It’s a Sunday. Private Horvath makes his way across the Fort Jackson Army Base to attend his weekly religious service. Instead of filing into a church pew, he joins the other soldiers forming a big circle outside, under a tree. Their leader, Rachel, begins to walk clockwise around the circle, the Athame (ritual knife) held high. The soldiers’ voices swell as they chant in unison, welcoming the Guardians of the North, South, East and West. Today is a day of celebration – it’s the Fall Equinox, also known as the Witches’ Thanksgiving.
These young soldiers are part of one of the biggest Pagan congregations in the U.S. Military at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Each week 90 – 130 soldiers attend the Sunday Pagan service on this Army base. Along with our partners at Heat Street, we went to check out the congregation’s harvest ritual.
Pagans worship nature and the gods of ancient civilizations. One of the largest denominations, Wicca, for example, draws on the ancient religions of Northern and Western Europe. Many of their followers practice Witchcraft and celebrate sabbats (turning of the season).
The Fort Jackson Circle is led by Rachel Lichtenberger, whose husband is a drill sergeant. When they were transferred to South Carolina in 2014 Rachel was shocked to find Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and a bunch of other minority religions had a place to worship at Fort Jackson, but Pagan soldiers had nowhere to go. So she resolved to start her own Circle. She says it wasn’t easy – South Carolina is known as the ‘bible buckle’ of America. But after a year of wading through military red tape she was allowed to start Fort Jackson’s first official Pagan congregation.
Pagans have not always been welcome in the US Military. The military’s first official pagan circle was created in 1997 at Fort Hood in Texas. A couple of years later, the circle found themselves in the spotlight after a photo of one of their moonlit Wiccan rituals was published in the local news. Then-presidential nominee George Bush weighed in, declaring ’I don’t think witchcraft is a religion’ and expressed a hope the military would remove their support. Another congressman at the time, Bob Barr, denounced the practices as satanic, and tried to have them banned by Congress.
In 2006 military pagans again made headlines when a Wiccan widow accused the Department of Veteran’s Affairs of religious discrimination for refusing to engrave a pentacle (the five pointed star within a circle) on her late husband’s military grave. A group lawsuit followed, leading to the Veterans Adminstration’s acceptance of the pentacle as an approved emblem for headstones. Since then, the community has continued to grow peacefully, with a number of robust congregations on American bases and overseas posts.
The military takes the first amendment seriously, explains Fort Jackson’s garrison chaplain, Col. Penfold. It’s his job to make sure every soldier on base is able to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of religion. The pagan service is one of 27 religious services that takes place at Fort Jackson every Sunday.
With her circle getting bigger every week, Rachel would love the help of an official Pagan chaplain. And she may just get her wish – in August 2016, after over a decade of battling, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs finally recognized the Sacred Well Congregation (a Wiccan Church) as an ‘official ecclesiastical body’, able to sponsor the VA’s first pagan chaplain as an officiant at funerals. It’s a huge milestone for military pagans, and the community is hopeful the Military will follow suit, allowing Sacred Well to sponsor the Military’s first officially commissioned pagan chaplain.