article

09.20.10

Witches Blast O'Donnell

Picnics on top of altars? Wiccans say they don't have them—and they don't like O'Donnell spreading bunk. Ben Crair reports on the comments that may cost her the pagan vote.

"Witchcraft" video showing Delaware Tea Party sensation Christine O’Donnell describing a date she once had with a witch dominated the airwaves Monday. “I mean, there’s a little blood and stuff like that,” she told Bill Maher in a late ’90s clip from Politically Incorrect. “We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.” The footage delighted Democrats looking to embarrass the GOP Senate nominee, frightened Republicans, and alienated another constituency: witches, who say O’Donnell’s 1999 discussion of the subject is bunk—and bad publicity for the coven.

“We don’t have picnics on top of altars,” said Selena Fox, Wiccan high priestess for the Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin. “We are not Satanist. And we have good character, not ‘questionable’ character.” (At a non-Satanic picnic in Delaware on Sunday, O’Donnell brushed aside questions about her comments by asking, “How many of you didn’t hang out with questionable folks in high school?”)

“A couple of my local politician friends say she’s losing the Wiccan vote,” said Dominguez. “Well, I said she never had the pagan vote for the most part to begin with.”

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In 2008, 1.2 percent of American adults, nearly 3 million people, declared themselves followers of “New Religious Movements,” the category that includes Wicca and other pagan belief systems. Wicca is a naturalistic religion whose followers generally worship a pantheistic Godhead and practice magic. Its creed, according to Fox, is “harm none, do what you will.” And yet the faith has always been dogged by an association with Satanism, a confusion, Fox said, that goes back to the Middle Ages. “The old nature religions of Europe were persecuted for hundreds of years,” she said, “and part of a tactic for suppressing the pagan practices of old was to label them Satanic or demonic.”

Christine O'Donnell's Criminal Spending

For some, old habits die hard: Senator Jesse Helms tried to rob Wiccan churches of their tax-exempt status in 1985, while Rep. Bob Barr wanted to outlaw Wiccan services on military bases in 1999. According to Ivo Dominguez Jr., the owner of what he calls a “metaphysical general store” in Dover, Delaware, O’Donnell’s dabbling with witchcraft is really just another window into her Christian beliefs. “Basically, you have to be a Christian to believe in Satanism because you have to believe in the Devil,” he said. “So I think probably it was a bunch of teens that decided to do a pastiche of too many bad movies... It has nothing to do with witchcraft and paganism.”

Not all of Delaware’s politicians are as out of touch with the faith as O’Donnell. “There are probably more pagans in Delaware than Unitarians,” Dominguez said. Each year, the Delmarva Pagan Pride Festival draws several hundred Wiccans and other pagans to Dover from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. “In past years, we have had politicians or parties show up at Pagan Pride Day with politicians wearing buttons and handing out stickers.”

“Our current governor came to a meet-and-greet that he knew ahead of time was going to be mostly Wiccan or pagan,” said Dominguez. Questions for Gov. Jack Markell, who was then a candidate in the Democratic primary, were mostly about the environment. “There were no questions about will you appoint an openly pagan blah blah blah,” said Dominguez. “At this moment of history, that’s not where our community is.”

Dominguez said that the surfacing of O’Donnell’s past comments is particularly unfortunate for Wiccans because it comes near “our least favorite media cycle,” the run-up to Halloween. “My biggest concern is that we will be receiving negative depictions on one side from the people that traditionally don’t like us, which are folks that believe the only thing that is a valid spiritual path is a narrowly defined kind of Christianity, and on the other side people that are progressive that we would normally see as our friends but who will be using the witch angle as a way of attacking a conservative candidate.”

No matter how Democrats treat the issue, it seems unlikely that Wiccans will turn out for O’Donnell at the polls. “Her inability to separate anything non-Christian from Satanic is going to be an issue not just with her potential pagan constituents but with any other non-Christians or Christians of a flavor that does not match hers,” said Michael Smith, the Wiccan IT analyst who hosted the meet-and-greet the governor visited.

“A couple of my local politician friends say she’s losing the Wiccan vote,” said Dominguez. “Well, I said she never had the pagan vote for the most part to begin with.”

Ben Crair is the Deputy News Editor of The Daily Beast.