Wiccan Soldiers

  

Wicca is a blend of pre-Christian paganism and New Age earth worship. For the past two years, the wiccans at Ft. Hood Army base in Texas have practiced their faith with Army approval. Now they are stirring the ire of some national Christian leaders and Congressman Robert L. Barr (R-Ga.)

David L. Oringderff, Ph.D., founder of Sacred Well, was online to discuss the controversy. The Sacred Well is the sponsoring congregation of the coven at the center of the Ft. Hood controversy. Oringderff is co-author of the "Overview and Guide for Wiccan in the Military"

Read the transcript below:

washingtonpost.com: Welcome to our live online discussion about the Wiccan controversy at Ft. Hood. Thank you for joining us Dr. Oringderff. To open, how would you describe the Ft. Hood controversy in the context of the religious choice debate in the military?

David Oringderff: Actually, the controversy is an artificial on engendered by folks with their own agendas who believe that they have the right to define other people's religion and religious practices for them. There are procedures for accommodation of what are known as "minority faith groups" or groups that do not have chaplains of their own particular faith. The military does not "recognize" any particular religion, but the military recognized the right of every individual to practice his or her particular religion in any lawful manner that he or she deems appropriate.

Cavalier, ND: Hi David. I was wondering if you held your current beliefs at the time you joined the military. I view Wiccan as being somewhat pacifistic and opposed to war and violence, though I may be wrong in my limited understanding. Is the Army, given the nature of its mission, a place for witches?

David Oringderff: Belief systems tend to develop and mature over time. I first entered the Army in 1968, my beliefs were similar but not clearly defined. The second time I entered active duty was in 1981, and my religious paradigm was much clearer. But Wicca is a dynamic and living religion-- my practices have evolved and continue to evolve over time. Regarding the pacifism question, and please bear in mind I speak only for myself. And I should say this up front, Wicca is a broad term for a category of religious practices, just as Christianity is. There are probably as many traditions in Wicca as there are denominations in Christianity. I am not a pacifist but I do abhor war and violence. The mission of the Army is to protect and defend the Constitution and the country. Though other pagans and Christians disagree, there is as much of a place in the Army for Wiccans as there is for Catholics or Baptists, Hindus or atheists. And here is another place that I tend to get myself in trouble as well from a variety of opposing sectors. On the one hand we have all of this talk about Spiritual Warriors and on the other hand Holy Wars and "taking back this country" or that country for a particular Deity. Frankly, my career spanned two wars and a half-dozen live fire exercises, and I didn't find a damn thing holy or spiritual about any of them. But the policy makers determined they were necessary, and as a soldier I had a duty.

Cheverly, Maryland: One question: why are congressmen and church leaders so eager to trample on the Bill of Rights? Has anyone thought of this?

David Oringderff: Church leaders, politicians and used car salesmen all have their own agendas. I usually prefer to deal with the latter because they are often more honest about their agendas. Most church leaders have their own evangelical missions (which is their right) and constitutional rights (or the rights of individual citizens) are irrelevant to those evangelical missions. Besides, it's in their own best interests to keep the numbers up and the tithes flowing. Politicians have to get re-elected, so they have to crusade whatever cause they perceive to be in that best interest (usually directly proportional to the campaign contribution of a particular special interest group), otherwise, they are in the unemployment office. It amuses me, however, that an elected official can delude himself (or herself) into thinking that by virtue of that position they are empowered to summarily suspend Constitutional guarantees to a given segment of the population. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I always believed that Congress had the authority to raise and Army but it was up to the Executive Branch to run it.

Washington, DC: I have to say I find your religion very strange. What kind of reactions do you get from people when they find out that you are a witch?

David Oringderff: Usually, they don't know I am Wiccan until after they know me very well anyway. By that time, it does not matter to them. We have no evangelical mission or call to witness to others, so I have no need to convert other people. My religion is to me very private and personal, much the same way as my relationship with my wife. And I guard that private aspect just as jealously

Vienna, VA: David -leaders of the Texas army base seem to have no problems with your organization. Have practicing Wiccans there encountered any problems from other low level soldiers?

David Oringderff: Not to my knowledge, although they may have been isolated incidents. There will be barracks bickering over a lot of things, including religion, preferred brand of beer or sports team

Reston, VA: It seems like this debate is similar to the question of gays in the military. You know you're going to be singled out and criticized for practicing what I think many would consider an alternative religion. Why would you subject yourself to such persecution? Why not practice Wiccan quietly to yourselves?

David Oringderff: Most practitioners are solitary. But this is more a function of psychology than religion. Introverted people tend to do things alone, extraverted people need to have the fellowship of others of like mind. There have been Wiccans/pagans/alternative faiths in the military from the beginning, as well as homosexuals. It's really hard for people to comprehend who have not been in a similar situation, but when your life depends on the person to your left and right, and their life depends on you, the only thing that matters is that you are all taking care of each other. Race, religion and sexual preference are matters in contexts other than survival.

Houston, Texas: Given that conflict breeds conflict, how can, in your opinion, religious intolerance such as has been shown in recent weeks be effectively responded to?

David Oringderff: Very true statement. It was not our intent to start or maintain conflict. The group at Fort Hood had been meeting for over two years without any significant notice or problems. We try to avoid conflict and controversy, and frankly would prefer to be left alone. Unfortunately, we had no choice and were forced to respond to this. The only suggestion I have is that our responses be dignified and non-confrontational. We believe that everyone is entitled to believe and worship they way they choose. We don't claim to have the "one true way" but do not object to others who do. We just want the same courtesy, that is to be allowed to believe the way we choose

Knoxville, Tenn: SIR, I respect your right to believe whatever you desire, that is what makes this country great.

I too find your beliefs strange but interesting, from what I hear you say your sect's beliefs are constantly changing, how do you find peace and stability in that constant change, how do you state what you believe, or does everyone in the sect believe somewhat differently?

And finally is there sacrifice or physical destruction in your worship?

David Oringderff: As I mentioned earlier, there is great diversity in the faiths and practices that call themselves Wiccan. I can speak only for my organization and my tradition. Here are our Tenets:

1. We reverence the God and Goddess as the representations of the Divine Reality that is at once immanent and transcendent in and throughout all of the infinite creation. We celebrate the manifestations of the Divine Reality through Rites of Seasons and Rites of Passage.

2. We live in reverence and respect of the Natural world, recognizing the Sacred Cycles of ebb and flow, birth and death, creation and destruction. We acknowledge the sanctity and intrinsic worth of all life forms, and in dearth of cause, will never by word or deed willfully cause harm to befall any creature, manifest or unmanifest.

3. We affirm as inalienable the Right of every individual "either alone, or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observation." (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). We recognize the responsibility of every individual for his or her own spiritual development and transformation, and that every individual is his or her own ultimate authority in all matters of spirit and religion.

4. To the extent of available spiritual and material resources, we will: teach those who seek; aid those in need; comfort those who for reasons of religion, conscience, ethnicity, or sex suffer oppression; and resist tyranny in all forms.

5. We live in peace and tolerance with all of humanity, neither converting to, nor seeking to convert those of other faiths and practices.

Declared this Day of Midsummer 1994 c.e. at Hainin, Belgium

Sacrifice or wanton destruction has no place in our practice. Other practices, such as Santeria, may employ them, and we respect the rights of those practitioners. But as you can see from the above, we regard all life as sacred and would not by choice cause harm to any living thing.

washingtonpost.com: We're half-way through our live discussion with Sacred Well founder David Oringderff. Submit questions by clicking on the hyperlink below.

Rosslyn, Virginia: So much policy is decided by the influence of lobbyists. What kind of efforts are Wiccans doing to gain support for their views on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures?

David Oringderff: Since we have no formal organization or hierarchy, and since not many of us are independently wealthy, we do not have access to buy the lobbyists and subsequently the politicians and laws that other special interest groups have. Aside from that, while there are pagan and wiccan groups that are more or less activists, our organization is a church and we strive diligently to stay completely a-political. We have no real interest in partisan politics, nor would we try to conform the country into our own sectarian belief system if we did. So for our protection, since we do not have the resources, we have to rely on the Constitution and the integrity of the courts, which are far less subject to free-market politics.

Abilene,TX: Hi David, I am wiccan too. I just wanted to know how long have you been wiccan and was this conflict a fear when you joined the military?

David Oringderff: Merry meet.

Defacto, probably over twenty years. Defining myself as such, probably fifteen or so. I had no problems either when the Army joined me in 1968 or when I rejoined the Army in 1981. From my personal perspective, I found a much greater degree of tolerance for diversity in the military than I ever found in society at large.

Alexandria, VA: David,

What would be the best and most appropriate way for me to learn more about Wiccanism? My husband and I both worship the goddess in our own ways, but would love to talk with someone about an organized group in our area. How do we find a group like that? How, in general, do Wiccans find other Wiccans?

Thanks for the chat#33

David Oringderff: Hopefully, this will answer similar questions as well. Each tradition has its own cosmology and training methodology. For someone just exploring, I will list a few books that I consider give the best explanation of who we are and what we do. Be careful, there are a lot of books out there about Wicca and Witchcraft that have very little substance.

hope this cut and paste works :)

Phoenix from the Flame Vivianne Crowley London: Thorsons (1994).

Principles of Wicca Vivianne Crowley London: Thorsons (1997).

Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft Raymond Buckland St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn (1997)

Book of Shadows. Phyllis Curott New York: Broadway Books (1998).

Wicca: the Old Religion for the New Millennium Vivianne Crowley London: Thorsons (1996)

Campanelli, Pauline and Dan. (1990) Wheel of the Year. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Campanelli, Pauline Dan (1998) Pagan Rites of Passage. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Campbell, Joseph. (1973). The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Crowley, Vivianne. (1998). Celtic Wisdom. New York: Sterling Publishing, Inc.

Crowther, P. (1992). Lid Off the Cauldron. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser.

Farrar, J. S. (1981). A Witches Bible Compleat. New York: Magickal Childe.

Fitch, E. (1984). Magical Rites from the Crystal Well. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Washington, DC: You seem to be being attacked on all sides regarding the Ft. Hood. Have you ever had a time in your life when pressure from non-Wiccans made you doubt your beliefs?

David Oringderff: No, not pressures from non-Wiccans, although sometimes I wonder why we let ourselves be placed in this position (regarding Fort Hood, we were doing what we were doing very quietly without disturbing anyone, and then we decided to let a local journalist do a human interest story-- we forgive you Kim-- which was what it was. A very well done human interest story that got the attention of people who are incapable of letting anyone else have a differing opinion.) But to the general question, I will only say that the strength of a man's (or woman's) conviction can be measured by his ability to tolerate a dissenting opinion.

Austin TX: Dr. Oringderff, it has been mentioned that conducting Wiccan Rituals would be prejudicial to good order and moral in the ranks, that pagan soldiers would be demanding special privileges in order to practice their religion. Has this happened during the time that the Ft. Hood Open Circle been in effect? Do you know of specific cases where pagan soldiers have demanded "special" privileges in order to practice their religion? Thank you.

David Oringderff: Prejudicial to good order and morale in the ranks, to me is almost laughable, having spent over two decades "in the ranks." No, the five groups we sponsor follow the same regulations and are treated in exactly the same manner as any other legitimate minority faith group. We ask for no more accommodation than is afforded any other group-- no special privileges, no special trailers to haul our altars when we go to the field. Mostly, we are provided space to meet, and very little else, which is all we need. We don't assess dues, collect tithes or offerings, and support our religious activities out of our own pockets-- not the pockets of the taxpayer.

McLean, VA: I left the military a year ago. I believe firmly in preserving individuals' freedom of speech, but it also bothered me to see individuals profess a belief or opinion for the shock value.

For instance, one individual decorated his room in the military barracks with a pagan altar, Hitler's Mein Kampf, and other similar items. In talking with him he did not seem to fully understand what he was displaying, but simply found it all cool.

I would appreciate your comment on this.

David Oringderff: The "shock value" aspect bothers most of us as well. Ninety-nine percent of us that you meet on the street or in the work place you would not know that we are Wiccan. As I said, we have no evangelical mandate, therefore no reason to go publicizing who we are or what we believe. Seems perceptions on both sides is making some difficult times for the majority of us, because both feed into misguided sterotypes, hatred, fear and bigotry. On the one hand, we have the extreme right, and I think everyone is familiar with their concepts of us sacrificing babies and worshipping Satan (who is not even apart of our cosmology, so why would we worship him?). On the other hand we have the trendy popular entertainment out there with movies, TV shows, books and magazines, some even written by people who claim to be knowlegable of our deeper religious practices, yet portray us as a bunch of gidddy little adolescents running around turning school bus drivers into toads. So as always, the truth is in the middle, and there to be found if someone is honest enough to look for it.

Washington, DC: Would you feel threatened or discriminated against if the 10 Commandments were posted in schools, as was required in the House amendment added to the gun bill that failed?

David Oringderff: No, I would not feel threatened by anyone else's religious tenets unless the specifically advocate my death (as some interpretations do). The ten commandments contain valid moral principles, and though I do not agree with the letter, I do agree with the spirit.

Arlington, VA: Your ceremonies seem to be have a very violent theme to them. Doesn't this create problems within a highly charged military setting?

David Oringderff: Not our ceremonies. I invite your attention to ABC Nightly News this evening where you will see part of one of our ceremonies.

Fayetteville, NC: Your organization's role in supporting morale and discipline has been brought into question by certain misinformed House Representatives. What do see as Sacred Well's role in these matters?

David Oringderff: Military support is only one of our roles. What we provided is the denominational sponsorship required by regulation for the accommodation of a minority faith group. But we are a church, and have activities outside the scope of the support that we provide to our brothers and sisters in the military.

David Oringderff: Briefly I would like to thank all of you for participating in this discussion, and regret that I did not have the chance to address all of the questions, some of which I really wanted to. To us, again, this controversy a bit surprising. The issue here is not sectarian religion, but the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. There are over 136 broad categories of relgion (of which Christianity is but one) practiced in the world today. My question is, which ones of these 136 broad categories are not afforded protection under the Constitution? Thank you.

Aman Nai.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company