When a 28-year-old person identifying as transgender shot up a Tennessee school in March, killing three children and three adults, the usual grim afterlife of tragedy was underlined by an odd note: One by one, media outlets rushed to apologize for “misgendering” the shooter, who, they explained, had been born female but had recently begun identifying as male.
How to make sense of such a statement? And what to do when a newspaper headline tells you about a “trans woman left sobbing in JFK Airport after TSA agent hit her testicles”? Appealing to reason hardly helps, as J.K. Rowling and others learned the hard way when trying to ask simple questions such as how one might define sex if not according to the chromosomes rooted in literally every cell of our bodies. Instead, anyone wishing to find his way through the thicket of American public discourse these days should start by embracing one simple and terrifying idea: The barbarians are at the gates.
I mean this almost literally. Everywhere you turn these days, pagans are afoot, busily hacking away at the Christian and Jewish foundations of American life and replacing them with a cosmology that would have been absolutely coherent to followers of, say, Voltumna, the Etruscan earth god, or to those who worshipped the Celt tribal protector Toutatis.
If you think the above paragraph is a little bit overblown, consider the numbers. In 1990, scholars from Trinity College set out to learn just how many of their fellow Americans practiced some form of pagan religion. The numbers were unsurprisingly small: about 8,000, or enough to pack your average Journey reunion concert. But the researchers asked again in 2008, and this time, 340,000 Americans said yes to paganism. A decade later, the Pew survey posed the same question, and, if it is to believed, there are now about 1.5 million Americans professing an array of pagan persuasions, from Wicca to the Viking lore, making paganism one of the nation’s fastest-growing persuasions. So fast-growing, in fact, that my colleague Maggie Phillips recently reported in Tablet magazine about the thriving, and officially recognized, pagan faith groups within the U.S. Army. “What’s important now,” one of its leaders, Sergeant Drake Sholar, told Phillips, “is showing religious respect and understanding across the board as Norse Pagans, or Heathens, return to a distinguishable religious practice.”
Amen, selah. But as we respect and understand those who profess paganism outright and sincerely, we should worry about those—many more of them—who go by other names and profess different affinities yet whose worldview is consistently, coherently, and crushingly pagan. There are millions more heathens who would shudder to be called such, yet who offer a vision of a perfectly pagan American future. It behooves us, then, to reckon with the paganism in our midst.