Skepticism Over O’Donnell’s Dabbling in Witchcraft

The upset victory of Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell over her moderate Republican rival in Delaware has thrust her into the spotlight of intense media scrutiny that will continue into the election. Already, a couple of controversial statements have surfaced from her past, one of which I find particularly interesting as we approach Halloween.

Comedian Bill Maher made it known that in a past episode of his Politically Incorrect television program from 1999, Christine O’Donnell was a participant, and during the program she made the statement that in her past she “dabbled into [sic] Witchcraft.”

“I dabbled into [sic] Witchcraft. I never joined a coven,” she says. Her fellow guests then question how she can make that claim, to which she responds, “Because I dabbled into [sic] Witchcraft, I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making these things up. I know what they told me they do.” Then, “One of my first dates with a Witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn’t know it. I mean, there was a little blood there and stuff like that.”

Given O’Donnell’s conservative evangelical background I must say that I’m skeptical of her claims for several reasons. First, she refers to “dabbling” in Witchcraft, a term that is found in popular evangelical literature on the occult as an alleged category of involvement with esoteric practices. This indicates that she may have some familiarity with evangelical literature that touches on one of the main spiritual bogeymen for this religious community, which in turn may have shaped if not redacted her conceptions of her previous experiences.  

Second, O’Donnell references experiences with a Witch and a satanic altar, allegedly with blood on it. This statement includes a number of elements that reflect evangelical stereotypes and misrepresentations, including an equation of Witchcraft with Satanism, and a misunderstanding of Satanism as a spirituality of ritual sacrifice. Again, these misunderstandings are also found in popular evangelical folklore as well as some of the more extreme literature and websites on the topic indicating that she may well have been influenced by popular evangelical (mis)conceptions of Witchcraft.

Although the video is receiving a lot of media exposure it likely will be insignificant to the campaign. It may, however, resonate in positive ways with evangelical voters in Delaware. A survey of evangelical literature on new religious movements, or “cults” as they are labeled, reveals that approaching these groups from the perspective of former members or practitioners who share their testimony of deliverance through conversion to Christianity holds particular appeal for evangelical church members. O’Donnell can either ignore the media controversy over her past statement on Witchcraft, or she can choose to capitalize on it—at least among evangelicals—by citing her deliverance from a minority religious group that is particularly unpopular among the religious right. 

I have no way of knowing one way or another whether O’Donnell really had experiences with Witchcraft in her past. At the very least I believe some redaction has taken place as she has reflected back on previous experiences in light of evangelical literature, perhaps even some of the controversial and extreme forms written by alleged “exes” of various stripes, whether Witches, Satanists, Illuminati, fill in the blank.

In October with the approach of Halloween we usually see an increase in interest and discussion of Witchcraft and Paganism, particularly among the evangelical subculture. Hopefully this O’Donnell video from 1999 is not indicative of the manner in which this subject matter will be discussed in 2010.