I haven’t really been following the Pagan blogosphere as much as usual lately, which to be honest has been good for my sanity and good for my Druidry as I’ve been able to focus instead on daily practice. However, I have noticed that there’s been a bit of discussion of late about the relationship between Paganism and politics. In the wake of the disaster that is Brexit, the new Tory government, and my recent decision to join the Green Party, this got me thinking.
Of course, other writers have spoken far more eloquently than I can about these issues. For a good look at both “sides” of the debate, read John Beckett’s article Why the Gods come before politics which argues that Paganism is a set of religions without a “political test” for membership, and where the gods should take priority over politics; and John Halstead’s rebuttal How “Gods before politics” perpetuates privilege, which argues that being non-political is only an option for people who are not already marginalised by contemporary politics, and so is a statement of privilege.
For what it’s worth, I lean more to John Halstead’s view (I know, shocking, right?), but I also see John Beckett’s point about wanting to keep the *religion(s)* of Paganism separate from the *politics* of Paganism. Yet, as John H. points out, when John B. says there is no room for racism or transphobia in his Paganism, that is a political viewpoint. Conversely, ignoring racism and transphobia so we cal all get along as Pagans is also a political stance.
In general, I am a pretty passionate secularist, up to being a fully subscribed member of the National Secular Society. Secularism in this context is not, despite the misuse of the term by religious apologists, the same as atheism. The NSS defines secularism as “a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”
This secular separation of religion and politics not only protects non-religious folk, but “seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.”
So as a secularist, I want to keep my Druidry and Paganism separate from my politics. I don’t want to see people in government making political decisions based on their interpretation of the Barddas any more than I would want to have politicians legislate based on their interpretation of the Bible or Qu’ran.
Yet, the problem with this strict secular separation is that life is not so simple. You can’t compartmentalise aspects of your worldview neatly into boxes marked “religion” and “politics”. Especially when both religion and politics are concerned with how we should live, what is morally right, how to create a good society, what are our ultimate concerns etc.
A person’s religion will, if they take it seriously, influence their politics. And a person’s politics will, if they take it seriously, influence their religion.
I can’t deny that my first decision to look into Druidry was inspired by my own environmentalist (political) leanings. Likewise my Druidry (religious for want of a better word) has inspired my environmentalism and also led me to be more concerned with issues of freedom, equality and social justice that has directly led to me being more involved in political activism.
Where I think that both the Johns (narrowly) miss the mark is in the suggestion that one or the other, gods or politics, must “come first”. I would assert that rather than a hierarchy, what we see here is a spiral, or a turning wheel. At times, it is important for politics to come to the fore and to speak out against inequality, injustice and environmental devastation. At other times, it is right for religion (or spirituality, or whatever your preferred term is) to take priority, and to focus on the fundamentals and practices of your path.
In neither case are you putting one before the other, or ignoring the influence each have on the other. It’s like how we can’t fight all the battles at once. Sometimes we need to focus on LGBT rights, sometimes on poverty, sometimes on anti-fracking campaigns, and sometimes, yes, we need to recognise what we can’t (immediately) change and focus on our Pagan paths, our spiritual community, our rituals and the Sacred.
All that said, I do think that when we are talking politics in the public sphere (as opposed to on a private blog etc.) we should leave Paganism out of it, unless we’re specifically dealing with issues of minority religions and freedom of worship. No MP is going to be persuaded to back down on, say, a road being built through a wood because a Druid thinks it’s sacred space. But they might be persuaded by secular arguments and evidence of rare ecosystems, the value of the wood to local communities, the effect of the trees and roots on soil erosion and flooding etc. We need solid, secular, reasons for our political views, reasons which are understandable by everyone and support everyone regardless of religion.
If in our private practice we see the wood as sacred and do a protection ritual for it as well, that’s up to us. But to expect the religion to work, to make change in the world, without the politics is naive. And to expect the political to inspire our hearts to work for change without a “religious” sense of the Sacred is perhaps equally so.
*Note: in this post, I use the word “religion” in the broadest sense, without narrow reference to theistic belief. I normally don’t like the word, but as both John Halstead and John Beckett use it in their blogs, it made sense for me to speak in those terms. Feel free to substitute “religion” for “spirituality” or “life-way” or whichever term you prefer throughout.