Witches leaving broom closets

The witches ball included the midnight spinning of the "Wheel of the Year" and a chance to gaze into the "Fire of Transformation" before the faithful were guided into the "Underworld and our Ritual Space."

The Samhain celebration last weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also included deejay music, dancing, door prizes and fun for the children.

"No photos at rituals! Some of us are still closeted," said the online invitation from the MoonPath Chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. "Perhaps it's time to come out of the broom closet?"

There were plenty of signs this Halloween that more witches and wizards are doing precisely that.

Are there SpiralScouts circles in your area offering pagan parents an alternative to the rigid morality of the Boy Scouts? Have teen-agers formed reading clubs at school to dig into popular books like "Wild Girls: The Path of the Young Goddess" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft"?

Many parents and mainstream religious leaders are afraid to ask these kinds of questions, said Catherine Edwards Sanders, author of a new work of Christian apologetics entitled "Wicca's Charm." Instead of freaking out, they need to pay attention to the changing religious marketplace.

"Wicca is here and we need to face that," said Sanders, a speechwriter for the U.S. Department of Justice. "We can be threatened by these trends or we can see all of this as a sign that people are hunting for something that is greater than themselves, yearning for spiritual experiences they can call their own. They want to rebel against the secular culture and find a way to get back to nature."

Sanders is convinced, based on her interviews with modern pagans, that most are fleeing from two types of organized religion -- cold, rational liberalism that shuns the supernatural or suburban brands of conservatism that substitute rigid rules for the mysteries of ancient rites, art and traditions.

"Our culture has tilled the soil, making it fertile enough for the seeds of Wicca to grow," writes Sanders. "This may be of concern to some, and for others, cause to celebrate. But to dismiss this spirituality as fringe or something practiced by an insignificant minority group would be to miss the point of what is really happening."

Conservative Christians who read this book may be offended.

Pagans who do so are more likely to be amused, according to writer Jason Pitzl-Waters. Sanders made a good-faith effort at fairness, but the lens of her Christian faith warped everything, he said.

"It is somewhat sad to see so earnest an author come so close to understanding our culture and ideas, but missing the mark," said Pitzl-Waters, at his Wildhunt.org website. The result "makes me wonder if a full and rich dialogue about each other's faith can ever be engaged between a modern Pagan and a Christian."

Modern paganism includes Wicca and other forms of earth-based spiritualities rooted in the worship of ancient gods and goddesses. Court cases rooted in what could be called the separation of coven and state now pop up on a regular basis, from family-law courts to military bases to public-school classrooms. In 1986, a federal court declared Wicca a constitutionally protected form of faith.

The key, said Sanders, is that it's impossible to lock pagans inside one doctrinal box. A witch is not a druid. A "Gardnerian" witch dedicated to the teachings of British writer Gerald Gardner, with his emphasis on nudism, scourging and the rites of high witchcraft, may rarely agree with feminist witches who worship the goddess Diana, alone. Some pagans believe drugs are a crucial part of worship. Others totally disagree.

Modern pagans are the freest of free-market believers, said Sanders. Many are striving -- quite literally -- to honor the priesthood of every believer. They may worship alone at secret altars, linked to believers near and far by the Internet and networks of witchcraft supply companies.

"This is especially true with the thousands of young girls who are experimenting with Wicca," she said. "They see something in a movie or on TV and then they hit the Web and, with a few clicks of a mouse, they're ready to try it out. ...

"This trend is so American. It's so individualistic. The neo-pagans don't want to sit in pews anymore and follow anybody else's rules."

Vanilla values on the DC mall

The program opened with a homily by President Bush about American values, teamwork, dedication and the National Football League.

It ended with Aretha Franklin singing the National Anthem, with the glare of red rockets reaching the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

Washington Redskins great Joe Theismann reverently called it "a national moment of remembrance," saluting thousands of uniformed military personnel in the crowd. ABC Sports and "New Pepsi Vanilla and Diet Pepsi Vanilla, the Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla" simply called it "NFL Kickoff Live 2003."

This pre-packaged spectacle on the National Mall was business as usual for most American viewers. But it may have taught a lesson to the 7,000-plus pastors, parents and youth ministers who read and passed on one of Walt Mueller's email alerts to punch "record" on their VCRs and use this as a religious education lab.

"This kind of stuff has become so mainstream that we don't even blink," said Mueller, founder of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org) in Elizabethtown, Pa. "The whole thing is about mass marketing, of course, but those messages are mixed in there with patriotism, sex, entertainment, sports and everything else. ...

"This was a peek into the American soul. It said, 'This is what we value. This is what we think is acceptable, good and, of course, cool.' "

The show had something for everyone, from the generic rage of tattooed suburban rockers to bluesy power chords by graying superstars who are eligible for the AARP. Football legends hugged military heroes, while TV producers wrapped everything in red, white and blue.

But the reason many tuned in was to see what former Mickey Mouse Club boy toy Britney Spears would do to top her girl-on-girl love fest with Madonna on the recent MTV Video Music Awards. The one-time Southern Baptist babe gave it her best shot, lip-syncing her way through gender-bending "freak dance" moves that mimicked sex with reed-thin female dancers as well as the hunky males.

Washington Post critic Tom Shales was amused, in a tired sort of way: "When they weren't being groped or fondled by her, dancers helped Spears strip her pants off, revealing a bikini-like black bottom. ... They even helped straighten out the little pixie's shorty shorts so that they didn't reveal too much. Or maybe so that they did."

It was a pathetic sight, said Mueller, and many viewers probably laughed. But it's important for adults to see this through the eyes of millions of girls who started watching Spears -- with parental blessings -- when they were nine or 10 years of age. Now they are entering a time of tremendous physical, emotional and spiritual changes.

What did they see on their television screens?

"Twelve- to 14-year-old girls are not going to watch something like this and say, 'Oh, what a cynical attempt to be shocking in the name of commercialism,' " said Mueller. "No, the girls who grew up with Britney -- whether they want to admit it or not -- have to see this and think: 'This is how Britney looks now. This is how she acts now.