The Theo-Politics of Witchcraft

This video is getting some circulation now.  The Pastor in the video is a man by the name of Thomas Muthee.  He has an interesting record to say the least.  Read about it here from CSMonitor. Muthee believes very strongly in the existence of demonic spirits and fighting against them.  He prays over Palin that the evil of witchcraft be driven.

Steven Benen at Political Animal has some thoughts/questions on the matter.

He writes:

Just to clarify, the pastor’s interest in witches and witch hunts is not metaphorical — he means it literally.

To muddy the waters for a second, while I obviously know what Steve means here, his understanding/use of metaphorical is less helpful not more.  Northrop Frye understood that the metaphorical is the literal meaning of the Bible.  In other words, metaphor is concrete.  Benen is using language (according to Frye’s schema) in its third paradigmatic form: representational (think modern, scientific language/discourse).  Truth is what can be precisely represented, really described.  Therefore in this pattern, metaphorical means something more like symbolic or abstract.  When applied to say demons/evil it would be something like Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil or Wink’s The Powers.   

Why this matters is that it would be easy to call Muthee a fundamentalist.  But actually he is not.  Fundamentalism is a purely modern phenomenon.  Take creationism.  There was no equivalent of creationism in the ancient, medieval, or Renaissance/Reformation Church.  In a fundamentalist view, science (read: objectivity) has already taken on the force of being the legitimator, really the fundamental way of understanding truth/the world.  And to square that circle as a fundamentalist, you argue that the Bible is the real science–hence creation science.

But Muthee is not from that world.  He has not come post-Western Enlightenment.  The concerns of the Western Enlightenment are not his concerns.  He comes from a world formed out of the Bible in the metaphorical sense of Frye.

It could be more accurate to say that Palin comes from a fundamentalist tradition.  There is no going back to the Muthee worldview for a Westerner.  It just doesn’t fly.  You end up in fundamentalism which is a much more cognitivist outlook than the one proclaimed by Muthee.  It’s not really right to say that he thinks the demons are literal (like Palin might) but rather their existence is simply unquestioned because they ex-ist (stand out) in the world in which he inhabits.

That’s not a defense of a witchcraft view of his actions (which lead to a threatening of the so-called witch’s life in Kenya).  Just to say that one has to try to sympathetically enter that world–as weird/strange as it is for us–in order to understand.  Of course there is no way to get into that reality 100%–we’ve been too formed by the modern Enlightenment view.

A magical worldview is overcome by a mythic one.  At the heart of magic is an egocentric power self.  One that can change events in the outer world through magic.  A magico-mythic view, like that of Muthee (I’m arguing) is one where there is still lingering traces of the power narrative but it is now shifted to the representative god (in this case Jesus–notice how he keeps invoking the NAME of Jesus as the way in which events will transpire).

This matters in say a sub-Saharan context so that a magical view that says say having sex with a virgin–whether she consents or not–cures one of HIV/AIDS.  In that context, a mythic form of Christianity steps in to argue that HIV/AIDS is overcome by following the path of Jesus (monogamy, abstinence where necessary, no drug use/sexual profligacy).  Or in its darker form is a plague for sin–which is eventually overcome through a modern rationalist pov bringing in a scientific understanding.  But you get the idea.  Trying to jump steps doesn’t work:  the rational view doesn’t get at the underlying tribal, egocentric needs/desires.

So if Pastor Muthee wants to go pray for the demon of virgin rape cure to be exorcised, by all means, have at it.  And as to the witch-hunter reference, following on the notion of worldviews again, recall that the West had its major witchhunting time during the push towards a rational world. Modernization/Westernization is coming to Africa big time and there is a movement to both overcome the tribalism/magical worldviews, stabilize communities/regime (mythic) at the same time the push is coming to modernize.  This is exactly the set of circumstances that was in play in Western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries during The Burning Times.

Back to Benen:

Stepping back, people will, of course, draw their own conclusions about a national candidate who is (or was) a practicing Pentecostal, attending a church where people speak in tongues, where the pastor seems preoccupied with witches. Voters’ comfort levels will vary, and I’m still inclined to think politicians’ spiritual beliefs, whether part of the mainstream or not, are a personal matter.

So I went through the worldviews/language paradigms so that we understand there’s no problem with Palin being a Pentecosta, going to a church that speaks in tongues per se.  You can (and do) have Pentecostalist varieties of Christianity all the way up or down the stages of faith development.  Nor per is the issue that the pastor–given his context–is in the mythic world.

The questions regarding Palin according to Benen are:

First, does she believe in the separation of church and state, and is she comfortable with a government that remains entirely neutral on matters of faith? And second, does she believe public officials should use religious beliefs to shape public policy? Palin recently said those fighting the war in Iraq are “out on a task that is from God,” and added, in the same remarks, that “God’s will” was responsible for a national gas pipeline project in Alaska.

As I’ve said before, the notion of separation of church and state is not a particularly helpful way of getting at this issue.  The First Amendment has two parts:  1)no state church/no religious oath for office and 2)freedom of religious worship.  The notion of a separation of church and state as it has come to be understood by some as an attempt to force religion out of the public sphere, thereby privatizing it is definitely a no go.  [Edit: I’m not saying I think Steve is implying that, in fact I think the opposite given the above quotation, but that is why I don’t like the term because I think no matter what it will have that ring].

I’m also not sure the idea is for the government to remain entirely neutral vis a vis religion.  The issue is to make sure that individual freedom of worship is expanded to the degree that it bring about a state church or that the government is seen as endorsing a certain religion or denomination or theological viewpoint.  Also of course, the government is not to remain neutral when religion is being used to justify criminal activity (thereby undercutting the freedoms elsewhere in the First Amendment:  life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).

Obviously Benen’s second point is also problematic.  The entire abolition and Civil Rights movement was based on a religious view of the world. Regarding Palin specifically, I wrote on the Palin Iraq Prayer here.  Short version: The Gas line one is clearly straight what she thinks, the Iraq prayer I think less legit.

What I think the entrance of a Muthee and a Rev. Wright into the presidential debate has shown is that the Enlightenment notion (which grows out of Kant and Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisteria) is a fiction.  Not that a politician can’t and doesn’t make decisions except through a religious (or non-religious) lens.  Simply that you can’t separate and hermetically seal off “private” faith from public life.  One’s views ethically, politically, morally.  It is better to talk about them and how they influence one and make clear (and here is the biggie relative to Palin which I don’t know and would like to know) is the person willing to have their faith questioned and also be willing to try to find ways to make the same argument based in rational discourse.  i.e. Not simply invoke a text and make an argument from authority (i.e. return to a mythical worldview).  Frankly with Palin I have my doubts.  But there just isn’t info. to be sure either way. But what circumstantial evidence there is, isn’t good.

Edit I:  Also because of the worldviews issue, the Olbermann question/quotation that Benen pulls out about how if Obama had a pastor who believed in witches is (essentially) backward.  Not to sound like a Marxist here but….the cultural conservative right (and attendant mythicisms including such views on the demonic) do not threaten the corporatist-military industrial-capitalist system.  That was Wright’s great sin.  [Yeah he also believes some conspiratorial wackjobbery but basically it was that plus the fear of black nationalism that was the center of the controversy].  Wright was plastered as unpatriotic.  Palin gets hit from certain quarters as a religious right-wing nutjob but her American-ness (what that is) is never questioned.  In fact it’s the center piece of the McCain argument that they are the real Americans and Obama is not.


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  1. […] mushin published a blog post. ~C4Chaos: The Theo-Politics of Witchcraft (via Google Reader) […]

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