From Conservative Mormon to Pagan Anarchist: Politicization (Part 5)

Over the course of my adult life, I have traveled a significant part of of the breadth of the political spectrum, from right to left, from authoritarian to libertarian, from politically conservative Mormon to radical Leftist. Someone recently asked me how this happened, and the question brought me up short. My lack of a ready answer surprised me, because I am a very introspective person. So I decided to reconstruct the course of my life as best as I could, to see if I could identify the events or people which were most influential on my transformation.

I’ve identified six phases of my life and broken this (relatively short) autobiography into corresponding six parts.

  • Upbringing: Ages 5-19 (1980-1994)
  • Disillusionment: Ages 19-24 (1994-1999)
  • Liberalization: Ages 24-29 (1999-2004)
  • Complacency: Ages 30-34 (2005-2009)
  • Politicization: Ages 35-40 (2010-2015)
  • Radicalization: Age 40-Present (2015-present)

This series is something of a personal indulgence. Which is to say, I don’t expect or even hope anyone will read it. But I feel compelled to write it in any case. Note, this is a political autobiography. Though religion intersects my politics at several key points, my spiritual autobiography is a different topic and one for another day.


Part 5: Politicization: Ages 35-40 (2010-2015)

If there was a theme for the next five years, it would be “turning outward”. And the two places I turned to were Unitarianism and Paganism.

I started attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 2010. I was looking for a spiritual community and a place to take my children that wasn’t the Mormon church. I was to find that Unitarianism was wanting in the spirituality department (at least from my perspective). But I was able to supplement it with my Pagan spiritual practice, which by then included seasonal rituals that I created for our family to celebrate the solstices etc.

I started writing about Paganism on a personal blog in 2011. It started out as a kind of public journal. Then I started reading other Pagan blogs and using their ideas as foils for the development of my own. After about a year, I was invited to write an article for a nascent community blog for Humanistic Pagans (a minority within a minority). Eventually, I would become the editor of the site, which would grow to have more than 100 contributors, and I edited an anthology entitled Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, which included contributions for 40 authors.

I also had my first in-person contact with other Pagans at this time. I attended Pagan Pride Day events, public rituals, conferences, and summer festivals. It all very eye-opening. Pagans tend to be very liberal, both politically and privately. I found some of it to be liberating, but a lot of it to be just silly. Even as I became more prominent in the Pagan community–eventually giving presentations and leading rituals at national and regional conferences and festivals–my attitude toward Paganism remained ambivalent.

In 2012, I was made a partner in my firm. Ruth was licensed that year as well. My oldest entered high school the next year, which meant I had less direct involvement in his education. I was feeling more established and more free to focus other things than my career.

That year, I attended my first Pantheacon, the largest indoor Pagan conference in the country, which exposed me to a dizzying array of spiritualities and sexualities. The next year, I was invited to write for the Pagan channel at the Patheos interfaith hub. Eventually, I became one of the most popular writers on the channel, due largely to my predilection for courting controversy. (The internet can encourage the worst habits in a writer.)

At first, my writing for Patheos was focused on theological debates–primarily between atheist Pagans and polythestic Pagans–but gradually it became more political. Together with the Humanistic Paganism site, Patheos and Pantheacon were central to the development of both my spirituality and my politics. It was through Patheos and Pantheacon that I met my first anarchist and I learned about anti-capitalism.

That same year, in 2012, I had series of transcendent experiences in semi-wild natural settings: in Muir Woods, on Route 1 along the California coast, and at Pike’s Peak. These experiences prompted (or maybe signaled) an internal shift, as I started to look for something “larger”, outside of myself, to connect with. My Pagan practice also started to change, from being focused on inner healing to connecting with the more-than-human world.

In 2014, during a family vacation, we visited Fish Lake, Utah, which is home to the largest (and one of the oldest) organism on the planet called “Pando”. It’s a grove of quaking aspens which is actually a single living organism with a giant root system stretching over 100 acres and containing over 40,000 individual trunks. Pando is estimated to be at least 80,000 years old.

Part of the grove was fenced off. And when I asked a park ranger about it, he said that it was due to climate change, which was causing invasive species of insects to migrate north. Parts of the grove were fenced off to allow rangers to attempt different methods of saving Pando. I was struck that something so large and so old could be threatened by climate change. This signaled the beginning of my growing sense of urgency about climate change.

Later that year, I organized some leading Pagans to draft a Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has since received thousands of signatures from people in 100 different countries and has been translated into 16 languages. It has been signed by practically every prominent Pagan organization and many of the most well-known leaders in the Pagan community. It represented the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth and the web of life and possibly the single largest expression of Pagan voices ever.

I also attended my first public protest in 2014, a small protest in IL, which coincided with the People’s Climate March in NYC. The next march I attended was in Minneapolis and it was on the bus ride that I met some of the local radicals. Eventually, we would form the first chapter of 350.org in Indiana.

All the while, I was still attending the Unitarian church. What Unitarianism lacked in spirituality, I found it more than made up for in social conscience. It was through the church that I learned about and became involved in anti-racist work. I finally joined the church in 2015 after attending for several years. A desire for spiritual community had brought me to the church, but it was Unitarian Universalists’ commitment to social justice that convinced me to join (though later I was frustrated even with them sometimes because of what I perceived as complacency).

I had voted for Obama again 2012 and the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision came out in 2013. It felt like the “arc of history” was “bending toward justice”, and being Unitarian and Pagan helped me to feel like I was a part of it. But once again, things were soon to shift for me.

To be continued in Part 6: Radicalization

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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