American Gothic

It has long been clear to feminists that crusades against witchcraft reflect a primal fear of feminine power and aim to punish women, most brutally, for transgressing gender roles. But if accusations of witchcraft are useful as instruments of social control, they're not necessarily cynical; often, they're entirely sincere. As a casual perusal of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) Web site and assorted right-wing Christian literature shows, some people believe in Satan, witches, and various evil spirits as fervently as they believe in God.

(Why shouldn't they, after all; one belief in the supernatural is no stranger than another.) "The Bible makes it clear that there are demons, or evil spirits, in the world that interfere in people's lives," a CBN posting titled "Freedom from Demon Bondage" asserts. The symptoms of "demonic oppression" or "possession" include "involvement in occult practices (fortune-telling, Satanism, etc.)" and "seeking spiritual knowledge through Eastern religions and other counterfeit religious groups."

Demonic possession must be quite common: One of its symptoms is "mental distress." It is also reflected, apparently, in the growing popularity of witchcraft. To the dismay of some conservative Christians, "white witchcraft," in the form of the Wiccan religion, has become rather fashionable, especially among the young. How-to books for teenage witches are "flying off the shelves," a reporter for warns. Television offers several attractive, good-hearted young witches--the three sisters of Charmed, Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the title character of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Paganism is growing in popularity on college campuses, according to a recent report in The Boston Globe. Even the U.S. Army has fallen under the spell and allowed Wiccan rituals on its bases, thereby "inviting Satan into our military," according to one Christian critic.

Given this preoccupation with devilry, the Christian right's crusade against popular fascination with New Age notions and the occult is no more surprising than its support for federally funded Christian schools--and no less intense or pervasive. It underlies the campaign to censor Harry Potter books, those benign stories about a teenage wizard that lead the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged titles nationwide. According to its critics, the Harry Potter series wrongly teaches children that magic can be a force for good; it encourages them to regard witchcraft (the devil's work) as a "normal, non-evil religion."

This preoccupation with the occult also emerges in far-right condemnations of feminism, which Pat Robertson famously described as a "socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." The loony Pat Robertson can't claim to speak for conservative Christians, but he does speak to many of them, exacerbating the fear of witchcraft. Once, he claims, witches cast a spell on his daughter, inflicting bad headaches upon her, which he cured with a successful exorcism: "I ran in to my daughter and said, 'Come here. In the name of Jesus,' I said, 'You foul spirit of witchcraft, I command you, loose this child and go back where you came from.' Just like that, she was free."

It's tempting to laugh off this fear of witchery. How seriously can you take people who take Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or Touched by an Angel) literally? The trouble is that only the witches are imagined; the witch-hunts are frighteningly real. In Oklahoma a 15-year-old girl has been suspended from school for allegedly casting spells and making one of her teachers ill. She and her family, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, have filed a federal lawsuit against the school, to the amazement of her father: "It's hard for me to believe that in the year 2000 I am walking into court to defend my daughter against charges of witchcraft brought by her own school. But if that's what it takes to clear her record and get her life back to normal, that's what we'll do."

The persecution of Brandi Blackbear began in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings. According to her complaint, she was targeted by school administrators in the spring of 1999 because of rumors that she had written a story "about an incident at school." (Blackbear is an aspiring fiction writer, with an interest in horror stories.) Her locker was searched and her private notebooks confiscated. School officials found a story involving a shooting on a school bus and promptly suspended her.

Ostracized and harassed by fellow students, Blackbear returned to school in the fall of 1999 and began a private study of Wicca. Within a few months, a teacher was hospitalized for a still unknown ailment, and Blackbear says she was blamed: An aptly named assistant principal, Charles Bushyhead, accused her of practicing Wicca, casting spells, and causing the hospitalization of the mysteriously ill teacher. According to the lawsuit, Bushyhead called Blackbear an immediate threat to the school and suspended her for another 15 days.

If only the charge of witchcraft were true, Blackbear wouldn't need the ACLU to vindicate her rights. Indeed, if Assistant Principal Bushyhead actually believes in her magical powers, you have to wonder why he doesn't fear them. Maybe he feels protected by Jesus.

Oklahoma officials will need God's help in opposing Blackbear's lawsuit; only a miracle, or a very bad judge, can save them. Putting aside the cruelty of the school's behavior toward her (which has been rather unchristian), there's little question that her First Amendment rights were violated. In addition to being suspended from school after having her writings impounded, Blackbear was prohibited from wearing any emblems associated with the Wicca religion. (Students are free to wear crosses.)

This is what religious freedom means to some devout Americans: the freedom to practice "respectable" or "true" religions, not "counterfeit" religions like Wicca. If the accusations of witchcraft in Blackbear's case are outré, the majoritarian religious fervor that punishes adherence to alternative faiths is common. It shapes disputes about official school prayers, which are usually challenged by people of minority faiths whose children are scorned and taunted by the majority. It surfaced recently in the response of the right-wing Family Research Council to an invocation by a Hindu priest offered in the U.S. Congress. "Our founders," proclaimed the council, "expected that Christianity--and no other religion--would receive support from the government, as long as that support did not violate people's consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference."

This is what religious tolerance represents to some Christian zealots: the growing acceptability of paganism and other "evil" or "false" beliefs--the domestication of evil. They're probably not amused when Martha Stewart claims credit for the resurgence of Halloween, now a $6.8-billion retail holiday, second only to Christmas. To Christian critics of the occult, Halloween is a dangerous time "when Satanists and witches covens meet to cast their spells and perform grotesque rituals." To Martha Stewart, Halloween is a "traditional and lovely thing for children and adults to enjoy." She effuses over her "sandwitches." It seems that Satan's influence is subliminable. ¤