Wednesday
Jan112012

When Wiccans & Evangelical Christians Become Friends

Interfaith Skill-sets

For more than 26 years I’ve been doing interfaith work on behalf of Neopagan Witchcraft (often called “Wicca” or “the Craft”). In 1985 I was elected National Public Information Officer for the Covenant of the Goddess (www.cog.org). The job entailed serving as a liaison between CoG and the media, law enforcement, the government, and the interfaith community. I attended my first meeting of the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council, one of the oldest, most diverse interfaith groups in the country, and gradually found myself hooked on interfaith work. Terming out as Public Information Officer, the Covenant created the appointed position of National Interfaith Representative. That has been my role ever since.

A year into my public information work, I saw notice of a conference called “Deception & Discernment: Exposing the Dangers of the Occult.” I thought I should attend and see what ‘the other side’ was up to. The conference was put on by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, a leading Christian research organization offering an Evangelical Christian response to cults and the occult.

Don Frew moderating a panel at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions.

I registered for the conference and got a name-tag with my name and “C.O.G.” Most attendees probably assumed meant “Church of God.” I stayed quiet and took notes through most of the conference until one of the last speakers, Jack Roper, made a number of ridiculous statements about Witchcraft & Neopaganism. I had to stand up during the question and answer period and say something.

Roper was seriously telling people that Witches worship unicorns. And that the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons had been created by Witches as a recruitment tool, since it was “the best introduction to practicing real magic and casting real spells ever written.” After I pointed out the many inaccuracies in his talk, Roper challenged me, asking why anyone should think I knew more about the subject than he.

“Well,” I said, “I do serve on the board of directors of the largest Wiccan religious organization on Earth.” All eyes turned towards me. People sitting near me in the pews edged away. During the break that followed, most avoided me, and a few asked questions. But one came up and introduced himself in a friendly way – Brooks Alexander, one of the founders of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. Unlike every other presenter at this conference, Brooks’ talk had laid out biblical arguments against Witchcraft without ever misrepresenting what modern Witches actually believe or do.

This commitment to honesty on both our parts became the basis for further conversations and, eventually, a series of ten four-hour dialogues between members of the Covenant of the Goddess and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, comparing and contrasting Wicca and Christianity on topics like prayer, nature, women, ritual, good and evil. In the end, we made a commercial video together.

Brooks Alexander

That relationship was one of the most significant learning experiences in my Wiccan career. While I stayed in occasional contact with some of the Christians who had been part of those dialogues, Brooks and I remained in closer communication over the years. When he wrote a book on the modern Witchcraft movement for Evangelical Christians, I helped edit it. We have a program that we do together at various conferences called “Wiccan / Christian Dialogue: A 25-year Interfaith Friendship.”

Knowing Brooks and other conservative Evangelical Christians provided the groundwork for what has developed in the past ten years. My interfaith involvement grew into relationships with the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and the United Religions Initiative (URI). It has included dozens of faith and interfaith conferences all over the world.

The Great Divide

At event after event, I kept hearing non-Christians ask, “Why aren’t the conservative Christians here?” The answer would invariably be: “Because you just can’t talk to those people!” I thought, “Well, I can talk to those people. Why don’t I talk to them about this?” I called up Brooks and suggested that we have some conversations about the pros and cons of interfaith, from a conservative Evangelical Christian perspective.

At about the same time, I met Lee Penn. For those who don’t know him, if you Google “United Religions Initiative” you are as likely to see something by Lee about the evils of URI as by anything URI generates itself. Lee is a leading internet opponent of the interfaith movement in general and URI in particular.

I was working in Shambala Booksellers in Berkeley when someone bought some books on Freemasonry and paid with a check giving the name “Lee Penn.” “Are you the Lee Penn, the author?” I asked.

“Yes”, he said, somewhat suspiciously.

“Hi. My name’s Don Frew. I’m on the Global Council of United Religions Initiative. Would you like to get some coffee and have a chat?”

Lee Penn

He was very surprised. I was the first person from URI who had been friendly since his first article criticizing the organization. I genuinely wanted to hear what Lee had to say and understand his point of view. Though we don’t have the friendship that Brooks and I enjoy, we have a cordial working relationship.

When Lee wrote his magnum opus against interfaith and URI, False Dawn: The United Religions Initiative, Globalism, and the Quest for a One-World Religion (2004), he quoted me extensively.1 Before publication Lee showed me everything he planned to cite and gave me the opportunity to make corrections. On the one statement where we had significant disagreement as to what I had said, he included my objection in a footnote.

Talking to Brooks, Lee, and the people I met through them, I learned a lot about their perception of the interfaith movement. Conservative practitioners of many faiths see the interfaith movement as creating a single, new, syncretistic religion. From their point of view, that is exactly what we’re doing when we emphasize our similarities and ignore or downplay our differences.

Conservative Christians strongly opposed to interfaith usually believe in a coming End Times, including a single, world government and a single, world-spanning religion, created by the Anti-Christ. Many of them see the United Nations as a significant step in the process of creating a one-world government. No surprise, then, that many of them also see interfaith efforts as steps towards the creation of a single world religion. Unfortunately, on those few occasions when members of the two groups have been in communication – usually in internet forums – the “discussion” has almost always been along the lines of:

“You’re creating a single religion!” – “No, we aren’t!” – “Yes you are!” – “No, we aren’t!” … and so on. Meanwhile, the real issues never get addressed.

Interfaith’s Liberal Social Agenda

The liberal social agenda that most interfaith-active folks share, combined with the “universal statements”2 that pepper our rhetoric and promotional literature, give the appearance of being the tenets of the single world religion, the development conservatives so fear. For example, in the interfaith movement we tend to agree that:

  • genders should be treated equally and have equal rights,
  • we and the natural world are interconnected and we have responsibility for caring for the world, and
  • all religions should have equal legal standing, and the laws of society should be independent of the rules of any particular faith tradition.

Many conservative Christians hear these statements and disagree with one or more. To them such tenants can feel like new doctrinal elements of a one-world religion.

The waters of misunderstood communication can further muddy our relationships. For example, one of the 21 principles in the URI Charter states that “Members of URI shall not be coerced to participate in any ritual or be proselytized.” Interfaith activists understand this to mean that those who do proselytize in their faith traditions must leave their proselytizing at the door when attending a URI event.

However, when Bishop William Swing, the primary founder of URI, wrote about what he sees as the errors of proselytizing in general,3 conservatives mistakenly applied the Bishop’s personal views to the position of the URI. They ended up believing that the URI condemns proselytizing in all circumstances, all over the world, which is not the case. When I explained this to Lee Penn, he was surprised.

“You mean,” he said, “I could hold a Christian prayer service at a URI meeting?” “Of course,” I replied. “We’d schedule a room, make the announcement, and whoever wished to attend could do so.”

Talking to conservative Christians opposed to interfaith was made much easier by my not being a Christian. Dialogue between progressive Christians (promoting the interfaith movement) and conservative Christians (opposing interfaith) is clearly an intra-familial conversation and can get very heated. Usually the progressive voices are the first to raise their voices, which surprised me.

Inviting “Conservatives” to the Table

Deeply conservative Christians opposed to interfaith will never join our organizations. But I believe there is room in the interfaith movement for many others, somewhat less conservative, who don’t share many of our commonly held views. They may believe their faith is the one true faith. Yet, as long as they are polite and abide by appropriate rules of conduct, including honesty and mutual respect, they should be welcome. If invited and respected, as all others, they will come. Dialogue is possible, even productive, and can lead to friendships and cooperation. When Lee Penn’s book False Dawn came out, we were both interviewed on Fox News. Host Alan Colmes was stunned that we were so cordial with each other, in many ways making the case for interfaith dialogue right there. Lee has moved on to other areas of interest, but we stay in touch.

Being a non-Abrahamic practitioner in dialogue with conservatives, Christians and others, has been helpful not only in talking to “exclusivists” but to non-exclusivist conservatives. Non-exclusivist Muslims and Jews who interpret their traditions and associated rules very strictly can feel excluded by what happens sometimes in interfaith settings. Because my own tradition has so often been excluded, they confide in me.

At one international conference that included a number of different ceremonies, a business meeting was followed immediately in the same room by a Christian service. There was no break. Later a conservative Jew said he felt uncomfortable and wouldn’t have attended the service but didn’t want to give offense by standing up and walking out.

On another occasion, the Buddha’s birthday coincided with a major interfaith governance meeting. In a spirit of sharing, the Buddhists present set up a shrine near the door with an image of the Buddha inside. As we entered the room, we were invited to light a stick of incense, place it in a holder before the small statue of the Buddha, and say or think a prayer.

A conservative Muslim and a conservative Jew were very distressed by this. Both felt prohibited from burning incense before an ‘idol.’ But as this had been set up as part of beginning our opening session, it would be hard not to do so without standing out and being seen as insulting. One of them brought the matter to the group, which led to a useful discussion. Affected individuals should speak up about being inadvertently excluded. At the same time interfaith leaders should be more sensitive about our protocol.

The answer in these two cases is easy: Make sure to schedule a break – in time or space, and preferably both – between meetings that everyone is expected to attend, and religious services, ceremony or ritual. And always offer participants the choice of opting out of what doesn’t feel comfortable.

Sharing similarities allows us to find the common ground to build friendships. But we won’t achieve peace until we share and accept our differences. Only then will we be true to our commitment to accept all faiths, even in their conservative, exclusivist manifestations, as long as we all agree to basic rules of courtesy and politeness. Leaders need to go the next step – to be more careful about the way we present ourselves, the language we use, and the way we structure our meetings. A modicum of greater awareness about how we present ourselves to others results in a wealth of greater understanding.

1 Many interfaith folks are surprised to learn that False Dawn was published by Sophia Perennis, the main publisher of books on the Perennial Philosophy. The connection between the Perennial Philosophy and opposition to interfaith work is spelled out in the review of False Dawn on the Sophia Perennis website.

2 Commonplace “universal statements” in the interfaith world include: “We all worship the same God.” “All religions are really paths to the same truth.” “All religions have the Golden Rule.” At the 2011 NAIN Connect conference, there was a vendor selling T-shirts with the statement “One God, Many Names” on the front, surrounded by the symbols of many faith traditions.

3Bishop William Swing, The Coming United Religions (United Religions Initiative and CoNexus Press, 1998), p. 31

Reader Comments (6)

Brilliant and much needed exploration of this subject, Don. The friendship that developed between you and your so-called "nemsis," Brooks Alexander, is one that many of us in the interfaith movement have aspired to create. In the end we are no longer talking to the "enemy" but simply conversing with another human being that holds different views. You both model this magnificently. Thanks for sharing the details with us, and inspiring us to be willing to be the stranger.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Broyde Sharone

Thankyou for this piece, Don. My experience of the mixed elements of religion are from an 'exclusive' Christian background via disassociation from 'the Church', into a 'place of seeking', Civil Partnership and the Interfaith movement. In all of the journey, the One who knows the hearts and minds of all of us, held me close and ever closer,until Irealised that my experience is not unique but 'shared' and unifying and does not come from a polarised view of either 'this...or...'that', but a joyful living of 'both this....and that' . Multiplied blessings on your evangelical work!
Katherine Derby

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine Derby

Thankyou for this piece, Don. My experience of the mixed elements of religion are from an 'exclusive' Christian background via disassociation from 'the Church', into a 'place of seeking', Civil Partnership and the Interfaith movement. In all of the journey, the One who knows the hearts and minds of all of us, held me close and ever closer,until Irealised that my experience is not unique but 'shared' and unifying and does not come from a polarised view of either 'this...or...'that', but a joyful living of 'both this....and that' . Multiplied blessings on your evangelical work!
Katherine Derby

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine Derby

I want to express my great appreciation for this article. I am the Director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (www.fidweb.org). Over the course of my work in interreligious relationships and conversations I have been fortunate to be involved with Pagans, I have heard of Brooks Alexander and his work with Don Frew on dialogue, and am very familiar with the concern Evangelicals have about being involved in dialogue, a concern shared by many Pagans, but for different reasons. I am wondering if I could get in touch with Mr. Brooks and Mr. Alexander to discuss my own work, how Evangelicals might get involved in our FRD chapter, and about the possibility of helping to start a Pagan chapter of the FRD.

May 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn W. Morehead

I am a happily exclusivist Wiccan Priest. Interfaith dialogue is a useful thing, protecting us from the crazies, but I certainly don't believe that "all religions are variations on the same thing" or any of that stuff, either. The particular truths of the Wiccan path are not the same as what the Muslims or the other Abrahamic faiths have going, although there's a fair amount of common ground with the various Indian religions (clumped together by the British Empire as 'Hinduism') .

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSam Wagar

hello,
Just to say how pleased I am to read this! I'm the daughter of a (now retired) pentecostal pastor who heard the voice of the lord to leave his established and prosperous congregation in the '70's and head back to the land of his fathers (Scotland) and pioneer a new work (start a church from scratch). My brother and I were brought up in poverty most of the time (living by faith) and in fear of hell, the judgement of the lord, witches, catholics, spiritualists, etc etc. As a teenager I cried myself to sleep many nights thinking of all the people going to hell (which was pretty much the whole world except our little church) and felt sick about singing hymns about the second coming or us lot going to heaven when everyone else was doomed. I was later raped by a member of the church and told to apologise to the congregation for our bringing the church into disrepute when I found I was pregnant. I couldn't do this and started to back off from the church around then. I married the father of my child and endured 4 years of serious domestic abuse at his hands before leaving both him, and after being told to go back to him and pray for him, the church. I began to explore my spirituality - being brought up in this kind of church meant I believed in miracles and spiritual beings - and I started to find myself through wicca, which has since matured into more personal beliefs. However 20 years down the line my parents and brother are still involved with the church and keen to have me back in the fold, and I think it says a lot for them that they still talk to me and see me as family which as you probably know is barely acceptable in such circles! Some kind of reconciliation of my belief system with theirs has been on my mind for some years now, and not just them and me but bringing the focus out wider to the whole pentecostal/evangelical movement with other faiths, but they are very closed minded about such things and I believe too afraid to step outside their own little folds :( There are hundreds of thousands of pentecostals now and although not all of them are as hard line as my family were ( I believe they have mellowed a wee bit over the years, partly because choosing not to walk away from me completely necessitated a bit of a rethink) and I think people like you and the URI are a gift to those who so afraid of the world and other people's spiritual paths that they would rather live and bring up their children the way my family (and many others we knew) did. Wishing you power, strength and wisdom to continue the good work

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJo Finlay

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