Shocking title aside, here's an odd story about the weird world of paranoia and suspicion that, despite the dawning of the Age of Obama, we still seem to live in.
It starts like every good WTF story: with a good deed.
On April 29, a link appeared on the League's communal web site that took readers to the following post on Gospel of the Living Dead (my apologies for linking to the author's entire April archive, I can't seem to figure out how to link to individual posts on his blog):
I really think the only thing we should each celebrate more than our own faiths, is the rich tradition of religious pluralism we have in our country. Lots of countries, all over the world and at all different historical periods, have had deeply religious populations. I don't think any have had populations as diverse and respectful as ours. So it's the American thing to do, really. Please consider sticking up for a tiny religious minority as they seek a small recognition of their members' faith and potential sacrifice:
The post ended with another link which took readers to the Internet home of the Asatru Military Family Support Program, a.k.a. "The Hammer Project.". You can check out the web site, but the short version of the Hammer Project's mission statement is that they want to get Asatru's holy symbol – the hammer of Thor – approved for use as a religious symbol in military graveyards.
This certainly seems like an unobjectionable goal and the Asatru faith has the right credentials (it is recognized by the IRS as a non-taxable religious organization). Gospel's to be commended for the display of cross-faith tolerance and I'm actually in total agreement with him that any religion recognized by the state should be allowed to display the symbol of its faith on the gravestones of fallen troops. It's strikes me as kind of a no brainer.
However, because we live in a strange world, I recently ran across a reference to the Asatru church in a considerably less favorable light. The group appears in a March 23rd memo produced by the Department of Homeland Security titled "Domestic Extremism Lexicon."
Intended to hip DHS officials to cultural trends among extremist groups, the lexicon contained the following entry:
racial Nordic mysticism
An ideology adopted by many white supremacist prison gangs who embrace a Norse mythological religion, such as Odinism or Asatru.
Hmmm. That's not good.
Still, before any conclusions are drawn, I feel it is important to state that the lexicon was not without its detractors. Critics said it is little more than a paranoid blacklist and that, because it tars with a particularly large brush, puts completely innocent Americans under suspicion for truly heinous crimes. The DHS claims that the memo was withdrawn "within minutes" of its release – though no reason was given for withdrawing the memo.
So what's up with Asatru? Are they neo-Nazis or what?
The Asatru Folk Assembly's official bylaws contain the following clear denunciation of racism: "The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic." That's about as inoffensive a stance on race as one can take.
However, the very same group's "Declaration of Purpose" contains the following goal: "The preservation of the Peoples of the North (typified by the Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic peoples), and the furtherance of their continued evolution."
Then there is the issue of metagenetics: a philosophical stance outlined by the AFA's founder that claims "there are spiritual and metaphysical implications to heredity." A claim he later, um, clarified by stating, "The hypothesis that there are spiritual or metaphysical implications to physical relatedness among humans which correlate with, but go beyond, the known limits of genetics."
Finally, there's the bizarre Kennewick Man incident. In 1996, the AFA sued the United States government to halt the surrender of prehistoric remains to the the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, Wannapum, and Colville Native American Tribes. The founder of the AFA claimed that modern adherents to the Asatru faith were genetically closer to prehistoric Americans than modern descendents of the various tribes. Courts actually ruled against the tribes – though not really on the basis of the AFA founder's arguments – and the remains were never returned.
All of this could be explained away or dismissed. Metagenetics might be to the Asatru what predestination is to most modern Calvinists, a curio that is still on the books but that is rarely seriously considered. The Northern People thing could be as simple as a group celebrating its historical roots. And the Kennewick Man deal could reflect the work of some minority sect within the group. Ask any liberal mainline Protestant about the behaviors of their more fundamentalist co-religionists and you'll find that, despite the supposed common faith, they are not a monolithic group.
So what's the story: has the DHS libeled an innocuous religious group or is there a strain of racial extremism haunting the church? Can any reader, preferably one with actual knowledge of the Asatru religion and its adherents hip me to the facts of the case?
[UPDATE: Two things:
1. Despite my description of blogger and novelist's Kim Paffenroth's post as a "good deed" and claiming that his post is "commendable," there's been some reaction among readers that I'm suggesting he was either implicitly supporting or pointedly ignoring the seemingly unseemly info that I later ran across. For the record, I do not think this was the case. I stand by what I originally wrote: Paffenroth support for the inclusion of of Asatru symbols on the list of religious icons that can be displayed on military gravestones is both geuninely humane and logical. As I said in the article, I agree with him on that issue.
2. I think it is important to note that this may well be a case of all-smoke-but-no-fire. I fully admit the possibility that the DHS list is some paranoid libel on the church of Asatru. It wouldn't be the first time either the current or previous administrations made wildly inappropriate assumptions in the service of "keeping America safe." Not only did Paffenroth not endorse any strain of political extremism, but there may well be no extremism here to endorse.]