|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. He sent home reports on the number of "decisions" -- soldiers committing their lives to Christ -- that he inspired in the base's Freedom Chapel.
But inwardly, he says, he was torn between Christianity's exclusive claims about salvation and a "universalist streak" in his thinking. The Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which collapsed the dome of a 1,200-year-old holy site and triggered a widening spiral of revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision of his own.
"I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God," Larsen says. "When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I'm done. . . . I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned."
Larsen's private crisis of faith might have remained just that, but for one other fateful choice. He decided the religion that best matched his universalist vision was Wicca, a blend of witchcraft, feminism and nature worship that has ancient pagan roots.
On July 6, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces, setting off an extraordinary chain of events. By year's end, his superiors not only denied his request but also withdrew him from Iraq and removed him from the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.
Adherents of Wicca, one of the nation's fastest-growing religions, contend that Larsen is a victim of unconstitutional discrimination. They say that Wicca, though recognized as a religion by federal courts and the Internal Revenue Service, is often falsely equated with devil worship.
"Institutionalized bigotry and discriminatory actions . . . have crossed the line this time," says David L. Oringderff, a retired Army intelligence officer who is an elder in the Sacred Well Congregation, the Texas-based Wiccan group that Larsen joined.
Larsen, 44, blames only himself. He said he was naive to think he could switch from Pentecostalism to Wicca in the same way that chaplains routinely change from one Christian denomination to another.
Chaplain Kevin L. McGhee, Larsen's superior at Camp Anaconda, believes a "grave injustice" was done. McGhee, a Methodist, supervised 26 chaplains on the giant base near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. He says Larsen was the best.
"I could go on and on about how well he preached, the care he gave," McGhee says. "What happened to Chaplain Larsen -- to be honest, I think it's political. A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they are ignorant about what Wiccans do."
He says he understands why strangers might think "a mortar round must have landed too close to this guy." He recalls, with a chuckle, that a friend once gave him a diagnosis of "multiple religions disorder."
But the struggle between his ardent Christianity and his willingness to see equal value in other faiths was no joke -- it was a painful, internal conflict that came to a head after he arrived in Iraq in early 2006.
"In Iraq, I saw what was happening in the name of Allah and I thought, 'This has got to stop.' . . . The common core of all religions, we're saying the same stuff," he says. "I just decided that the rest of my life I will encourage people to seek out the light however they see fit, through the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the writings of prophets and sages -- whatever path propels them to be good and honorable and upright."
Larsen now draws freely from all those traditions. He meditates daily, concentrating on the seven chakras that Hindus believe are the body's centers of energy.
At times, he tries to free his mind from his physical being, a New Age practice he calls "astral travel." With his 19-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, he reads the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Following the Wiccan calendar, he observes eight major holidays tied to the seasons and the right times to plant, harvest and tend a flock. Imbolc, for example, is when gestating ewes begin producing milk, signaling that winter is almost over.