News coverage of the Veterans Affairs Department's decision to include the Wiccan pentacle on a list of approved religious symbols that can be engraved on the headstones of veterans has been high on the politics and low on the religion. The story comes down to a classic case of religious freedom. Unfortunately, the story has been swept up by politics when it is not clear that it was directly related to politics. The New York Times' Neela Banerjee reported that attorneys for Americans United had evidence that the VA's decision was based on comments President Bush made while he was governor of Texas:
The settlement, which was reached on Friday, was announced on Monday by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.
Though it has many forms, Wicca is a type of pre-Christian belief that reveres nature and its cycles. Its symbol is the pentacle, a five-pointed star, inside a circle.
Until now, the Veterans Affairs department had approved 38 symbols to indicate the faith of deceased service members on memorials. It normally takes a few months for a petition by a faith group to win the department's approval, but the effort on behalf of the Wiccan symbol took about 10 years and a lawsuit, said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United.
There seems to be good second-hand evidence that the VA's decision was indeed influenced by statements made by President Bush. But the terms of the settlement with the VA kept those documents from coming out. Call me a skeptic (because I am about most things), but as a reporter I would not be satisfied with that answer. Even the folks at Americans United decline to say that Bush's White House did not affect the decision.
I also wonder why the Times' piece did not mention religious liberty even once as a logical reason for the settlement. Americans United proclaimed its victory as a "proud day for religious freedom in the United States."
Mark Oppenheimer, who holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Yale University, writes over at The Huffington Post that Banerjee makes a mistake in writing that Wicca is a pre-Christian belief "that reveres nature and its cycles." Oppenheimer says that "Wicca is a 19th- and 20th-century invention with a creative backstory invented to lend it historical legitimacy."
First, this myth is tied closely to what the scholar Cynthia Eller calls "the myth of matriarchal prehistory," the notion that thousands of years ago the world was ruled by peaceful, matriarchal goddess cults (from whom many Wiccans claim spiritual descent). Would that it were true, but it's not, and too many well-meaning history teachers have bought into this bad, biased history in the interests of multiculturalism and progressivism.
Second, the prevalence of the ancient-Wicca myth is testament in part to the decline of religion journalism. Although religion has never been the most intelligently covered of subjects, matters are getting worse. Newspapers are cutting religion jobs: The Wall Street Journal no longer has a religion writer and The Hartford Courant used my departure from the religion job in 2001 as a chance to cut a job by attrition.
This shrinking of the religion-writer guild has coincided precisely with a time in our culture when we need more and better religion writing: 9/11, the second Intifada, the priest scandals in the Roman Catholic church, and the war in Iraq all cry out for intelligent religion coverage. Some newspapers have responded with excellent coverage -- the Times' Pulitzer-winning series about an imam in New York being a being a good example -- but there has also been an uptick in credulousness: trying to be sensitive to, say, Wiccans, a reporter might fail to question their absurd claims.
Oppenheimer's post is right up our alley, and he makes a compelling point that taking Wiccans' claims at face value keeps reporters from looking into the deeper subject of what makes a religion persist throughout the generations.
Those who wish to comment on this post be warned: keep your comments limited to the media's coverage of this issue. There is plenty of room to discuss the matter within those constraints. Those that go outside those boundaries will be erased punctually.
Editor's note: This post previously said that Bush's statements did not affect the VA's decision. This is incorrect based on the available facts. It was the Bush White House that was said not to affect the decision. It has been updated to reflect this.