"I am not a witch." Only in the ever-wackier 2010 election cycle would a campaign video start with such an assertion, but this particular ad was for Delaware's Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, whose recent admission that she "dabbled in witchcraft" as a teen has brought toil and trouble to the Wiccan community. To find out more about the Wiccan religion which bases its belief system on witchcraft TIME spoke to Michael Smith, a Wiccan high priest and IT consultant from O'Donnell's home state.
How long have you been involved with your coven, and what do you do to practice your faith?
In 1993 I moved to Georgetown, Del., and joined the Coven of the Rowan Star, which is in a larger tradition called the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. The religious life is based on eight holidays the wheel of the year this cycle of nature that runs through the seasons, based both on nature itself and its reflection in the light of a human being. It's the cycle of rise and fall, and change and growth, and evolution.
And what kind of rituals do you engage in?
There are a variety of things people practice and learn. Wicca itself holds that what would commonly be referred to as "supernatural" or "paranormal" is actually part of the normative cycle of life that we've forgotten how to access. So we do that through techniques, both ancient and modern whether that's learning about Shamanic practices or more ceremonial ideas to simple matters of meditation or daily devotion to the gods and goddesses.
What does a high priest do?
A high priest or high priestess of a coven is both the spiritual and religious leader of that particular group. I teach classes, provide pastoral counseling, arrange the schedule, write the rituals. Obviously I get help and input, but ultimately, high priests and priestesses are responsible for the health and the growth of the individuals. It took me about 10 years of work to come to that particular point.
How big is your coven?
The coven right now has 18 members. In the larger tradition's eight covens, there are a little over 100 members. It's by no means the largest contemporary Pagan group I can think of, but is definitely one of, if not the largest single group in Delaware.
Among those Wiccans in Delaware, how has the reaction been to Christine O'Donnell's comments?
There was a lot of eye rolling. It obscures the actual issues involved [in Wicca]. Who knows what she did or dabbled in when she was in high school. I doubt very seriously that she knows what it was. Certainly I do not think that she has any concept about what witchcraft, Wicca or paganism actually is. I doubt very seriously whether she has any concept of what Satanism actually is.
How did you react to her conflation of witchcraft and Satanism? [O'Donnell said her dabbling included having a picnic on a bloody Satanic altar.]
One grows accustomed to it. It's a ridiculous and childish and uniformed conflation. Most monotheistic religions, as they encounter other paths and belief systems, tend to want to confuse those with their own conceptions of what is evil. Satanism is a Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept. To be a Satanist, one must believe in Satan. We don't do that. It's not part of our belief system at all.
In the past, has your group been involved in secular politics?
We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit religious organization. As an organization, we make no comment. But as individuals, we certainly are involved in politics. Within our structure, we have a code of ethics. We have an idea about the sanctity of life, about personal responsibility, the importance of treating human beings with respect. The divine nature of the world around us, the importance of environmental issues, of the freedoms of religion and assembly those are an important part of what we believe.
How does that factor into your feelings about O'Donnell in this election cycle?
My biggest issues with Christine O'Donnell have nothing to do with witchcraft. It has to do with her desire to blur the lines between church and state, her very laissez-faire idea about economics and her desire for the government to be involved in people's personal choices around sexuality and morality.
Do you find these are things that people in the Wicca community generally agree on?
Yes, but [we have] Democrats and Republicans and Independents and Socialists and what have you. People's particular political beliefs are not as important as their religious and spiritual beliefs as far as being a member of the coven. Obviously if you're not the kind of person who believes in the sacredness of earth and the environment around us, it's not likely that you're going to find our particular belief system very satisfying. But I have never made any kind a political belief a prerequisite for membership.
But not conflating Wicca with Satanism probably is a prerequisite.
For those people who want to conflate them, who need to define the world in very, very narrow terms that something is either my particular brand of Christianity or it's Satanic no amount of explanation or logic or conversation is going to change their minds. It's when one begins to misrepresent [that there's trouble]. Misrepresentation leads to fear, which leads to depression, oppression, and repression. And for me, that's the danger of somebody like Christine O'Donnell.