Watching the news coverage of the passing of Ted Kennedy and listening to the reflections upon his life and legacy, the author of this blog was struck by a reminiscence offered by the political columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, speaking on the PBS News Hour program. He recalled how Kennedy was a devout Catholic, and that his personal interpretation of Catholicism was one of the foundations of his concern for the poor and underprivileged. Traveling with Kennedy in the early 1980s, Dionne once asked Kennedy why he was so concerned about poverty in America. Kennedy replied, "Haven't you ever read the Gospels?," meaning that his spiritual faith and his political idealism were one and the same. In a time when most Christian political activism is associated with right-wing, conservative and evangelical versions of Christianity, it is good to remember that there are also liberal, compassionate, and progressive forms of Christian-inspired activism, even if we do not share their particular form of religious faith. Though we Pagans--certainly including the author--can work ourselves up into quite a froth of Christianity-bashing when we reflect on the past history of Christian suppression of native European religious traditions, or when we encounter fanatical and uncomprehending Christian fundamentalism, the example of Kennedy's generous and inclusive perspective and personality, grounded in his Catholic faith even when many Catholics scorned him, is a reminder to be careful to not tar all the members of a faith we may reject with only one narrow brush.
Another aspect of Kennedy's character repeatedly pointed out in today's stream of reflections and recollections was his ability to get along and work well with those on the other side of the political spectrum. That is not always easy to do, and the author has recently found himself in some nasty disputes with American Heathens/Asatru believers, brought about by the author's perhaps naive desire to raise the issue of different political perspectives within Asatru. A joking reference to left-wing and right-wing political perspectives brought down a hailstorm of angry denunciation, none from the left-wing but many from the right, and the author found himself forced to defend and explain himself, while provoking further denunciations requiring further explanations, and so on. Of course, mutual misunderstandings can easily erupt in cyberspace, as the medium does not always allow nuanced communication and matters of tone and attitude can often be misrepresented and misperceived.
Even making allowance for such lapses in communication and misunderstandings on both sides, the author remains shocked by the angry tone of the exchange. It reminded him of nothing so much as the recent health care forums held in various congressional districts, where furious, often badly misinformed mobs would not allow any kind of intelligent discussion to take place, but simply begin shouting angry abuse to shut down any possibility of such discussion. In the case of the health care forums, the shouters would not listen to any rational discussion of health care reform. In the case of the Heathenry forum, the mention of a left-wing perspective likewise unleashed a volley of abuse. The email exchange serves to verify what the author has found through past personal experience as well as the findings of scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan and Mattias Gardell, that Asatru/Heathenry in America generally tends toward the right-wing, conservative side of the American political spectrum, with limited tolerance for the left wing, liberal side of the spectrum.
Ironically, the author of this blog has often published articles and given speeches trying to defend Asatru against associations with extreme right-wing ideologies of racism and Nazism. He now feels a painful duty to reconsider his past perspective.
However, he does not want to make a false and misleading blanket statement that American Heathens are fascists, racists, neo-Nazis. None of the Heathens that the author knows fit that description, and most express clear opposition to such ideologies. In the author's view, most American Heathens are small-government, libertarian, pro-military conservatives, who tend to distrust large government programs and to be concerned with typical conservative issues like gun ownership rights. The author's point here is not to blame or vilify such views, but simply to say that these are conservative views and they do seem to be shared by many American Heathens.
American Heathens also tend to see their Nordic Pagan religion as totally apolitical, but this is where the author feels they are wrong. Their small government, libertarian, pro-military conservatism, or at least, their acceptance of the dominance of such a political perspective, is expressed in their organization of religious activities and their interpretation of mythology and tradition. Most Heathens form "kindreds," tight-knit groups sworn to mutual loyalty and protection, with the sense of a somewhat self-enclosed community. When you add in a general distrust of government coupled with a love of guns and the military, these kindreds might be seen as showing some similarities to anti-government militia groups. However, the author does not want to overstate this point, as Asatru and Heathen groups are not involved in any active or violent opposition to the government, unlike the militia groups and militia-inspired lone wolves that have carried out assassinations, including the recent attack on the Holocaust Museum, and bombed government buildings. The point the author wishes to make is only that there are certain areas of ideological overlap based on common conservative perspectives. If there were leftist militant groups in America carrying out violent attacks, and someone pointed out that there was some commonality between these groups' ideology and that of lefty-liberals like the author, the author would accept that point, while disavowing any similarity between the actions of such a violent group and any actions of his own.
However, according to the FBI report published in spring of 2009, the greatest threat of political violence in the USA today comes from right-wing, militia-type groups, not from anything happening among leftists and liberals, and several recent violent incidents such as what happened at the Holocaust Museum bear that out. In past communications, the author has encouraged Heathens of whatever political stripe to distance themselves from violent right-wingers who claim a relationship to Norse-Germanic tradition, and continues to urge them in this, to avoid Heathenry and Asatru being besmirched with such associations.
Many Heathens follow a set of ethical principles known as the "Nine Noble Virtues." These vary somewhat between Asatru groups, but are often listed as courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance and perseverance. These moral values are not explicitly listed in any ancient text, but are a modern interpretation of Norse-Germanic ethics. The author would argue that these virtues are all in accord with right-wing, libertarian-to-conservative ideology. With the possible exception of hospitality, there is no encouragement of kindness, peace, gentleness, mercy or compassion, as might perhaps be found in a more leftist-liberal set of "soft" virtues. This is instead a rather macho set of tough, hard-as-nails, survival-of-the-fittest, take-care-of-your-own-and-never-mind-anyone-else values that fits in very well with a pro-military, small-town conservative viewpoint; and it is notable that many American Heathens prefer living in small towns and rural communities, which in America do generally tend to be more conservative than urban areas. Therefore the author of this blog would argue that the Nine Noble Virtues are not apolitical. They are, the author repeats, not based on the texts, directly; they come from a certain quite modern interpretation of the texts, which is a conservative, right-wing interpretation. Again, it is not the author's intention to insult or pass judgment, but to describe accurately what he sees as the underlying political viewpoint. The author believes that this is in keeping with the universal virtue of honesty.
This is where the author thinks again of Ted Kennedy and his liberal interpretation of Catholicism which motivated his concern for the poor and underprivileged. The author believes that Asatru is not inherently imbued with conservative political ideology but is open to interpretation and re-interpretation, like any other religion, and the author truly hopes to make common cause with those interested in a liberal-leftist interpretation. As opposed to thinking of Asatru in terms of closed communities and macho values, the author advocates creating an Asatru that celebrates the Norse gods, but reaches out to the larger society, and honors humble virtues like kindness, peace, compassion, and mercy. That is what Ted Kennedy did with his Catholicism, and this is what can be done with Asatru.
The author accepts that many American Heathens are happy with a somewhat conservative version of Asatru/Heathenry, and applauds them for forming communities that give them happiness, spiritual fulfillment and a sense of security, but he feels called in a different direction, and knows he is not alone. He hopes to someday have the wisdom, humor and generous personality of a Ted Kennedy that will make it possible to disagree but still be civil and friendly with Asatruar of the right, and hopes that they will also wish to interact in the same spirit.
The author would very much like to hear about other Pagan communities and their political viewpoints and debates.
Once again, the blogmeister calls on readers to remember that insulting, incoherent, unconstructive and abusive comments will not be published.