Above my desk in the Washington Post newsroom, amid other souvenirs of stories I’ve written, is a bumper sticker saying: “Save Our Wiccan Chaplain.” It bears a Wiccan five-pointed star, or pentacle, surrounded by the symbols of 10 other faiths, including a cross, and the words: “All Gods … Are One God.”
It was given to me by David and Tama Oringderff, leaders of the Texas-based Sacred Well Congregation. They have worked tirelessly, and so far fruitlessly, to persuade the U.S. military to appoint a Wiccan chaplain.
This week, as Wiccans and other pagans pressed their demand for a chaplain at a July 4 rally outside the White House, the bumper sticker reminded me of a question I face every time I write about their faith.
Namely, do they worship some gods, one god or all gods? How can I explain Wicca to readers when Wiccans don’t seem to agree among themselves?
Here are a few of my pitiful past efforts:
From a July 4, 2006 article: “Some Wiccans call themselves witches, pagans or neopagans. Most of their rituals revolve around the cycles of nature, such as equinoxes and phases of the moon. Wiccans often pick and choose among religious traditions, blending belief in reincarnation and feminine gods with ritual dancing, chanting and herbal medicine.”
From Feb. 19, 2007: “ … Wicca, a blend of witchcraft, feminism and nature worship that has ancient pagan roots.”
From April 24, 2007: “ … Wicca, a blend of witchcraft and nature worship that is one of the country’s fastest-growing religions.”
For help, I turned to the organizer of the July 4 rally, Caroline Kenner of Silver Spring, Md., whose eclecticism is an example of why it’s so hard to write anything about Wicca that is both meaningful and true.
Kenner, 50, sometimes calls herself a “Washington witch doctor” but says the proper title is “pagan shamanic healer.” She’s an “initiate” of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, an association of Wiccan covens based in Delaware, and a member of the “magical family” of Janet Farrar of Kells, Ireland, whom Kenner described as “one of the founders of the modern witchcraft revival.” Plus, she’s a follower of Cuban santeria.
Both Celtic and Afro-Cuban gods “are dear to me,” she said. “I’m just an overachieving Bryn Mawr anthro grad.”
Back on point: Kenner acknowledged that “it’s extremely difficult to define Wicca concisely because it means a great many things to different people.” Wicca, she said, is “a loose ritual style shared by people who worship diverse gods.” Some are polytheists, believing in many gods. Others are “duotheists,” believing in one god and one goddess. Still others, according to Kenner, are monotheists who believe that all the gods worshipped around the world since time immemorial are just “facets of a single, unified gem of deity.”
About that “loose ritual style,” which includes creating sacred circles and summoning spirits (including, by patriotic Wiccans on July 4 in Lafayette Park, the spirits of the Founding Fathers). Back in 1999, President Bush told ABC TV that, “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion.
… ” He seems to have intended that remark as a condemnation, not a reflection on how hard Wicca is to define. But in a very narrow sense, he had a point. Witchcraft is a practice, not a religion. Knowing that Wiccans practice witchcraft does not tell you very much about what they believe. It may even be misleading, connoting to many people — perhaps even the president — a form of devil worship, which every Wiccan I’ve met has adamantly rejected.
Some of the Wiccans I’ve interviewed have contended that Christianity is equally diverse. Some have also noted that Wicca is an “initiate” religion, one that involves a series of initiations into mysteries; to the uninitiated, it’s, well, just mysterious.
In Kenner’s view, the difficulty of defining Wicca — not to mention the entire pagan family of religions — is a positive thing.
“There is no unity of belief among us. That’s one of the beauties of it, and one of the gifts we have to bring to this world. Instead of seeing the differences among us frightening and threatening, we find them exciting and stimulating,” she said.
Maybe it’s one of those ideas that actually fit on a bumper sticker.
Alan Cooperman has covered religion for The Washington Post since 2002. This month, he will become the senior editor for non-fiction in the paper’s literary section, Book World.