Back in March 2019, an elected government representative shared something personal about her spiritual identity. Not a preferred Bible verse or a conversion story. Rather, progressive New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her birth-time with a self-described psychic and astrologer, Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, who in turn shared her entire birth chart with what can only be described as Astrology Twitter.
Astrology Twitter went wild. So did the mainstream media, with outlets from Vox to The Cut to Allure speculating about what Ocasio-Cortez’s astrological chart could tell us about her fitness for political office. “AOC’s Aries Moon indicates that she’s emotionally fed by a certain amount of independence, self-determination, and spontaneity,” concluded Allure’s Jeanna Kadlec. “But that independence always finds a way home.” Meanwhile, Lipp-Bonewits told The Cut’s Madeleine Aggeler that the stars predicted that Ocasio-Cortez’s “career in politics is likely to last the rest of her life.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to share her birth-time with Lipp-Bonewits might be an unprecedented move for a political figure—Hillary Clinton famously avoided the question, sparking years of debate among astrologers. But it was also a canny one. Twenty-nine percent of Americans say they believe in astrology, according to a 2018 Pew poll, while just 22 percent of Americans call themselves mainline Protestants.
More importantly, however, AOC’s gambit taps into the way in which progressive millennials have appropriated the rhetoric, imagery, and rituals of what was once called the “New Age”—from astrology to witchcraft—as both a political and spiritual statement of identity.
For an increasing number of left-leaning millennials—more and more of whom do not belong to any organized religion—occult spirituality isn’t just a form of personal practice, self-care with more sage. Rather, it’s a metaphysical canvas for the American culture wars in the post-Trump era: pitting the self-identified Davids of seemingly secular progressivism against the Goliath of nationalist evangelical Christianity.
There’s the coven of Brooklyn witches who publicly hexed then-Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh to the acclamation of the thousands-strong “Magic Resistance”—anti-Trump witches (among them: pop singer Lana del Rey) who used at-home folk magic to “bind” the president in the months following his inauguration. There are organizations like The Satanic Temple —newly featured in Penny Lane’s 2019 documentary Hail Satan—a “nontheistic religion” and activist group that uses its religious status to demand for its black-robe-clad members the same protections afforded to Christians in the hopes of highlighting the ridiculousness of faith-based exceptions (Satanic prayer in schools, say). There are dozens of Trump-era how-to spellbooks that blend folk magic with activist practice: the 2018 anthology The New Arcadia: A Witch’s Handbook to Magical Resistance; Michael Hughes’s 2018 Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change; David Salisbury’s 2019 Witchcraft Activism: A Toolkit for Magical Resistance (Includes Spells for Social Justice, Civil Rights, the Environment, and More); and Sarah Lyons’s forthcoming Revolutionary Witchcraft: A Guide to Magical Activism. There are hundreds of thousands of users of witch-popular blogging platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, which at the moment boasts 8.5 million photographs hashtagged “#witch.”
And there are the ubiquitous feel-good articles in progressive-friendly millennial outlets, such as Marie Claire’s “This Is How Real-Life Resistance Witches Say They’re Taking Down the Patriarchy” and Broadly’s “How the Socialist Feminists of WITCH Use Magic to Fight Capitalism,” packaging the connection between left-wing politics and occultism as an integral part of the progressive millennial experience. (There has also been an inevitable trickle effect: In late 2018, high street makeup chain Sephora announced that it would be selling a $42 “Starter Witch Kit,” complete with burnable white sage and tarot cards; they later recanted after witches accused them of culturally appropriating witch practice for profit).
As an aesthetic, as a spiritual practice, and as a communal ideology, contemporary millennial “witch culture” defines itself as the cosmic counterbalance to Trumpian evangelicalism. It’s at once progressive and transgressive, using the language of the chaotic, the spiritually dangerous, and (at times) the diabolical to chip at the edifices of what it sees as a white, patriarchal Christianity that has become a de facto state religion.
They have a point. White evangelicals, after all, ushered Donald Trump into the White House. Since 2016, they have been the only religious bloc to consistently support Trump, and Trump has responded in kind, repaying his evangelical base with all-but-unprecedented access to the corridors of power and—no less importantly—with his Administration’s rhetoric. Bastions of Moral Majority-era evangelical institutions—Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, for instance—have dedicated time and money to promoting projects like the Liberty-funded film The Trump Prophecy, which heavily implies that Trump is a modern-day King Cyrus, specifically chosen by God to fulfill His vision for Israel. Members of Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council, such as Robert Jeffress and Paula White, have publicly stated that God chose Trump to be President—and that we owe him obeisance as a result of divine decree. Even more secular members of the Trump Administration have leaned heavily on the rhetoric of Christian nationalism. Both former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders invoked Romans 7:1-13—a plea for respecting earthly authority—to defend the Administration’s family separation policy during the 2018 migrant crisis. The White House has consistently used religious rhetoric, in other words, to underpin its temporal aims.
Now, its opponents are doing the same.
Progressive occultism—the language of witches and demons, of spells and sage, of cleansing and bad energy, of star and signs—has become the de facto religion of millennial progressives: the metaphysical symbol set threaded through the worldly ethos of modern social justice activism. Its rise parallels the rise of the religious “nones,” and with them a model of spiritual and religious practice that’s at once intuitional and atomized. Twenty-three percent of Americans call themselves religiously unaffiliated, a number that spikes to 36 percent among millennials (Trump’s white evangelical base, by contrast, only comprises about 17 percent of Americans). But tellingly, few among this demographic identify as atheists or agnostics. A full 72 percent of “nones” say they believe in God, or at least some kind of nebulously defined Higher Power; 17 percent say they believe in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. Suspicious of institutions, authorities, and creeds, this demographic is less likely to attend a house of worship, but more likely to practice the phenomenon Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have termed “unbundling”: a willingness to effectively “mix and match” spiritual, ritualistic, and religious practices from a range of traditions, divorced from their original institutional context. A member of this “remixed” generation, for example, might attend yoga classes, practice Buddhist meditation, read Tarot cards, cleanse their apartment with sage, and also attend Christmas carol concerts or Shabbat dinners. They might tap into the perceived psychic energy of their surroundings at a boutique fitness studio like SoulCycle, which openly bills itself as a “cult,” and whose charismatic trainers frequently post spiritually tinged motivational mantras like “You were created by a purpose, for a purpose” on SoulCycle’s social media platforms. The underpinnings of religious life—meaning, purpose, community, and ritual—are more likely than ever to come from diffuse traditions, or indeed no tradition at all.
Within this paradigm, the popularity of what might be termed “New Age” practices makes perfect sense. This umbrella movement, born in the counterculture of the 1960s, combined a variety of anti-authoritarian spiritual practices that stressed the primacy of the self, the power of intuition, the untrustworthiness of orthodox institutions, and the spiritual potential of the “forgotten”—often women. Reconstructionist pagan religions like Wicca—founded in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner, who dubiously claimed it was based on ancient Celtic traditions—grew popular with a demographic that felt marginalized by “traditional” organized religions. Central to most of these movements was the idea that the intuitional, usually female self could access a deeper truth than patriarchal religions like Christianity grasped. Power came from within, not outside. As one influential New Age practitioner put it in her 1982 book Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics:
There are many names for power‐from‐within. . . .none of them entirely satisfying. . . .It could be called God—but the God of patriarchal religions has been the ultimate source and repository of power‐over. I have called it immanence, a term that is truthful but somewhat cold and intellectual. And I have called it Goddess, because the ancient images, symbols and myths of the Goddess as birth‐giver, weaver, earth and growing plant, wind and ocean, flame, web, moon and milk, all speak to me of the powers of connectedness, sustenance, and healing.
Still, throughout most of the New Age movement, the number of actual practitioners of Wicca were limited. In 1990, there were only about 8,000 self-identified Wiccans in America. But in the past few decades, those numbers have been growing: By 2001, there were 134,000, and by 2014, Pew data suggested that the combined number of pagans and Wiccans in America was over a million. Wicca, by that estimation, is technically the fastest-growing religion in America.
But contemporary witchcraft—the kind of occultism we see in Ocasio-Cortez’s star chart and the hexing of Brett Kavanaugh—isn’t limited to those who practice paganism or Wicca as a religion, with a well-structured set of metaphysical and magical assumptions. It appears far more often as a component of “unbundled” religious identity, where it is nearly always wedded to social justice activism. Like their New Age forebears, contemporary witches understand witchcraft as a practice for those on the societal margins, a reclamation of power for those disenfranchised by unjust or oppressive systems. While traditional New Age culture focused primarily on the experience of (usually white) women, contemporary witch culture frames itself as proudly, committedly intersectional: an umbrella community for all those pushed to the side by the dominant (white, straight, male, Christian) culture. Symbols and images of the uncanny, the demonic, and even the diabolical are recast as icons of the falsely accused, the wrongly blamed, the scapegoated.
“Who, exactly, is the witch,” asks Kristin J. Sollee of the 2017 book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive—one of the many feminist witch texts to arise out of the Trump era. “She’s Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of the crossroads. She’s Lilith, the blood-drinking demoness of Jewish mythology who refused to submit sexually to her husband. . . .She’s Joan of Arc, the French military hero in white armor burned by her brethren for cross dressing and heresy. . . .She’s Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot for her feminist advocacy and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. . . .she’s every woman. . . .at once female divinity, female ferocity, and female transgression.” Witchcraft is, in Sollee’s reading, divorced from religious belief—Joan, a committed Christian, and Malala, an observant Muslim, might well have been horrified to find themselves lumped in with mythology’s more nefarious blood-drinkers—and associated rather with a common, countercultural identity. Likewise, David Salisbury—author of the 2019 handbook Witchcraft Activism, which encourages readers to petition the Greek god Hermes to ensure that letters to congressional representatives have an effect—similarly casts witchcraft as the natural spiritual inheritance of cultural outsiders. “Witchcraft is the unconquerable shout at midnight,” Salisbury writes. “It screams to be heard because it is the lighthouse for the voiceless.”
Material witch culture—from books to magical paraphernalia—has likewise changed with the times. Any self-respecting witch looking to combine personal spirituality with intersectionality can, for example, pick up a Tarot deck like the one designed by queer illustrator Christy P. Road, which primarily depicts characters of color, sex workers, and non-binary characters, and is about “smashing systematic oppression, owning their truths, being accountable to the people and places that support them, and taking back a connection to their body that may have been lost through trauma or societal brainwashing.” (There are so many queer-friendly Tarot decks out there that lesbian website Autostraddle made a full listicle of them in 2015.)
While New Age practitioners of the 1960s onward often characterized their practice as unfailingly benign—the karmic “Rule of Three,” which predicted that any negative energy sent into the universe would reverberate threefold on a practitioner, was ubiquitous in neo-pagan circles—contemporary witch feminism rebrands occult darkness as a legitimate, even necessary response to a structural oppression. In one Brooklyn zine, author and non-binary witch Dakota Bracciale—co-owner of Catland Books, the occult store behind the Kavanaugh hexing—celebrates the potential of traditional “dark magic” and outright devil-worship as a levying force for social justice.
“There have been too many self-elected spokespersons for all of witchcraft,” Bracciale writes, “seeking to pander to the masses and desperately conform to larger mainstream religious tenets in order to curry legitimacy. Witchcraft has largely, if not exclusively, been a tool of resilience and resistance to oppressive power structures, not a plaything for bored, affluent fools. So if one must ride into battle under the banner of the Devil himself to do so then I say so be it. The reality is that you can be a witch and worship the devil and have sex with demons and cavort through the night stealing children and burning churches. One should really have goals.” As with the denizens of The Satanic Temple, Bracciale uses the imagery of Satanism as a direct attack on what he perceives as Christian hegemony. So too Jex Blackmore, a self-proclaimed Satanic feminist (and former national spokesperson for the Satanic Temple) who appeared in the Hail Satan? documentary performing a Satanic ritual involving half-naked worshippers and pigs’ heads on spikes, announcing: “We are going to disrupt, distort, destroy. . . .We are going to storm press conferences, kidnap an executive, release snakes in the governor’s mansion, execute the president.”
Bracciale and Blackmore’s language might be extreme, but their overall ethos—that progressive activism demands a robust, cosmic-level, anti-Christian (or at least, anti-conservative, evangelical Christian) metaphysical and rhetorical grounding—has permeated activist culture more broadly. Last month, for example, when pro-choice advocates marched on the South Carolina State House to protest the Alabama abortion ban, protesters held signs identifying themselves as “the grandchildren of the witches you could not burn.” (This phrase has also been spotted on placards at the annual Women’s March). Millennial-focused sites like Vice’s Broadly and Bust have sympathetically profiled the progressive potential of Satanic feminism in particular: One Broadly profile of an LA-based Satanic doo-wop band proclaims them “Feminist as fuck”, while another piece attempts to rehabilitate the mythological demon Lilith as “a Chill Demon” and a “powerful figure with a continued relevance for women today.”
Granted, most millennial denizens of “Witchblr” are more likely to cleanse their homes with sage, say, or practice mindfulness meditation than to cast a curse on Republican lawmakers. But the rhetorical and spiritual popularization of “resistance magic” in the age of Trump reveals the degree to which one of America’s supposedly most “secular” demographics—urbane, progressive millennials—aren’t quite so secular after all. From Tarot readings to spell craft, meditation to cursing, they’re actively seeking out religious and spiritual traditions defined by their marginality—traditions that at once offer a sense of cosmic purpose and political justice against what they see as hegemonic power. These practices may be less established, and far more diffuse, than those offered by organized religion, but they offer adherents some of the same psychological effects: a committed and ideologically cohesive community, a sense of purpose both on a political battlefield and a mythic one.
The scholars Joshua Landry and Michael Saler call this quintessentially phenomenon “re-enchantment.” In their 2009 book The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, they argue that we are seeing a resurgence in seemingly atheistic spaces of “a variety of secular and conscious strategies for re-enchantment, held together by their common aim of filling a God-shaped void.” The contemporary millennial Left, increasingly alienated from a Christianity it sees as repressive, outmoded, and downright abusive, has used the language, the imagery, and the rituals of modern occultism to re-enchant its seeming secularism.
Followers of Ocasio-Cortez’s star chart, contemporary witch feminists, serious proponents of Satanic feminism, and dabblers in Sephora-accessible Tarot cards alike all share both a hunger for the grounding effects of spiritual presence and a fervent conviction that personal spirituality should resist, rather than renew, the newly waning power of institutional religion. In this, they’re finally following the playbook of their greatest foes. For decades, the Christian Right has been able to consistently mobilize its voters more successfully than most other religious groups, precisely because it raised the political stakes to a battle between Good and Evil, while the “religiously unaffiliated” have consistently failed to show up at the polls. In 2014, for example, “nones” made up 22 percent of the population, but just 12 percent of the voters; meanwhile, white evangelicals have consistently made up a quarter of voters, despite comprising 17 percent of the population. The proliferation of progressivism as a spiritual as well as political identity may well be the unifying force the Left needs to emerge as a bona fide demographic bloc.
Granted, these spiritual practices remain niche, even as their commercial manifestation becomes more commonplace. And their diversity and lack of shared metaphysical grounding —in part a function of millennial unbundledness—could constrain their ability to bring people together. Religious practices defined by intuition, rather than creed, may have a hard time calcifying members into an ideologically coherent group. But the fact that a religious impulse is fragmented and decentralized does not mean it is impotent: The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not to mention the rise of the 1960s spiritual counterculture, began in just this way. And even mainstream progressives seem to be taking faith more seriously now than in the recent past—Pete Buttigieg, for instance, is quite open about his Christianity. It’s impossible to know where these diffuse strains of pietism will ultimately lead. But at minimum, they suggest that secularization is not the inevitable or even the most logical endpoint for today’s Left. Far from it. Rather, we’re looking at a profoundly pagan form of re-enchantment.
Back in 1992, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson warned of the dangers of feminism, predicting that it would induce “women to leave their husbands. . . .practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Many of today’s witches would happily agree.