GRAND OL' PAGAN: What Does the Republican 'Heathen' Running for New York's City Council Actually Believe?

Image of an Odinist prison inmate from the Southern Poverty Law Center's website.
In the 1990s, Neopaganism replaced Christian Identity as the prevailing religion among white supremacists, according to University of Stockholm religion scholar Mattias Gardell. In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gardell describes how white supremacists had a break "with Christianity -- which they see as unnatural, a religion that hails defeat and weakness and is symbolized by a crucified loser." Increasingly, white nationalism in the country's prisons is formed around heathen groups that tattoo themselves heavily with symbols of Norse and Germanic worship.

Perhaps the most notorious racist among Odinists was Robert Mathews, founder of The Order, a white nationalist group that killed Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg in 1984. Mathews was killed later that year in a fire at his home during a gunfight with federal agents.

Frank Wilson, a retired Deputy of Intelligence for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says that he watched out for new Odinist groups at institutions because most people trying to start them "were white supremacists, and were willing to use it for nefarious reasons." Still, he cautions that Odinism does not necessarily denote white nationalist fervor. "You can't point to a tattoo and say 'you're a white supremacist,' or point to it and say 'you're an Odinist,'" he says.

But even some pagan advocates express trepidation about white nationalist elements in neo-heathenism. Selena Fox is the founder of Circle Sanctuary, a major theological institution of neo-paganism in America. She successfully led a multi-year effort to force the Pentagon to allow a pentagram to be placed on the headstone of a Wiccan solider killed in Iraq as a matter of religious freedom. She is multi-racial herself, and hates to fuel suspicion of heathen white supremacy. Still, she acknowledges the difficulties facing a religion that some practitioners define, quite literally, as drawing its power from race. "There are some paths of Asatru that focus on ethnic heritage," says Fox. "When does that focus on ethnic heritage become part of celebrating roots, and when does it become racist?"

Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate at Simon Wiesenthal Center, tells the Voice he's concerned about the Odinist element and is actively watching it. "The term 'ethnic pride' is a code phrase by a lot of these guys," Weitzman says, while noting that it doesn't apply to everyone practicing heathen faiths.

Margot Adler, NPR New York bureau chief and author of Drawing Down the Moon, a popular pagan guide, notes that there's a generational shift happening in paganism. "Politically, pagans are all over the map," she says. But she points out that there's a big difference between pagans who came to the religion through the pacifist and feminist movements of the 1970s, and newer people honoring the gods of war and fire and who are into, as Adler puts it, "making their own chain mail, jousting, and a whole warrior culture."

"Many heathens," she says, "don't even consider themselves pagans." In her book, she notes that some groups are "clearly using Odinist symbols and mythologies as a front for right-wing and even Nazi activities."

Donald Meinshausen, a Libertarian heathen, says he joined a racialist heathen group when he went to prison for drug distribution. "I had been a pagan for a long time," he says, "But I hadn't come to Asatru until I came to prison."

The Asatru tribe he found there "was for whites only, and I said, 'I'm OK with that, but I don't want to hear any hate talk. For your own good, you shouldn't do that. For our own safety, we shouldn't do that. We're here to do research on our roots and on our own spirituality, not to put anyone else down.'" He says the others respected his caveat.

Meinshausen, who doesn't consider himself racist, says he can "remember when I lived in New York City, and there were dyke bars that if you were a guy, you couldn't walk in. So, they have their own club, and that's OK. And I am sure there are organizations reserved for African Americans, people of African descent. And let's say there was an Italian American Association, they probably wouldn't let you join, unless you were Italian or had taught Italian somewhere. Unless I hear something different, that's how I assume [Asatru racialists] are."

Rob Taylor, who calls himself "the web's most popular Bi-racial Republican pagan," says that the connection between heathenism and racism has been overblown. "It's an urban myth among pagans that all Odinists are white nationalists," he says. And who started the myth? Taylor says it's the Wiccans.

"Wiccans and re-constructionist pagan religions engage in infighting," he says, charging "Wicca is just smearing the competition." Taylor initially came to paganism as a teenager via Wicca, but the young Reaganite soon turned to Odinism. Odinism's rules and order appealed to his conservative nature, while Wicca he now describes as a "fraud" and "a leftist thing -- not just Democrat, but far left politically. Theodism and heathenism are more conservative."

In New York City, there's an organization whose goal, in part, is to unite local pagans of all types. And according to the Queens Tribune, the New York City Pagan Pride Project's legal counsel and incorporating attorney just happens to be Dan Halloran.

But when the Voice called the Project to ask about Halloran running for office, spokeswoman Star Ravenhawk (a witch), says she had never heard of him. And she added: "I don't necessarily consider heathens to be pagans."

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