June 24, 1999
Wiccans in the Constitutional Spotlight
-- Martin E. Marty
Americans take turns appraising the relative dangerousness or unrespectability of religion after religion. Most recently Representative Bob Barr of Georgia turned on the lights when he discovered that Wiccans had the right to worship on military bases where other religions do. He finds that offensive and wants the military to put a stop to it.
Those of us who study American religion tend to practice the phenomenological method. This means that all but those with the worst olfactory nerves have to smile and hold their noses from time to time as they seek to remain fair-minded in teaching and writing about faiths and behaviors they personally find offensive. From time to time they get called to come forth with amicus curiae briefs in respect to groups like the Unification Church, various then-called "cults," or more nearly mainstream religions like Christian Science that are on the spot before congressional investigators, the I.R.S., or the merely suspicious.
Barr is more than suspicious of the Wiccans, whose "Open Circle" worships in what some call pagan and others call New Age style at Ft. Hood in Texas and elsewhere. We read that some military personnel have "Wicca" stamped on dog tags, whereas at the beginning of World War II one had to choose among only Protestant, Catholic, and Jew for the religious preference to be noted there.
"What next?" asked Barr. "Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for satanic rituals?" Some on the Christian right, Clarence Page tells us (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, June 16), now call for "recruiting strikes" against the military until Wiccans no longer have Army support or approval.
Few would disagree that military disciplines might force different kinds of expressions of liberty than civilian life permits. In respect to religious practice, however, the courts have sided quite consistently against the Barrs of the world. Until now, it has been denominations on the Christian right who have been most ecumenical about coming to the aid of legally beleaguered and stigmatized religious movements. Religious conservatives, back when they were outsiders, did well at defending outsiders. Those who found the groups they defended the most abhorrent were often the first and most firm at the ramparts defending them from governmental intrusion. The last thing they used to want was to have the government determine what was a good religion and what was a bad one, which should be persecuted and silenced.
What the Barrs & Co. of the world tend to forget is that, truth be told, most Americans would have to hold their noses if they examined and thought about the practices of others too much. There is something in every vital faith that offends people of other vital faiths or no faith at all. Wicca may look silly to some, smelly to others, and saving to its few. In any case, unless its followers represent clear and immediate danger to life and limb and the republic, they are likely to have their way.