The Untoward Political Adventures of King Stag

Bronze image of the Celtic horned God Kernunnos

Bronze image of the Celtic horned God Kernunnos

Whether one supports him enthusiastically or detests him enthusiastically, Donald Trump’s wild popularity as a candidate for President of the United States is riveting. Some commentators will say, “Of course! Trump is a master marketer, a media maven, a reigning reality TV veteran. To the extent we become absorbed in the spectacle it is by design.” True, but there’s more to it than marketing.  Trump is leading, partly by accident, a movement he didn’t create; a movement that is ever-present but which typically lies dormant until circumstances activate it—and Trump has activated it; a movement that will continue long after Trump is gone. It’s not highly organized; it doesn’t have a name. I don’t think I’m being biased when I say it is authoritarian, though I suspect Trump and most of his supporters would reject that claim. When a candidate continually degrades women and calls forcefully for border walls, deportations, immigration bans, religious discrimination, limits on press freedoms, torture, killing the families of enemies, punishing women who receive abortions and violence against protestors—whether or not he ‘walks it back’ later—he is articulating an authoritarian vision. How is it that such a candidate has attracted millions of voters and given voice to a new American authoritarianism?

I suspect more has been said about Trump than all the other candidates combined, but there’s a dimension of the Trump phenomenon that gets no attention: religion. I’m not referring to Trump’s politically-motivated claim to be a Christian. Nothing he says or does indicates “Christian” to me. That identity doesn’t seem to mean anything to him. To the extent Christian Evangelicals support him, that identity doesn’t seem to mean anything them, at least not in a presidential candidate. But there is a distinct religious identity to Trump’s campaign. It’s a form of Paganism—a highly unbalanced, hyper-masculine, non-ethical Paganism. It has no relation to genuine Pagan, Neo-Pagan and earth-based religions—we might call it pseudo-Paganism. Before you decide I’ve lost my mind, consider Trump’s presentation of himself as virile, tough, powerful, physical—a person whose laboratory results are “astonishingly excellent,” whose “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary” as his campaign reported in December.[1] Consider his presentation as a sexual being, his history of bragging about his sexual prowess and conquests. When Marco Rubio started talking about the size of his hands, Trump couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t let it go. “Look at these hands. Are these small hands?” he asked. But it was never about hands. His innuendos were crystal clear: It was about genitalia. This is a man who builds towers all over the planet. Phallic symbols and masculine potency matter to him.

Ted Cruz is a Christian Evangelical, Barack Obama a liberal Christian, Hillary Clinton a Methodist, Bernie Sanders a New York Jew with Humanist principles, John Kasich an Anglican with Catholic roots. But with Donald Trump, the first thing that came to me after hearing him talk about his hands was the King Stag. I remembered reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist retelling of the King Arthur legend, The Mists of Avalon, in college and enjoying her description of an ancient Beltane ritual in which a high ranking male is chosen to represent a god called the ‘King Stag.’ In the midst of a pack of deer this man must run through the woods naked except for a huge crown of antlers on his head. (“Look at these antlers. Are these small antlers?”) After he has locked antlers with and killed an actual stag, he returns to the festival and becomes the consort of a high ranking female representing the goddess. He kills, then has sex with a goddess.

Donald Trump is no technocrat, bureaucrat, policy wonk or functionary. Nor is he a Republican. He is red-blooded, lusty, procreative, phallic. He is—even if in a cartoonish way—“Natural Man.” And he is in revolt, breaking all the rules, refusing to be handled, resisting artifice and deploying spontaneity in a political culture addicted to market research and scripts. He is wild. He is Dionysius supplanting Apollo—exhibit A for Nietzsche’s ‘will to power.’ His identity evokes an ancient Pagan sensibility, an ancient masculine energy. Though not pro-Earth, it’s earthy. Isn’t it his policies that appeal? No. On immigration he offers nothing that countless Republican politicians haven’t offered before. On abortion, the same. On trade and jobs he and Bernie Sanders speak very similar language. On foreign policy his tough talk on ISIS matches hawks in both parties. His position on allies paying more of their way channels anti-war Libertarians. There’s nothing new and he disavows most of his ideas anyways. But he proposes them with force—as the virile, procreative, builder of towers; as the lusty, fighting ‘Natural Man.’ And people believe he can do it. The day he disavows his “Natural Man” identity is the day his candidacy ends.

I’ve been speaking at my congregation about how the modern world separated mind from body and divinity from earth. These separations are philosophical and theological. They’re abstractions. But they’ve had damaging physical consequences—global climate change being the most obvious. I’ve said our work as people of faith is to reunite body with mind and to reunite earth with divinity. While that is not an exclusively Pagan vision, because Pagan and earth-based spiritualities imagine whole human beings, and because they assume an earth infused with divinity, they are well-positioned to provide theological grounding and impetus for this work of reunification. It is Pagan work. It is earth-based work. For me it is also Humanist work. And it is Unitarian Universalist work.

So wait, Rev. You’re saying the work of reuniting body with mind and divinity with earth is Pagan work. You’re also saying the religious dimension of Donald Trump’s campaign is Pagan. And you want us to believe you haven’t lost your mind?

Ever since these separations began to take hold 350 years ago, human beings have felt a profound sense of loss and, in response to that loss, a deep longing to do this work of reuniting, to find home in the midst of cosmic homelessness. The problem is we’re so used to these separations that we don’t notice them most of the time. We don’t make the connections between them and larger, long-term trends such as family breakdown, rising rates of mental illness, drug addiction, suicide and violence in homes, in inner cities, and in terrorism. Humanity feels loss and longings, but the feelings remain hidden, buried—vague tinges, faint hunches, odd dreams.

Until times of rapid social change and economic hardship. Then what is vague and buried begins to boil over, begins to express itself. But does it do so in healthy ways in search of holistic and just outcomes? Does it express itself as a call to reunite mind with body and divinity with earth? Or do leaders and movements arise to exploit these longings, to seek power instead of healing? Who is ready to respond when the boiling begins?

Science historian Morris Berman says “utopian longings stir even in the most subjugated individual, and fascism recognizes those longings and manipulates them to its advantage…. The celebration of nature versus artifice is a central tenet of fascist ideology.”[2] The Nazi Party came to power in Germany at a time of massive social change and economic hardship. World War I—the war to end all wars—was to many the end of modernity, the damning evidence that the world-view of Descartes, Bacon, Newtown, Washington, Jefferson and Adam Smith had failed and a new world-view, a new world order, a new way of being human was necessary. Deep human longings were boiling over. Paganism has genuine responses to those longings. The Nazi Party grasped the power of Paganism to respond to those longings. It exploited German economic and existential fears by promoting a new German identity grounded in Nordic Pagan ideals.

In the ferment of the post-War era, German Pagan movements flourished: the Völkisch movement, the Ariosophy movement, the Thule Society, the German Faith movement. They celebrated German people, land, folklore. They fetishized German vigor, strength, skill. They were suspicious of Christianity. They trolled through Nordic mythology, embracing anew Thor and Odin. The demonic underbelly was the conception of the Aryan race as a master race with a seething hatred of Jews and dark-skinned peoples. The swastika was a pagan symbol. The SS Guard organized itself around Pagan rituals.  A prominent nationalist antisemitic magazine was named “Ostara” after the Germanic Goddess whom some scholars suggest is the namesake for Easter. [3] My point: The Nazis understood the power of Paganism to respond to those deep human longings boiling over. They understood how the celebration of German deities, soil, bodies, blood and strength could regenerate a demoralized and emasculated people. But instead of using that power to chart a transformative path to human and ecological wholeness, they channeled it into rage, scapegoating, imperialism, antisemitism, racism, homophobia, concentration camps, holocaust.

The United States in 2016 doesn’t compare to postwar Germany. We face extraordinary challenges, but we are indisputably the most powerful nation on earth. The American political left, though at times compromised and inept, is far too vast and sufficiently organized to allow a fascist movement to succeed. And Donald Trump is no fascist. No self-respecting fascist would disavow his own words so often. But Trump’s King Stag Paganism communicates.

On March 1st Vox.com published “The Rise of American Authoritarianism” by human rights lawyer Amanda Taub, [4] She reviews the research of a group of political scientists—dating back to the 1990s—who identify the conditions under which a significant sector of American society would gravitate toward authoritarianism. What the models predict, and what the data now show, is that authoritarian voters, first and foremost, are afraid. “Authoritarians,” says Taub, “express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, … seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, … and desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force.” “Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order—diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order—are experienced as personally threatening because they [upend] the status quo order they equate with basic security.”

 In January The Atlantic published “All Hollowed Out: The Lonely Poverty of America’s White Working Class,” by sociologist Victor Tan Chen. [5]  He discusses the decline in middle income jobs that have historically been available to people without college degrees. This decline has been devastating in many White communities that have taken such jobs for granted for generations. Along with this economic decline has come increased drug use, mental illness, suicide, pervasive loneliness, fewer marriages, dwindling church attendance, and declining life expectancy. While these trends are familiar for many People of Color communities, they are new for White communities. It makes sense to me that people who might be moderate in their political views, after experiencing job loss, pay reductions, deteriorating communities, social isolation, depression and increasing hopelessness, might begin to feel angry, and beneath that anger, fear; might witness terror attacks in San Bernadino and Paris and feel fear; might hear about another plant closure and feel fear; might hear about Muslims resettling nearby and feel fear; might hear about immigrants taking jobs from citizens and feel fear; might hear the President isn’t confronting ISIS and feel fear; and then might hear a candidate vigorously promise to remove by force a whole range of threats to national greatness; and upon hearing this, might feel a momentary cessation of fear, might feel a momentary hopefulness—this candidate can do what he says; and might feel safest voting for that candidate. It makes sense. Every presidential candidate offers solutions. Donald Trump offers to lock antlers and kill. He offers power. He is the King Stag.

Modernity has reached its limits. We’ve entered a chaotic era. I feel fear. I’ve confessed that from the pulpit many times in recent years. But this is also an auspicious time. I believe more than ever it is time for a new Paganism promoting a new and also ancient human being, whose mind and body are one and who inhabits a reenchanted world alive with energy, spirit and power; not a pseudo-Paganism of racial superiority and violence, nor of walls and towers and domination; not an unbalanced Paganism oblivious to the holy sacred feminine; not a deceitful and demonic Paganism that exploits fear; but nevertheless a powerful Paganism; a virile, assertive, aggressive Paganism that, in its political form, refuses to abandon White working class people and poor People of Color and, in fact, seeks to unite them across racial lines; a Paganism that, in its political form, refuses to build walls, refuses to promote war, rejects state violence, promotes anti-racist, anti-sexist policies, practices and programs; a creative, generative, compassionate, multicultural, multiracial, interfaith Paganism that, in its political form, welcomes refugees and immigrants, lives in harmony with the wounded Earth, protects workers, honors workers’ rights and demands that corporations who grow rich off the working poor do their patriotic duty—in every nation—and keep their headquarters, their plants, their jobs and their money on the reenchanted land where their workers live; a new Paganism that pursues a social, political, economic and spiritual vision everyone, for Black, White, Brown, male, female, transgender, gay, lesbian, straight, young, old, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, UU, Buddhist, Jewish, Atheist and Agnostic human beings renewed, whole, wise, alive and flourishing in peace, with justice.

I’ll vote for that Pagan.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Campbell, Colin,” ‘Astonishingly excellent’: Donald Trump releases report saying he’d be the healthiest president ‘ever,’” Business Insider, December 14, 2015. See: http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-health-report-medical-2015-12.

[2] Berman, Morris, The Reenchantment of the World (New York City/ Ithica: Bantam Books and Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 296-297.

[3] These references are mostly drawn from Poewe, Karla, New Religions and the Nazis (New York: Routledge, 2006). See also Ferreri, Enza, “Hitler’s Neopaganism and Anti-Christianity,” Enza Ferreri (personal blog post, January 15, 2014): http://www.enzaferreri.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/hitlers-neopaganism-anti-christianity.html#axzz45YFlHphi. See also Ferreri, Enza, “The New Pagan Religions that Built Nazism,” Enza Ferreri (personal blog post, January 16, 2014): http://enzaferreri.blogspot.com/2014/01/new-pagan-religions-that-built-nazism.html#axzz45YEVTxhx.  

[4] Taub, Amanda, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” Vox, March 1, 2016. See: http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism.

[5] Chen, Victor Tan, “All Hollowed Out: The Lonely Poverty of America’s White Working Class,” The Atlantic, January 16, 2016. See: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/white-working-class-poverty/424341/.

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