureaucracy, but country people were still largely untouched by this change. Every village still had its little temples and shrines and festivals to the old Gods and Goddesses. It took the Church nearly a thousand years of war and public executions to stamp out the lingering pockets of paganism across Europe.

I identify with these historical "pagans" because of the way that militant American Christianity is trying to stamp out everything non-Christian in this country.

Some Americans even believe that pagans are atheists. An old friend of mine, whom I've known since grade school, told me recently that she wished I would find the Lord someday. She’s a devout Catholic and feels distressed by what she sees as my lack of belief in anything. I told her that I had found the Lord...and the Lordess.

A biography byte: I started out at age 6 in Presbyterian Sunday school, and went to Catholic convert at the age of 17. But I left the Catholic Church at age 20. From there I touched bases with agnosticism, existentialism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, but those didn’t work for me. Around 1979, I reconnected with some of my First Nations relatives while working on my historical novel "One Is the Sun."

That time in the 1980s got my feet back on the ground and prompted me to re-examine everything I thought I knew. I constructed a new MO for myself that started with God and Goddess, and went on to constantly learn new things and question old things. I like the word "pagan" as a job title of where I’m at, because ancient pagan philosophy and science was based on asking courageous questions and following wherever the questions led. That included questions about sexual orientation and gender. The ancient Greeks and Romans lived the whole gamut of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and straight, and they addressed those questions with more courage than establishment Christianity ever did.

So as an American pagan, I find it amusing to see the religious right fuming about how “America was founded on the Bible.”

One look at Liberty, chief symbol of the United States from our beginning, and you know that the righters are lying in their teeth. The Goddess of Liberty appeared on our earliest coins. She stands on top of the Capitol dome in Washington D.C. She holds a torch at the entrance to New York Harbor. She can be seen in ten thousand other places across our nation, in public buildings and in our arts. Under the name Libertas, She was beloved by the pagan Romans, and a symbol of freedom for slaves. But you won’t find Her anywhere in the Bible.

Copyright 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

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A. J. Lopp | August 8, 2007 5:12 PM

Patricia, I love this post! ... but as strong as it is, it doesn't go quite far enough!

The Truth is that (1) the U.S. Constitution contains the First Amendment, and that in turn says, in so many words, that designating a government-sanctioned or government-favored religion is unconstitutional; therefore, (2) those who claim that the United States is a "Christian nation" or, more seriously, who work to have it designated as such, are subversive to the Constitution.

The Religious Right would be more honest if they stated, flat out, that they wish to repeal or invalidate the establishment clause in the First Amendment. The fact that they wrap themselves in the First Amendment ("the free exercise thereof") at the same time that they work to neutralize the establishment clause has to be the height of political irony --- and hypocrisy.

Denise Travers | August 8, 2007 8:14 PM

I'm a 30+ year PPP (proud, practicing Pagan). I live in a small town in a Red State. And I think your post does a great disservice to the cause of religious liberty for all.

I believe you are ill-informed. For example, you praise the "B.C. Roman" idea of re-public as being some kind of pagan cultural phenomenon. You forget, as so many do, that the Roman republic only applied to white, land-owning men. In fact, there was very little cross-over, philosophically or theoretically, between ancient Greek or Roman civic customs and the religious systems of the day.

Some modern neo-pagans *are* athiests. It's called animism -- look it up. Some Christians are pagan (e.g. Jesus Christ is among the dieties in their personal pantheon). Some pagans are exclusionary (e.g. Dianic covens who do not admit biological males or allow worship of male deities).

Some pagans are as indoctrinated and inflexible as the most fervent evangelical Christian. Have you ever tried to attend a Fae Wiccan healing ritual wearing an orange robe instead of a blue robe? All hell breaks loose. They might as well be the Anglicans and the Episcopalians, arguing over the number of sacraments.

To try to break this 6,000+ year old debate into "Ugh! Pagan good! Christian baaaad!" black-and-white position is ridiculous.

And what is this "ancient pagan philosophy" you speak of? To try to generalize the myriad of spiritual and religious interests represented by pre-Christian European cultures into "ancient pagan philosophy" reveals your own naivete. Each of these traditions -- Hellenic, Roman, Germanic, Druidic, etc etc etc -- was unique. They simply cannot be considered to be the "same" simply because they were all non-Christian.

My point is this: while I certainly agree that Christian reconstructionists are trying to re-write history to favor the Christian agenda, it is patently untrue that "American Christianity" is trying to stamp out everything non-Christian in this country.

I think you may fall into the same quagmire that you accuse the Christians of falling into -- overgeneralization, easy judgment, and oversimplification in pursuit of your larger thesis. *That* is a disservice to all.

None of these competing religions/spiritual systems is going away anytime soon. Isn't it time for us to stop the demonizing, and start trying to find common ground?

I never said that pagans were/are perfect people. Nor was the Roman republic perfect either. (You are mistaken to say that this form of government applied only to property-owning men. Women too were citizens of Rome, though they enjoyed fewer rights than men.) My point is, that the idea of a republic is an old idea, and was not invented (contrary to what some Christians "historians" say) by Christians.

Nor did I say that all pagan spiritual traditions are "the same." I merely pointed out that some of them were revived by the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, and came to influence many of our educated founders.

Nor did I say that "American Christianity is trying to stamp out everything non-Christian." I referred specifically to the religious right. You might want to pay more careful attention to what they're saying, because they do indeed aim to force their views on all of us. You live in a small town in a Red state? Good luck to you.

Ok, you are really serious about this "white-land owning men" thing as far as the Roman republic is concerned, right?

The important thing in the Roman Republic is that if you were ROMAN not if you were white. What you understand of the category "white" would be quite inapplicable to the Roman Republic.

Speaking of rewriting history...