Who’s scarier: the circle of Wiccans leaping bonfires at Fort Hood or the Republican congressman and the Baptist preacher who want them thrown off the base?
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THEY’RE DEVILS!” cries the Reverend Jack Harvey, whacking his meaty palm against a Bible densely annotated with blue ballpoint scrawlings. “They’re wicked! And they’re letting them dance around a fire out there!”
“There” is Killeen’s Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the Western Hemisphere and home to 42,000 troops, and “they” are perhaps one hundred soldiers who proudly proclaim their religious preference as Wicca. Wiccans, who call themselves witches, practice a neo-paganism loosely based on pre-Christian European faiths; this particular sect gathers on the base in the form of the Open Circle of the Sacred Well Congregation, an Army-sanctioned group that counts like-minded worshipers from surrounding Central Texas towns among its members. To get authorization for meetings, the congregation went through the standard procedure for religious organizations, which includes securing a sponsor and adhering to military regulations (the Wiccans are forbidden from attending their gatherings “skyclad”—that is, buck naked—and ceremonial daggers are allowed only if they aren’t used to cut anything). Proposed ceremonies are also submitted to a chaplain for review. Wiccan rituals exalt a deity that manifests itself throughout creation, particularly in nature—and, no, it’s not Satan. Wiccans tend to exhibit the earnest patience of the perenially misunderstood; mentioning The Blair Witch Project is likely to produce a here-we-go-again rolling of the eyes.
But if Wiccans are quick to tell you what they’re not—murderers of children, for instance—it’s hard to get a fix on what they are. Aside from their basic credo (“An ye harm none, do what you will”) and a few other tenets, there’s not much in the way of a canon. If you were to cobble together a religion from every third book on the New Age shelf at Borders, you might wind up with Wicca, which is liberally laced with elements of witchcraft, nature worship, and Celtic and Norse mythology, among other things. Despite this eclecticism—maybe because of it—it’s one of the fastest-growing religions in the country, even though witches say they don’t actively seek converts.
So what’s the problem? Ask Bob Barr. Since reading an account of a Wiccan ritual at Fort Hood, the Republican congressman from Georgia—a House manager of the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton—has made it his mission to kick them off government property. “Please stop this nonsense at once,” Barr wrote to base commander Lieutenant General Leon LaPorte in May. “What’s next? Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?” Army higher-ups, however, declined to expel the Wiccans, saying that they are merely extending them the same privileges they do every other religious group. As a result, the matter has become international news, appearing in newspapers across the country, on network television, and even in British tabloids. It has even engaged the attention of Texas governor George W. Bush, whose embrace of faith-based organizations apparently has its limits. “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” the GOP presidential front-runner said on Good Morning America in June. “I would hope the military would take a second look at the decision they made.”
Wiccan soldiers are unmoved by such comments, or so a small group of them tells me over Belgian waffles and coffee in the smoking section of Killeen’s International House of Pancakes. “There are over fifty years of military experience represented at this table,” says David Oringderff, a fifty-year-old psychologist and retired Army major. “I think we know something about good order and military discipline.” With his aquiline nose, protuberant blue eyes, and gingery mustache, Oringderff looks like he could have been a colonial officer in the British raj, but his gravelly twang leaves no doubt as to the country he served. “We’d be happy to compare our military records to Bob Barr’s,” he continues, smiling wryly, “but we can’t. He doesn’t have one.”
Although the Army has done a good job of protecting the rights of some oppressed minorities (say, black soldiers), those of others (gays and lesbians) have been handled poorly, or at least clumsily. But Oringderff and his fellow Wiccans have confidence in the military’s stated policy of nondiscrimination—and in its willingness to back it up. In their view, they’re doing nothing more than exercising the constitutional rights they’re in the business of defending. “People think of soldiers as mindless robots who kill,” he notes, “but there’s actually more tolerance of diversity in the Army than in civilian life.”
Too much, says Jack Harvey. As the founder of Tabernacle Independent Baptist Church and School, a windowless steel-framed structure set down in the bleak scrub just outside Killeen, the 56-year-old preaches to a fundamentalist congregation of about 130 members. He also leads an ongoing crusade against the presence of witches at Fort Hood, and as a result has been the subject of international media coverage of a sort usually unavailable to small-town clergy—not many of his colleagues have been quoted, as he has been, in London’s Daily Mail. The burly pastor has ushered me past a rack of religious and instructional pamphlets (“How Whipping Children Keeps Them Out of Hell!”) to his tiny upstairs office, where a single fluorescent lamp buzzes dimly.
“I don’t judge these people; my Book does,” Harvey says, quoting Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Among the many accusations he makes against the Wiccans are that they kidnap and kill (and possibly eat) small children, that they’re possessed by demons, that they’re pacifists, and that they have conducted their witchy business from on-base telephone numbers without proper authorization. His distress rises to the same pitch no matter what the offense in question, creating the impression that he is equally horrified by ritual infant sacrifice and violations of military phone protocol. But his message is plain, at least when it comes to what he says is the Bible’s prescribed punishment for unrepentant witches: “They should be warned, and then if they come out in the open with their evil, they should be done away with,” he says. Although stressing that he has no intention of violating man’s law to enforce God’s, he makes a point of mentioning public stoning as the designated means of execution for witches. Toward the end of our discussion he apologizes for his fervor. “I hope you didn’t think I was hateful,” he chuckles. “I get a little excited.”
Hateful or not, Harvey scares the hell out of the Wiccans. “I worry about bringing my kids to the circle,” frets Helen Freeman as Sacred Well members bustle about in the gathering dusk preparing a ceremonial bonfire. Helen, 33, enjoys membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas; she claims Jack Shackelford, a survivor of the Battle of Goliad, as an ancestor. Her fiancé, Wally Freeman, mentions that some members of the group think they’ve been followed from time to time, although no connection to Tabernacle Baptist has been determined. Wally, 45, a soft-spoken Army veteran and Killeen police officer, laments witchcraft’s negative image, remarking that “Wiccans are people too.” Although the couple’s union is somewhat mixed—she’s a moderate Druid Democrat; he’s a conservative Wiccan Libertarian—it was their spiritual orientation that brought them together: They met through an online matchmaking site called Pagan Profiles.
Around the on-base campsite celebrants prepare for the evening’s ritual. There is an almost giddy air of anticipation, and off-kilter costumes add to the amateur-theatrical quality of the event. In addition to a number of Renaissance Festival tunics, jerkins, and bodices, outfits include a black satin double-breasted suit worn with cowboy boots and no shirt, a martial-arts ensemble replete with headband, and what appears to be a green beach towel. “Has everybody got corn?” someone asks, referring to the one item that will actually be sacrificed to the flames. On the ceremonial altar stand a saltcellar, bottles of honey wine, a large wooden flute, candles, flowers, and two packs of cigarettes (a lot of the witches are avid smokers).
The ritual proper consists of singing, chanting, and the invocation of various elemental powers, and it manages to attract a respectable quota of squirmy kids. It also suffers from its share of god-awful singers. The music, assisted by a tinny stereo, ranges from an amped-up Appalachian reel to what sounds like an outtake from Hair, but one song, repeatedly returning to the line “We can make such sweet harmony,” is anything but. And the halting, undeniably Texan readings of incantations further underscore the let’s-put-on-a-show aesthetic. Still, spirits are high when the time arrives for the leaping of the bonfire. Leaps are made in tandem, and there is much whooping and hollering when younger celebrants summon the courage to vault the still-smoldering pit, often swung aloft by their parents. For post-adolescents, the jump clearly has another social function: One particularly fetching young witch keeps trying to step off for a cigarette but is repeatedly intercepted by breathless young men in close-cropped hair eager to squire her over the flames.
Looking at the flushed and excited faces of the participants as they head for a potluck dinner inside, it’s impossible not to notice how much they all seem to be enjoying themselves. They’re among friends, and for some of them, this is the first time they have practiced Wicca in public. Yet many of their fellow witches never will. Despite local professions of tolerance—Harvey is the exception rather than the rule around Killeen—Wiccans have a way to go before gaining mainstream acceptance, which is why there are any number of “solitaries,” people who practice alone for fear of revealing their beliefs to their family and friends (a process known as “coming out of the broom closet”). If it’s hard to imagine the Blair Witch helping herself to seconds of potato salad while schmoozing with the Wiccans of Fort Hood, one thing seems clear: Their detractors, unlike a certain trio of hapless student filmmakers, aren’t going to disappear overnight.