An FBI Operation, Germanic Heathenry, and Media Representation

The god Bragi sings while the goddess Iðunn reclines in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich. From Wikimedia Commons.

Media misrepresentation is a problem for minority religions in the United States. New religious movements and minority religions generally receive little media attention until some negative event occurs. In these cases, provided details regarding an associated minority religion can often be misleading or outright fabrications. Wicca, for example, experienced exactly these issues—likely resulting in the conviction (and subsequent placement on death row) of Damien Echols, for example—until a shift in its media representation occurred largely in the 1990s and into the 2000s.*

Germanic Heathenry is a religion (or a group of religions) often grouped together with Wicca as a "Neopagan religion". Germanic Heathenry has seen an explosion of adherents over the last few decades and it may well be eclipsing Wicca in terms of both media representation and number of adherents. However, no such media shift as seen with Wicca has so far occurred with coverage of Germanic Heathenry. Signs of change regarding this situation may be appearing via positive media reports about Iceland's Ásatrúarfélagið and by way of the efforts of some dedicated heathens and educators such as Karl E. H. Seigfried, but all too often a misleadingly hyper-masculine, prison-associated, and white supremacist version of the religion dominates media attention of the topic.

Recently such an example has been given renewed attention due to media reports around an undercover FBI operation that resulted in charges that two men in Virginia were planning to attack black churches and Jewish synagogues as well as a variety of other felonies. However, as Heather Greene at The Wild Hunt writes, the fact that the accused plotters claimed a form of Germanic Heathenry as their religion has become a media angle:

As written in the FBI report by Special Agent James Rudisill, “Doyle and Chaney … ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith.”

After news broke, the Asatru angle quickly went from a footnote in a long FBI report to a news maker and, in some cases, even a headline. A Richmond Times-Dispatch article, one of the first, clarified to its readers, “Asatru is a pagan religion.” And, the media cycle moved from there.

Some news agencies, such as CNN and ABC, did not ever mention the men’s religious affiliation, choosing to focus on the foiled crime. Others offered varying degrees of explanation from simply quoting the FBI document verbatim to inserting some limited facts about the religion. The Washington Post, for example, simply added “neo-pagan” into the FBI quote. Then, others went further exploring the white supremacy connection to Asatru. The Daily Beast went so far as to interview such a group with the added commentary, “Because pagans gonna pagan.”

Readers are encouraged to read the rest of The Wild Hunt's article here.

* See for example Pike, Sarah M. 2012. "Wicca in the News" in Winston, Diane (editor). The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media, pp. 289-303. Oxford University Press.

Interview with Sociologist Jennifer Snook at

A chart from a page of Emilé Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912, originally published in French as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse). Durkheim (d. 1917), mentioned by Snook, was a founding sociologist.

Karl E. H. Seigfried published a three-part interview on with sociologist Jennifer Snook (formerly University of Mississippi, now Grinnell College) focused on matters relating to her recent book, American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (July 2015).

Notably, while also an academic, Snook is herself a Heathen, and the interview focuses on both her research on Heathenry and her personal experiences as a Heathen in the United States.

A sample from the interview:

KS – There is a ritual element to your academic work. In 2003, you made an oath at a blót [Heathen ritual] that you “would honor the time that others had sacrificed to help me by publishing my work.” Throughout the book, you refer to “our faith,” “our strengths,” “our weaknesses,” and so on.

How do you think this open identification as a believer in the minority faith tradition you write about will impact reaction from the wider academic community?

JS – There’s a conversation going on in Pagan Studies circles right now about how insider-scholars who write about their own groups are too apologetic and not critical enough of their own experiences and observations. And certainly this has been a problem with some insiders, or anthropologists “going native” in the field, losing their ability to be “objective” about their subject.

However, at the same time, social science has gone through somewhat of a shift where we now recognize that objectivity, in the old positivist use of the term, isn’t a concrete thing. We can’t really achieve 100% objectivity in this work, because we ourselves are products of our socialization into cultural and social “realities.”

But there’s also a push for more critical analysis of gender, race, privilege, and other aspects of society – studying “up” to the elite, rather than simply focusing on the disadvantaged. My training and the influences from which I draw inspiration are in this critical tradition.

I think that scholars who read my work will have the common language of this critical perspective and understand that my insider status gave me insights that outsiders may not have had, but that the work is ultimately a critical examination highlighting both the subjectivities of Heathens, but also the context in which they practice.