Aspiring New York City councilman Dan Halloran is a practicing Neopagan, more specifically a Heathen, devoted to the religious practices and beliefs of early Northern Europe. But the oddest thing of all, to many people, is that he’s not an anti-war, enviro-activist, free-loving liberal—he’s a Republican.
Halloran the candidate; Halloran the Heathen
Sexy teenage witches or nature-worshipping environmentalists, not Republican politicians, serve as our popular images of contemporary Pagans. But as fall campaigns for New York City’s City Council heat up, a Republican candidate from Queens has been forced “out of the broom closet.” Given that Republicans are typically linked with conservative Christianity, both the Neopagan community and some Republicans are a bit puzzled by Dan Halloran, who is running on Republican, Libertarian, Conservative, and Independence lines for City Council.
Halloran’s campaign Web site counters the assumption that Neopagans dress and act differently from other Americans. Photos on his official site show a clean-cut and conservatively dressed Halloran speaking out against “Obamacare,” supporting youth baseball programs and the Boy Scouts, and presenting a Police Officer of the Month Award. In contrast, the Queens Tribune story played up his alter identity as Pagan priest by running a photo from his page on the “Paganspace” Web site that shows a blue-robed Halloran kneeling before his ritual tools.
“So, who do you think is going to win that City Council race between ‘Democratic Victor’ Kevin Kim and ‘Pagan Lord’ Dan Halloran?” asked Reid Pillifant in his story in the New York Observer on September 18, 2009. A day earlier, a news story identifying Halloran as a King (priest) of Theodism, a form of Norse Paganism, ran in the Queens Tribune and attracted attention to Halloran’s unorthodox religious identity.
Theodism is a branch of Heathenism (also known as Norse religion and sometimes referred to as Àsatrù), one of the many religious traditions under the broad umbrella of Neopaganism, a religious movement that includes Wicca, Druidism, and other religions that recreate and reconstruct ancient pre-Christian traditions. Halloran’s identity may have surprised some New Yorkers, but local Republican party officials already knew about his involvement with Neopaganism before he was outed in the news.
In the media and in popular imagination, contemporary Pagans are often linked with progressive politics, sexual liberalism, environmentalism, the anti-war movement, gay rights, and other causes associated with the political left. But in fact, Neopagans fall everywhere on the political spectrum, serve in the military and as police officers, and work in other professions that do not seem to fit their countercultural image. For this reason, they appear in news headlines when their presence in certain realms of American life (conservative politics In Halloran’s case) comes as a surprise. In 1999, Congressman Bob Barr’s (R-Texas) highly publicized attempts to oust a Wiccan circle from a military base alerted the news-reading public to the fact that Neopagans were serving throughout the military. More recently in 2006, a group of Wiccans sued the US Department of Veterans Affairs in order to get Wicca’s symbol, the pentacle, listed as an approved symbol for VA memorials. For the past couple of decades, Neopagans have advocated publicly and vocally for religious freedom. Conservative politics is just the latest foray in their ongoing campaign to be taken seriously as full participants in American religious, cultural, and political life.
“I believe in God,” said Halloran in an October 1 story in the Queens Chronicle: “Faith is a cornerstone of my life.” Responding to his critics, he described his Catholic upbringing and avoided discussing his Pagan identity, calling for his opponent “to disavow the Queens Tribune’s attack on religion. I am running a campaign on the issues.” But Halloran has another history that seemingly contrasts to his current political campaign: an earlier stint in the New York Police Department, and his career as an attorney. He received his BA from the City University of New York in History and Anthropology, and conducted archaeological field research in Ireland on the Norman and Viking periods. Like many Neopagans, who tend to read more and have higher levels of education than the average American, Halloran was drawn to the mythology and lore of ancient cultures that exposed him to an entirely different religious world than the one in which he was raised. Halloran’s particular fascination with ancient Germanic culture led him to Heathenism, a branch of contemporary Paganism devoted to the beliefs and practices of Northern European cultures.
Like other Neopagans, Heathens usually interact with a pantheon of deities and celebrate the changing seasons. Many forms of Heathenism are also linked to ethnic European identities and draw from ancient Northern European texts for inspiration. Adherents of Theodism worship deities, the land, and ancestors and value honor, oath-taking, family, and tribe. Common ritual practices in Theodism include feasting, seasonal celebrations, and animal sacrifice; all done as closely as possible to the reconstructed traditions of ancient Normans. If feminist Witchcraft with its emphasis on egalitarianism and individual spirituality is at one end of the Neopagan spectrum, then Theodism’s hierarchy and tribalism is at the other. According to the Pagan Census (2003), conducted by sociologist Helen Berger and her colleagues, followers of Norse religion tend to be slightly less politically liberal and slightly less supportive of women’s issues than the general Neopagan population.
On Neopagan blogs, Halloran’s political identity and representation of his faith have been debated since he made the headlines. Some praised him for running as a Pagan in a party typically linked with conservative Christianity, while others criticized him for going on the defensive and asserting his belief in “God” instead of “gods.” In a letter to The Wild Hunt, a popular Neopagan blog, Halloran clarified his response to the media: “I honor my Ancestors and cling to my Hiberno-Norse Culture’s Worldview. I revere my God (Tiw)- and henotheistically I may add… I have never hidden my religion—it’s on my Facebook, in courts—judges and counsels in the Courts I practice are aware, I’ve been the corporate counsel for a variety of pagan groups—and have lectured and discussed theology all over the U.S.”
It would have been impossible to find a Neopagan like Halloran running for political office twenty years ago, when most Neopagans kept their identities carefully guarded for fear of losing jobs or child custody battles. In neighborhoods all over the country, Neopagan communities have been treated suspiciously and outright persecuted by some Christian neighbors, law enforcement, and government agencies. Since for many Americans, the Republican Party is inseparable from conservative Christianity, Neopagans were surprised that the party stood by Halloran, and took it as a sign that not only is the makeup of the religious left and the religious right shifting, but that the country as a whole is becoming more receptive toward their religion.