Of Paganism and Memorial Day

A surprisingly non-sensationalist and reasonably accurate story about paganism and the US Military graces the front page of CNN on this Memorial Day. It talks about how Wiccans have been successful in fighting for their rights to have their religion commemorated on the headstones of veterans.

The story notes that since the settlement in April 2007, five headstones have been put in place, including two in Arlington Cemetary. Twelve more requests are pending.

It must be the Universe’s way of nudging me and my thoughts. In classic fashion for me, I’ve been mulling today the question of Memorial Day and Paganism. There is an inherent tension and irony when you think about that. Generally speaking, the pagan community is broadly pacifist in outlook and support. And so there’s not a lot of support for the military in the pagan community. And yet, one must be intellectually honest and note that the concept and ideal of freedom that the military seeks to protect has allowed the pagan community to develop and grow and thrive.

I’m not so naive as to think that everyone in the military supports paganism or would agree that the freedom they’re fighting for includes the freedom to be pagans. There are plenty of people who believe that freedom in this country means freedom in a Christian country. And that reality is one reason, I think, that the pagan community generally is lukewarm on the military: because of the perception of close ties between Christians and the military. And I think there is some truth behind that perception.

But there are pagans in the military and surely they are fighting to protect our rights to worship who we want in what manner we choose? And even for those who don’t support paganism, one of the truly ingenious things about the foundations of this country is the way abstract goals and ideals have been enshrined so that, over time, they erode current custom and prejudice. So long as someone supports those goals and ideals, even if they disagree with paganism themselves, they’re slowly helping us on our path.

While patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, one can appreciate the benefits and freedoms one has because of where one lives without falling into blind jingoism. One can also recognize the shortcomings and work that still needs to be done. One can look at others with a similar but different background of freedom (i.e. Western Europe) and recognize things that one can learn and emulate. One can do all this and still truly appreciate the good things they have. Indeed, one can do this, in fact, as an act of homage to those very good things since the freedom of questioning and examination is at the root of those good things.

And, on a day like today, one can do all that and recognize that the ability to sit and think about this all and appreciate it all is due to the work and sacrifice of many hundreds of thousands over the years. Not just in our own country’s short history but throughout the history of our culture. Perhaps that’s what many pagans to feel more comfortable celebrating the sacrifices of those who have served in the military. Perhaps Memorial Day really should be about them, yes. But also those who have fought and sacrificed for the same cause in different ways. Perhaps Memorial Day shouldn’t be simply about D-Day and Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps it should also be about Stonewall and Freedom Rides. Perhaps it should be about Galileo and Darwin and Voltaire?

Certainly that would speak more broadly to what it is we truly want to celebrate. But, how to do that without seeming to slight those whose day this already is by taking focus away from them?

Perhaps we need a new holiday, a Freedom Day? And perhaps we need to instill some true reverence for it and try to remember what it’s about rather than just grilling, drinking, boating and initiating the “summer driving season”?

Really, more questions than answers. But questions are important. Always.