A part of me thinks that's an overly generous number, and another part of me thinks it's probably accurate, and might even just represent Pagans/Wiccans/Goddess Worshippers. However, when you read estimates on the number of Pagans in the United States you quickly realize that no one really knows how many of us there are. Estimates range between 500,000 and several million. The low ends just don't seem likely at this point, there just FEELS like there are millions of us now. We have stores, lots of them, and large sections at big bookstores. You don't have those things with 400,000 adherents.
Let's say for a minute that there are 2.8 million Pagans in the United States, that would mean there are more Pagans than Jews in the US. The Jewish Population in the United States is estimated at only 2.7 million, yet Pagans have absolutely no political or real cultural clout. The same survey estimates that there are 1.7 million Muslims in the United States, half of the possible Pagan count, but did President Obama publicly court our vote in 2010? Have you ever heard a national politician name drop "Pagan" or "Wicca?" Only in jest or outrage.
One of the most deplorable parts of the 2010 elections in the United States was the outrageous treatment of Christine O'Donnell's revelation that she dabbled in Witchcraft when she was younger. The story was mocked, Witchcraft was mocked, and by both the left and the right. If she had said "I converted to Judaism for a few months when I was 20" the outrage would have been non-existant. I know there were outraged Pagan groups, but no one bothered to listen. It's so strange to me that nearly anything can be said about Paganism, and with very few repercussions.
There are a few likely reasons for why Pagans are treated like they are. The obvious one is the "newness" of the religion. It takes decades for people to get comfortable with new things, acceptance just doesn't happen over night. There have been Pagans in the United States since at least the 1950's, but it's only been in the last twenty years that we've become an almost measurable percentage of the population. With time, and our growing numbers, people will realize that we are here, and we will eventually be courted by politicians and allowed to have our own little box on survey forms, but it's a ways off yet.
Other problems are more difficult to overcome. I'm sure there are people who look at Paganism today and don't see it as an "authentic" religion. People are born in Judaism, there's thousands of years of culture and tradition behind it. Even when you no longer practice it, you are still considered a part of it. Paganism is a mantle you pick up on your own, and you can discard it just as easily, and until the age of social networking, no one would have know you were even wearing it. Yes, there are Pagan families today, but if your daughter decides to become a Christian at 21, you won't still think of her as a Pagan, and she probably won't culturally identify as one either.
Paganism still remains this weird little niche of a religion stuck in the corner. Mainstream television ignores us, and when it does bother to mention us it's a mixed bag. Lisa Simpson once said "It's called Wicca and it's empowering!" as The Simpsons cut to commercial. Years later when there was actually an episode with practicing Wiccans, it fell flat, with no lines that made me or my wife cheer. (While typing this the word "Wiccans" still comes up as a misspelling-delightful!) Yes Buffy fans, I know that Willow was Wiccan on the show, but you are a cult, and the show was never mainstream. I like Joss too, Firefly was great!
I think we as a religious minority would be on better footing if there were truly national public Pagan figures. Around the fringes there are celebrities we believe might be Pagan, but it tends to be a "are they?" or "aren't they?" sort of thing, and none of them are hitting your local (or even L.A.'s) Pagan Pride Day. About the only out Pagan I can think of is Sully Urna of Godsmack, the res leave you scratching your head. Cybil Shepherd might have mentioned The Goddess at an acceptance speech, but things stopped there. Brett Butler's "Grace Under Fire" had an amazing discussion of Pagan theology in one episode, but that was about it. We want Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt, and Dar Williams to be Pagans, but they've certainly never confirmed those wishes.
Ashton Kutcher and Madonna can play with the Kabbalah and it's all socially acceptable, but A list celebrities just can't utter the W or P words. Heather Graham once gave an interview and talked about a group she was in called the "Goddesses" and mentioned doing spells, honoring the elements etc., but just couldn't say Witch or Pagan. It's frustrating. Five or ten celebrity A listers would help with that acceptance that seems so elusive. I certainly wouldn't want to make Heather Graham a Pagan Pope, but a non threatening celebrity would help with the P.R.
Links used for this piece: