One of the weirder features of the current political turmoil in the United States is the emergence of magic (and now counter-magic) in political discourse. Attempts to use magic to effect political change in medieval and early modern England were the subject of one of my recent books, and a theme that I never anticipated would acquire contemporary political resonances. However, so intense is the opposition to Donald Trump and, now, his Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh, that both men have been the subject of campaigns of ‘binding’, hexing and cursing by Neo-Pagan magical practitioners. I was surprised when I first heard that American Neo-Pagans were choosing to go down this path, given that a central tenet of Gardnerian Wicca is doing no harm to others. American Wicca has long since taken a rather more radical political direction than British Wicca, which has long been associated with conservative political attitudes. Yet the abandonment of this aspect of the Wiccan rede by so many American Neo-Pagans is nevertheless an interesting religious development, and an indication that the political behaviour of contemporary magical practitioners may not map neatly onto their use of magic in interpersonal relationships. But I leave the exploration of this interesting subjects to scholars of contemporary Neo-Paganism.
As a scholar of exorcism, what has interested me even more about current events than the ‘hexing’ of Trump and Kavanaugh is the emergence of ‘counter-magic’ against it. Perhaps because Kavanaugh is a Catholic, the hexing of the Supreme Court Justice has attracted the attention of Catholics in a way that the activity against Trump did not. According to the National Catholic Register, the exorcist of the Diocese of San Jose, Fr Gary Thomas, is planning to celebrate a mass with the intention of spiritually protecting Brett Kavanaugh, and is convinced that a ritual designed to harm Kavanaugh represents a real threat. Fr Thomas’s reaction is very instructive for understanding the thought-world of many exorcists, and the reasons why the ministry of exorcism remains so significant within the church. Fr Thomas portrays the ritual against Kavanaugh as a ‘conjuring of evil’, when the proposed rite does not appear to invoke demons. Indeed, the invocation of demons is not part of most forms of Neo-Pagan Wicca, which is a duotheistic religion. Instead, the ritual appears to involve the direction of ‘energy’ from the participants against Kavanaugh – an idea rooted in Gerald Gardner’s description of covens of witches raising up their own energy in magical working. This is one of several respects in which the ‘magical theology’ of Wicca differs significantly from what medieval and early modern practitioners of ritual magic actually did; the essence of necromancy was the summoning of angels, fairies and demons. Rarely, if ever, is the idea that a magician might tap their own inner power found in ancient magical texts. The idea of innate, inherent magical power in human beings is found instead in fantasy literature, and may owe something to the influence of eastern philosophy on nineteenth-century occultists.
Exorcists like Fr Thomas routinely misrepresent Neo-Pagan and occultist groups as ‘Satanic’, drawing on age-old demonological narratives without stopping to question whether these are meaningfully applicable to self-identifying ‘witches’ in the twenty-first century. Although the media is misreporting that Fr Thomas actually intends to exorcise Kavanaugh (his measures are apotropaic – intended to protect against evil – rather than exorcistic), Fr Thomas’s use of the ‘counter magic’ of exorcism has the immediate effect of legitimising the original magic as a genuine threat. Without an adversary, after all, exorcists would find themselves out of a job – so it is in the interest of professional exorcists and demonologists to emphasise the reality of spiritual threats, and the specialist help needed to combat them. Fr Thomas’s suggestion that Kavanaugh’s opponents might use blood sacrifice against him betrays an ignorance of Neo-Pagan practice that is astonishing in someone whose job it is to know about witchcraft. The practice of animal sacrifice is vanishingly rare in the Neo-Pagan community, and is another respect in which Neo-Pagans differ significantly from their pagan forebears and from the necromancers, who also made extensive use of blood sacrifice. Fr Thomas’s suggestion that Kavanaugh’s opponents might make magical use of an aborted baby is an idea straight from the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, which accuses witches of killing, eating and drinking the blood of infants at their Sabbaths.
Fr Thomas appears to believe in the reality of ‘Satanic cults’, an idea popularised by demonologists from the fifteenth century onwards that experienced a surprising revival during the ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic’ of the 1980s. Psychologists and jurists have comprehensively demonstrated that neither Satanic Ritual Abuse nor secret Satanic cults exist, yet many Christians continue to insist that they do. It suits the agenda of exorcists to argue for the existence of vast, secret plots to undermine the church. The secrecy of supposed ‘Satanic cults’ is, of course, the reason why no-one ever seems to encounter them other than the expert exorcists. One final interesting feature of Fr Thomas’s commentary on the rituals against Kavanaugh is his claim that ‘Conjuring up personified evil does not fall under free speech’. Presumably, Fr Thomas is claiming that conjuring demons is a form of speech harmful in and of itself, akin to maliciously shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema. The suggestion that conjuration is criminal speech evokes a number of pieces of medieval and early modern legislation. It would be interesting to see a test case that establishes whether or not the conjuration of spirits is protected by the First Amendment – perhaps in the US Supreme Court?
3 replies on “‘Exorcising’ Kavanaugh: magic and politics in the contemporary USA”
‘The idea of innate, inherent magical power in human beings is found instead in fantasy literature, and may owe something to the influence of eastern philosophy on nineteenth-century occultists.’
Couldn’t agree more – an important difference between modern and pre-modern magic.
However, I wonder how many of the ‘witches’ involved in these politically motivated curses identify as neo-pagan/Wiccan. There seems to be a growing trend of non-affiliated self identifying witches who have no interest in the neo-pagan scene yet practice a form of modern folk magic. Many of these have a strong focus on left wing politics and feminism.
This is an interesting point. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these non-affiliated ‘witches’ are inspired by Neo-Pagan literature and spirituality. Certainly, there are more and more people self-identifying as ‘witches’ who are not initiated members of covens; Ronald Hutton has even argued that initiated coven members are beginning to assume some of the characteristics of a ‘clergy’ in Neo=Paganism, with uninitiated ‘hedge witches’ as the Neo-Pagan ‘laity’. Our paradigms of what constitutes a Neo-Pagan need to be broadened to include the uninitiated and non-affiliated. I suppose it is possible that some non-affiliated ‘witches’ have no roots in the Neo-Pagan tradition at all, but I doubt it. But whether it’s fair to call them ‘Neo-Pagan’ if they have no commitment to religious beliefs about e.g. the Goddess and the Horned God, and are only interested in the magic, is an interesting question that I’m not sure I have the answer to.
I agree that many of these witches are inspired by Neo-Pagan material, whether consciously or not, but would argue with Hutton’s suggestion that they regard initiated Wiccans as clergy. Many of these ‘solitary’ witches have a distinct aversion to organised religion and religious authority.
The current US revival of interest in witchcraft is occuring in a climate where other influences, as diverse as African and Hispanic diaspora religions, the New Age movement and Harry Potter are just as likely to shape ideas about witchcraft as anything from the Neo-pagan scene.