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.