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A Canary in the Culture War Coal Mines

Author: Phyllis Curott and the Temple of Ara
Posted: October 2nd. 2005
Times Viewed: 8,396

Part 1 in a series based on the new talk
Sex Religion & Politics: The Growing Threat of the American Theocracy
censorship - subtle and otherwise
by Phyllis Curott, attorney, author and activist

"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us." - Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, "The One Un-American Act." Nieman Reports, vol. 7, no. 1 (Jan. 1953): p. 20.

There's no such thing as a coincidence. This last week in September is Banned Book Week, sponsored by the American Library Association. A celebration of freedom of speech, it's also a warning about the growing threats to that precious liberty. And these days, those dangers are directly affecting our minority faith community.

Each year the ALA posts a list of Banned Books, and you probably won't be surprised to learn that, for the last four years, Harry Potter has topped that list (joining the great American classics "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain).

This beloved children's series has nothing more to do with real Witchcraft or Wicca than the heroism, decency and compassion of its young hero, but there are many who think Harry Potter is a seductive rendition of the evils of Witchcraft and Satanism. And those fears have led to incidents of book banning and even burning. Harry Potter may be lighthearted, but these attempts to remove books, and ideas, from public availability are just the opposite. They are censorship. And censorship denies our freedom to read what we wish to and to think for ourselves.

These attacks also threaten our freedom of religion because they stem from a Dominionist agenda and dangerous misperceptions about our spirituality. And though Harry Potter may be protected by record-breaking popularity, books that are actually about Wicca, Witchcraft and neo-Paganism aren't faring as well. As you've probably noticed, Pagan books have begun disappearing from many mainstream bookstores, sections devoted to Pagan spirituality are shrinking, being moved to remote sections of stores, and even re-categorized as "Occult."

Why? I've been told that the Pagan community isn't buying as many books, the market is saturated, books don't have the quality that readers want, and worst of all that the community doesn't support its authors. All of these discouraging explanations may be true, but there are other forces that are at play.

Censorship isn't just blatant, brutal and overt like book burnings or angry proselytizing from pulpits. It can also be done by stealth, with such subtlety as to be almost imperceptible. After hiding behind a cloak of media invisibility, the Theocratic Right (I prefer this term to the often-used "Christian Right, " as the latter is unfair to true Christianity) has begun to flex its muscle.

"Christian publishing is a force to be reckoned with, " Carol Johnson, Vice President of Bethany House Publishing recently said to Publisher's Weekly.

Perfectly comfortable with the power that Mammon affords them, it's been reported that the Christian Book and Evangelical Christian Publishing Associations are having an impact on major booksellers and mass retailers like WalMart. Knowing that it's all about the bottom line, they've pointed out that Christian titles such as The Left Behind series earn retailers, and publishers, far more money per square inch of book shelf space than subjects such as Wicca, feminism, and psychology, subjects which also happen to offend the so-called "family values" of their vast consumer market.

It's no coincidence that Wiccan shelf space is disappearing while "Christian" sections are exploding.

And Pagan authors are already feeling the impact. One of the community's most prominent elders and authors was just told by his publisher that they weren't interested in his new book because publishing books on Witchcraft is too politically controversial and just not lucrative enough right now. Instead, this publisher which has so dominated the market that you're often unable to find anything but their books in Pagan stores, will now be publishing more books on angels.

If this trend continues, many more Pagan authors are going to find themselves unable to publish. I've had my own grim experience with my latest book, The Love Spell. It's the sequel to Book of Shadows, a best seller in Italy and a strong ongoing U.S. success with over 100,00 copies sold to date. The Love Spell is a sexy, thoughtful memoir about the spiritual mysteries of love, eroticism and soulmates and was expected to do well. And it did, selling 6,000 copies in the first few months of release.

Despite this healthy launch (without any publicity), you won't find a single copy of The Love Spell in any Barnes & Noble anywhere in the U.S. and you'll have trouble finding it elsewhere.

Everyone was shocked when 10,000 hardcover copies were suddenly returned just a few short months after the book's release in January, 2005. Hardcovers that are selling aren't usually returned to the publisher until a month before the paperback's released (March, 2006 for TLS). There's no smoking gun, but there are also no coincidences.

Unless those returned hardcovers sell, the publisher is unlikely to renew my contract and The Love Spell could be my last book, at least for quite awhile. Frankly, I figured it was my problem, and I'm still not too comfortable talking about it. But a lot of Pagan elders and authors whom I love and respect made me realize that I needed to tell folks what was happening. Hard as it is to ask, after years of helping our community as an activist in the courts and the media, I need your help. And so do other Pagan authors and Pagan bookstore owners.

Every book brings a certain amount of screwball mail, nasty mentions on fundamentalist websites and even threats. This most recent book seems to have really touched a nerve as there's been an increase in all of these. And again I'm not alone in this problem. As I've traveled around the country I've learned that many bookstores - Pagan and "New Age" -- are experiencing increased harassment and threats, including death threats. Like I was, many of the storeowners have been reluctant to mention their situations, feeling that it was something they just had to deal with, by themselves.

None of us can deal with this changing political climate alone. An author can't sell a book if it isn't published and on the shelves. And you can't buy it. Authors are barely able to eke out a minimal living by writing, and the loss of our beloved occupation presents us with a great personal and professional crisis. And our Pagan stores, which are also more devotions of love than income, can't sell books if they're forced to close due to harassment, loss of business or a lease. And these harsh realities will have dramatic consequences not just for authors and storeowners, but for our entire community.

One of the main reasons this spiritual movement has grown so rapidly over the last twenty-five years is because of books. Many people find Paganism because they find our books in mainstream stores. That presence, along with our growing visibility in the media, has also helped transform the negative stereotypes that have afflicted us for centuries. Growing mainstream understanding has allowed us to practice our religion in freedom and peace, to retain custody of our children, to keep our jobs and our leases, to be included in Interfaith and academic conferences, to be free from violence and harassment in our homes, schools, military, and our larger communities.

And our growing visibility has allowed us to contribute the desperately needed beauty and wisdom of our spirituality to this wounded culture and endangered planet. But if people can no longer find our books, our community will once again be marginalized, reduced in size, and more easily persecuted. And the gifts that we have to offer will be lost.

The political climate has shifted radically and dangerously to the extreme right and the media, the stores and the publishers have moved along with the politics. Money follows the market, enforcing its own kind of insidious censorship. But if we don't respond, individually and collectively, in the end we will have to acknowledge that the real reason we disappeared back into the broom closet was because of our own apathy. It's no coincidence that when Pat Robertson began his campaign to take over the government and secular institutions of America 30 years ago he predicted that the apathy of the American people would be the fundamentalist right's greatest weapon.

I got my wake up call months before Banned Book Week, and though I'd rather be working on my next book, I've been propelled to action. If I don't stand up now and fight for the rights which are slipping away, the day will come when there will be no more chances to write that book. And there will be no more opportunities for you read it, or many other titles, not even "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." I hope to see you the next time I give my talk Sex, Religion and Politics: The Growing Threat of America's New Theocracy, and I urge you to find your own words and ways to express them before it is too late for you to do so.

Phyllis Curott


Phyllis Curott and the Temple of Ara

Location: New York, New York


Bio: Activist attorney and Wiccan priestess, Phyllis Curott is also the internationally best- selling author of The Love Spell (Gotham Books 2005), Book of Shadows and WitchCrafting. Jane Magazine honored her as one of The Ten Gutsiest Women of the Year for her advocacy of religious freedom in the media and the courts and New York Magazine called her one of the city's most intellectually cutting edge speakers. An Interfaith activist with a particular focus on the Divine Feminine, women and the environment, she is a member of the esteemed Assembly of World Religious Leaders and the Harvard University Project on Religious Pluralism and has addressed the Parliament of the World's Religions and the UN Forum on the Status of Women. Curott is also president emerita of the Covenant of the Goddess, and founder of the Temple of Ara, one of the oldest Wiccan congregations in America, a shamanic tradition dedicated to the experience and ethics of immanent divinity.

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