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by Wayland Skallagrimsson
The biggest problem facing Asatru today is, of course, reconstructing the lore and understanding that we have lost since the days of the ancient heathens. This is only to be expected, of course, because we are a reconstructionist religion just getting on its feet after an interregnum of a thousand years. But after this the next greatest challenge facing us is not spiritual at all, but political. It is the issue of the factions in Asatru that have formed around the question: "Who can practice Asatru?"
Asatru was once a tradition-specific term. That is to say, calling oneself Asatru was equivalent to saying that one belonged to a certain specific group, located in Texas in America. But in the decades since that group was founded the term has become more general. Now the great majority of those who call themselves Asatru are solitary practitioners or belong to kindreds that haven't even the most tenuous connections to that original. It is now generally used as a catch-all term for all those who are true to the Aesir, and thus it is used to describe those who practice Forn Sedh, Theodish Rite, and all other such groups, a synonym for "heathen".
To put things simply, there are three major camps of Asatruar: the Universalists, the Tribalists, and the Folkish. Universalists and Folkish practitioners are two extremes, with the (more reasonable) center being Tribalism, into which category the majority of Asatruar fall. These are the factions that have formed from three different answers to the question: "Who can practice Asatru?"
On the one hand there are the universalists. These people argue that anyone, no matter who, no matter what the background, who wishes to worship the Aesir and Vanir is Asatru. Clearly the primary motivating factor behind this idea is the Christian influence in the world. Christian doctrine holds that their religion is for everyone, no matter who. It has been the dominant religious doctrine in Western culture for so long that many people instinctively assume that most religions are like Christianity in most ways, even if the gods are different.
There is little direct harm in the universalist approach. But still, I side with those who generally hold against it. The idea that anyone who says "I worship the Aesir" is Asatru is just too loose a standard. While I have known good and knowledgable Universalists, all too often this sort of thinking leads to very poor and ill-educated religion. Too often the product of Universalist thinking is a very surface-level sort of religion. Because there are no real standards, too many self-described Asatruar are walking around who couldn't even define a "blot"or a "sumbel", much less hold one. Universalism tends to lead to superficial understandings that lack a cultural context and so never go deeper than the level of: "Odin, yeah, he's the God of War. And Thor is God of Lightning. And Freya is the Love Goddess. And I think there are some other gods too." Universalism also allows other religions or spiritual paths such as Wicca, the New Age, and Theosophy who have philosophies that run counter to ancient Asatru to use our gods and call themselves Asatru, thus spreading disinformation and making the whole job of forming a living tradition after so long an interregnum that much more difficult.
Opposite the Universalists are the Folkish Asatruar. These claim that the only ones who can be Asatru are those with Norse or Germanic blood. They claim that other bloodlines had other gods and that people of other bloodlines should stick to those gods. They claim that the only people who can properly worship the Aesir and the Vanir are people with such blood as the ancient Norse and Germans had.
I think there are three types of Folkist, judging from those I have talked to and read the writings of. These are:
1)White Power Folkists, who feel non-whites cannot hear the call of our gods. These are a major part of the type using the term Folkish. Many are openly racist, though many others will try to claim they are simply full of pride for the white race, but are not racist because they also believe that whites cannot hear the call of other races' gods. Still others will simply state "I'm not racist", but will be as adamant in claiming that the gods will have nothing to do with those not of Northern European descent as they are in refusing to give any cogent reason as to how they know this or why this isn't racist. The White Power Folkist is often a Nazi as well, and sometimes goes by the term "hammerskin".
2)Honestly confused Folkists who have a bad view of science or philosophy that leads them to conclusions that are in effect racist even though they honestly don't think so. Examples of this are those people who honestly do think that genetic science says that a person's thoughts and beliefs are genetically determined, when it in fact says no such thing. (There is no evidence of this at all. Most scientists believe a person's thoughts and beliefs are largely derived from childhood cultural indoctrination influenced in some indeterminable way by genetic inclinations in one vague direction or another, such as a tendency to get angry easily, or a tendency towards depression.) The most public example of this type of Folkist is Steve McNallen and his AFA, with their "science" of metagenetics. Unfortunately in the modern world, many people are exposed to science trivia in magazines and on TV and get erroneous impressions that they think actually reflect modern scientific understanding. This type is usually quite adamant in claiming they are not racist, and often gets highly offended when someone tries to point out how their beliefs may be termed as such.
3)Tribalists (more on them below) who for some reason are confused as to terms and call themselves Folkish b/c they believe the ancient heathens' culture must be adopted to be Asatru, who have no problem with non-white Asatruar, but who think for some reason Folkish is the term for their beliefs.
There are several problems with the beliefs of the first two types of Folkist, problems that show that their beliefs are inherently self-contradictory, unsupported or contrary to heathen religion, and/or scientifically unsound. The beliefs of both White Power Folkists and honestly confused (and even well-meaning) but still racist Folkists can be disproven with the following six arguments:
The Six Disproofs:
1)No Folkist actually believes the central tenet of Folkism: that the gods of one's ancestors are one's own gods, that religious predisposition is in the blood, determined by genetic predisposition. That this is so can be easily seen with a little history and some simple arithmetic. The end of ancient heathenry is generally held to be about the year 1000. While there is evidence it survived in isolated places for a few centuries after this, in other places it ended centuries before this, so it is a good average number. Now, a generation is usually held to be about 20 years. So between the end of heathenry and today, there are about 1000/20=50 generations. So depending on whether one's parents or grandparents were Christian (the case for virtually every heathen), individual contributions to one's genes from Christian ancestors are 25% to 50% of one's own genetic makeup, while the individual contribution to one's genes from any heathen ancestor is less than 1 ten-trillionth of one percent. (This is a far lower percentage than the ratio between a single grain of sand and the number of all the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world.) As there are only around 70,000 genes in the whole human genome, this means that not a single gene of any modern man is directly from an ancient heathen ancestor! (The best that can be said is that even people of Northern European descent have a genetic structure that is vaguely influenced by ancient heathen genes.) If the Folkists are right, and the gods of one's genetic ancestors are the biggest factor in determining what religion is right for that one, then everyone in the West should be Christian, not Asatru.
And even if this type of Folkist attempts to argue that heathenry came first and so is more fundamental (an argument which still flies in the face of their genetic statements), then they run into another conceptual difficulty. Heathenry wasn't the first religion their ancestors had either. If this argument is correct then we should all be trying to revive prehistoric religion, of the type held by our "cavemen" ancestors. And also, interbreeding being what it is, most people of northern european descent are not purely of ancient heathen or christian ancestry. Their ancestors likely include other european strains such as celtic and slavic, making the choice of Asatru nothing better than a random one.
The fact that the core tenet of Folkism can plainly be seen to result in beliefs that no Folkist follows shows that their arguments about religious beliefs being determined by genes are nothing more than a rationalization, an attempt to find a explanation for something they have already decided to believe without reason.
2)If White Power Folkists really believed that other races were truly inferior, then they wouldn't be lashing out so strongly against them. A strong man does not strike at a weaker one who is no real threat to him. He would ignore him. The fact that White Power Folkists are so strident about the weakness of other races and their inability to comprehend or follow our ways shows their real attitudes they are striving to keep hidden: that they are afraid of others not like them. Not a rational belief at all, simply a chimpanzee-like fear of the Other Tribes. An animal instinct unguided by a thinking, human mind. If they really had the courage of their convictions then they would realize that evolution (favoring, as it does, survival of the fittest) would inevitably weed out the weaker genes itself, with no need for help from them.
3)There is no religious justification at all for excluding other races. The concept is not mentioned, even once, in any Edda or Saga. If it were such an important part of heathenry as Folkists of the first two types make it out to be, then it would have received at least a passing reference by the ancients. It's not like they were unaware of other races. They were great travellers, explorers, traders, conquerors, who ranged far into eastern europe and even into northern africa. So it is quite apparent to anyone not trying to shut their ears against what they don't want to hear that the real motivation of these Folkists is not religious at all, but political. That this is so can be seen by visiting the message boards and websites of such Folkists. Many focus primarily on the issue of race and such political issues, mentioning actual religious ideas little, if at all. One popular message board I visited for White Power Folkists and the second type of Folkist (the honestly intentioned, if confused type) had a total of 72 threads that had little to nothing to do with religion in any way, about a third of which were concerned with issues of race. It had only 25 threads on religious topics. This same board had, as its introduction, a long rant about White Power and the need to exclude other races from Asatru but it literally had nothing at all about the practice of the religion. In contrast I know a black man who honors Thor as a patron, and accepts the ancient heathen culture and religion as guiding principles. When he talks it is about religious matters, not political ones. About Loki's true nature, and why one should or shouldn't walk Odin's path. About the less well known aspects of Thorrish worship. Its not difficult to tell who is the more truly religious.
4)History contains several examples that run counter to the Folkish belief. This includes things the ancient heathens themselves did. Ibn Fadhlan, the Arab, was allowed into religious rites. So was Tacitus' father. Irish slaves in Iceland, as well as Slavic, Finnish, and Sami slaves elsewhere are clearly shown, over and over again, as taking part in Norse culture, including Norse religion. Examples of this include the rites of Nerthus, in which slaves played a prominent part. (While the race of the slaves is not recorded, slaves were very often from other races than their captors, captured in raids, and not often of people from the captors race, a practice most ancient heathens considered shameful.) Indeed, such slaves often became integrated into the culture fully, as the Irish slaves did in Iceland. In fact, Icelandic law insisted that slaves take on Icelandic names immediately upon coming to Iceland. Norse slaves (again, who were most often foreigners, people of other races) were often freed after a time, and then took an equal place in society.
Norsemen, when travelling afar, often took part in the religious rituals of the lands they travelled to, such as is found in the example of prime-signing, where travelling heathens took part in Christian ritual without renouncing their native gods. If the ancient heathens thought every bloodline had its own gods that should be stuck to exclusively, then why did they engage in this practice? Similarly Radbod the Frisian, an Asatru hero, was going to take baptism to honor his friends' gods (until a Christian priest said something stupid).
Mythology too contains potent counterarguments to the Folkish viewpoint. Most notable is Odin. He seeks everywhere for wisdom and knowledge. He looks all over the world of humans. He looks amongst the alfs, and the gods, and even the jotuns. If true Asatru-ish wisdom is found only in certain bloodlines, then why does Odin do this? There is also the matter of Loki, who is a jotun yet is, according to the Prose Edda, has a divine nature. Thor's sons, Magni and Modi, were mothered by the giantess Jarnsaxa, yet they are not only considered divine despite their impure blood, they are considered so divine and mighty that they will take up Thor's hammer after Ragnarok, and become the defenders of men and gods alike. If the ancient heathens considered genetics to be all-important in determining both worth and religious inclination, why would this be so? And going back to the issue to slaves as foreigners again, the Lay of Harbarth implies that slaves have a place in the heathen afterlife, which implies that non Norsemen could have a place in the afterlife. The Lay of Rig gives a divine origin to the race of slaves, and again by implication to foreigners.
5)The genetic arguments of both the first two types of Folkists have other flaws as well. The best known proponent of the religious-genetic theory of Folkism is, perhaps, Steve McNallen, with his pseudo-science of metagenetics. I call it a pseudo-science because he bases it upon an extremely tenuous foundation and then goes way out on a limb. His primary sources for claiming proof that behavior of all sorts (therefore including religious predisposition) are genetically determined are Dr. J. B. Rhine, an ESP researcher at Duke University (not a geneticist and, by most professional scientists' standards, not even a real scientist of any sort), Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia studying reincarnation (again, neither a geneticist nor a reputable scientist), a particular and, IMO incorrect, interpretation of C.G. Jung's work (also not a geneticist), and Dr. Daniel G. Freedman, a behavioral psychologist from the university of Chicago (still not a geneticist). From the claims made by his interpretation of these scientists' work, he claims unequivocal proof that there are such profound inborn differences between the various races that no one would even dream of thinking the psychology of other races applied to whites (and vice versa).
But looking at his theory of metagenetics in an honest scientific manner, it simply does not hold water. For one thing, not a single one of the people he cites as references has the least expertise in the field of genetics. Dr. Rhine's work can be dismissed as irrelevant outright, for the field of ESP is of dubious value scientifically, and certainly no standards exist for drawing upon research from ESP experiments and applying them to genetics. Dr. Stevenson's work is similarly not applicable to this issue, for there is no question (aside from the lunatic fringe of pseudo-science) that the concept of reincarnation has been in any fashion proven scientifically. Indeed, Mr. McNallen twists even the reincarnation lore he does possess in order to force it to fit his assumptions about race. He states definitively that in Norse lore reincarnation is seen as occuring exclusively along the family line. But as any scholar of Norse mythology and folklore knows, there is insufficient evidence to even claim they had a belief in reincarnation at all. There are (sometimes fierce) debates about this fact both in modern Asatru and in scholarly circles. So to not only claim that this belief definitely existed but then to provide details that certainly are not recorded anywhere stretches the bounds of exaggeration and approaches outright fabrication. He then goes on to imply that the majority of reincarnation beliefs the world over hold that reincarnation occurs only in the family line and as an example he gives the beliefs of the Tlingit people. This is another gross distortion. The vast majority of reincarnation beliefs hold that reincarnation not only occurs outside the family line, but also outside the species line! (Just look at Hindu and Buddhist reincarnation doctrine.)
His references to Jung's work are also something of a distortion. He states that Jung held that the collective unconscious is passed on by heredity and so takes this as evidence that the different races are so dissimilar that their unconscious natures and archetypes are completely distinct. But in reality Jung, while acknowledging some variations between different races and cultures held that the archetypes of the collective unconscious were nearly universal. As Robert Segal summing up Jung's view in his introduction to Jung On Mythology, while the general hero archetype is passed on by heredity, specific examples of it are passed on through acculturization. The whole point of Jung's work on the collective unconscious is that it explains why different races and cultures have the same archetypes, not why they are different.
Out of all the references Mr. McNallen gives, the work of Dr. Freedman approaches closest to rational. But all Dr. Freedman did was show there were small differences in how 48 hour old babies of different ethnic groups responded to various stimuli, as in either pushing away a finger held over the nose or instead just switching to mouth breathing. To take the leap from this to stating that it is proof that something so abstract and complex as religious understandings vary too widely with race to admit mutual understanding is totally unfounded. Indeed, Mr. McNallen makes no attempt to justify his blind leap; he simply states it as fait accompli. This is not science, this is an attempt to use scientific sounding terminology to rationalize a belief he plainly wants to hold. Real science requires reasons, logic, empirical data.
The idea that ones genes determine one's nature (thoughts, feelings, attitudes) is hardly accepted as fact by any real scientists, as even a cursory reading in the field reveals. To believe that is does is to ignore many well documented facts, such as that wild children (children grown up outside of any human contact) lack most traits associated with any human beings, such as the ability to learn language, never mind showing traits inherent to their particular race. It also flies in the face of the fact that as yet all studies of genes show absolutely no difference between the different races. Looking at a genetic sequence, there is not one scientist in the world that could tell what race of human it came from. So obviously whatever genes account for the observed differences between the races form such a minuscule portion of the DNA that the difference is essentially negligible.
I have questioned many Folkish practitoners, and have never found a one who could give an intelligent (or intelligible) answer as to why it is the blood that is so important. Most just fall back upon such nonsensical statements as "It is the Lore of Life!", "It is the heritage of our People!", "I just know it," or some other synonym for "I can't be bothered to think much and just follow what other people and my own instincts tell me." I have noted that these people's definitions of Norse or Germanic blood grow increasingly broader the whiter a person's skin, and increasingly narrower the darker a person's skin.
The fact that proponents of the "genes determine our thoughts" (including religious ones) ideas have to ignore many empirical facts, have to twist their research to make things say something other than they really do, and have to rely on the research of pseudoscientists like parasychological researchers indicates what their real agenda is: an attempt to paint a veneer of respectability onto beliefs they are determined to have no matter what, onto their inherent prejudices.
6)The basic tenet of White Power Folkists, that the white race is inherently superior to all others, is completely unsupported by history. The Egyptians had engineering techniques figures out thousands of years ago that modern whites are unable to duplicate even today. The Chinese had many inventions, such as gunpowder, centuries before whites discovered them. Tibetans, Africans, and indiginous South Americans have pioneered fields of psychological science still unduplicated by whites. If the idea that the white race is inherently superior were actually as plain fact as they like to claim, everyone would believe it.
I have no problem with the third type of Folkist, except that their terminology lends credibility to other Folkists. I wish they'd use a better term, but other than that they're all right.
The second type are sometimes honest in intent and can on occasion be reasoned with. A standard dictionary definition of racism is:
"a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior"
The fact that the second type of Folkist insists that other races are incapable of hearing or understanding the call of the gods of Northern Europe (usually for genetic reasons), that in respect to the practice of heathen religion the white race is superior to all other, indicates that, whatever they might wish to believe about themselves to the contrary, they hold racist views. It matches exactly the dictionary definition of racism.
Even if these Folkish types claim they are not racist because Northern Europeans equally cannot hear the call of other races' gods, this is still a racist attitude, even if a more complex one. It is just a racism that admits that each race has an arguably valid point of view to be racist towards others. Just because it is a form of racist thought that is not entirely like the current popular forms of racist thought is no reason to mistake it for non-racist. Saying "They get to be racist too," is not the same thing as saying "We're not racist." It still totally ignores the fact that it is a blanket generalization on the basis of race that dismisses out of hand (ie, with no actual personal knowledge) a whole host of peoples, and that it therefore a form of weakness of thought. To claim knowledge where there is no real knowledge is to make a virtue out of laziness of thought and ignorance. This is a habit of thought that can have serious consequences, especially if it gets passed down through generations of Asatruar and is allowed to change, grow, and affect other beliefs and understandings of our lore. This potentially cripples our spiritual and intellectual development both in the long run, and so it must be seen as a weakness. Making a deliberate blind spot on the basis not of thought but racially oriented generalizations is not something that well serves our people. And while this type of Folkist may genuinely believe that other races should be respected (as Mr. McNallen states in his metagenetics papers) they tend to make the unwarranted leap to saying this respect proves they are not racist. But in this they are forgetting the difference between active and passive prejudice. Having respect for someone is not the same thing as saying you have made no assumptions about them, or saying that you view them as your equal in all respects.
And, of course, White Power Folkists are all racist.
The members of the middle faction of modern Asatru are called Tribalists, and shun the errors of either extreme. The racism of Folkish practice is avoided as well as the "anything goes" motto of the Universalists. The answer the Tribalists have to the question of "Who can practice Asatru?" is: "Anyone who makes a sufficient effort to understand and adopt the culture of the ancient heathens." This gives Asatru rigorous enough standards to make sure our practice is like that of the ancients, and is well understood, for to fully adopt another culture requires MUCH study. Additionally the gods first came to be known in the context of the ancient culture, so it stands to reason that they can only be truly understood in the terms of that culture. It also keeps us from the untenable argument that "other races" are somehow so intellectually inferior to the Norse and Germanic that they cannot attain this understanding. After all, someone brought up in modern Western culture is quite likely, from childhood on, to have been inundated with images, stories, and ideas from that Western culture, thus including our religion. This would make anyone in our culture, whatever the color of the skin, likely enough to have a way of thinking predominantly drawn to Asatru in religious matters, and much more ready to understand it, than some religion their ancestors happened to practice so long ago it isn't a part of their lives anymore.
Many Folkists who dislike either the idea of non-whites being allowed into "their" religion or who dislike having to confront the implications of their beliefs will often ignore the existence of Tribalists. Instead, when conversation comes up that is critical of Folkish beliefs, they start calling their opponents Universalists, trying to take the argument away from specifics they cannot respond to. They do this to try to paint their opponents as ridiculous enough to be dismissed out of hand, without having to actually respond to anything they say. By raising the spectre of the liberal PC bogeyman they hope to obscure the fact that they have no ability to defend themselves against rational Tribalist arguments. All good Tribalists out there should notice when this is being done, and give such chicanery no quarter.
Much is made, in the modern Asatru community, of "not rocking the boat", and "getting along", and "being fair and open-minded". But it is possible to be so open-minded that your brains fall out, so fair that wrongs are tolerated and allowed to flourish. For this reason, when subjects such as the rightness or wrongness of Folkish practice come up in conversation, as on discussion forums, people quickly leap to say such things as "Let's not open up that can of worms," or "But they're just expressing their honest opinions." I think this practice is wrong. Folkism is, in general, racism and makes a virtue out of clinging to ignorance and not thinking rationally. We should treat it as such. I think a zero-tolerance policy needs to be developed in modern Asatru lest we get dragged down by some real losers. We should discuss this. We should debate this. We should get rid of the ridiculous notion that an individual's right to have an honest opinion is grounds for forcing the rest of us to associate ourselves, even indirectly, with it. We should call racists racists and make sure they have no say in the future of our religion.
It is an important tenet of our religioun, of our philosophy towards life as Asatruar, that a person is responsible for his or her actions. Well, inaction is an action too. Allowing racist beliefs to be spoken next to the beliefs of our cultural ancestors without comment gives the distinct impression to everyone that these are acceptable interpretations of the lore (and think how that affects those new to our path, as well as outsiders looking at us). It lends validity to the idea that our gods really think and feel as they do. My brothers and sisters, every time you let such opinions go unchallenged, every time you shut down a conversation with the words "let's not open up that can of worms again," or "well, they're just expressing their honest opinions," or "we've already had this conversation and it got nowhere,", every time you do these things THE RESULT OF YOUR ACTIVITIES IS THAT THE RACIST AGENDA IS ALLOWED TO FLOURISH. IT IS PROMOTED. IT IS ALLOWED TO DOMINATE MORE AND MORE OF WHO WE ARE AS ASATRUAR.
We are at an early level of development, as a religion. There are few of us. Our religion is, in general, still at a superficial level. If this were not so, where are the great modern literary works of depth, insight, and passion that other religions, such as Christianity, seem capable of producing? Where is there an Asatru G.K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis? Why are all of our modern Asatru books basically "Asatru 101" style works, with a page or paragraph on each god, a list of holy days, and a sampling of prewritten rituals? This is only to be expected. We've been around decades, not centuries. We are an infant religion, for all that our roots are ancient. But it can't stay this way forever. We need to grow.
The more that clinging to ignorance and weakness are allowed to influence our religious thought, the less likely we become able to develop past our present immature stage. The more new Asatruar who come to this, find racist beliefs, and so adopt that as a tenet of their spirituality, the fewer people capable of honestly trying to bring progress to our understandings. And how many, even amongst those of Northern European descent, (never mind those of other races) who have come to find Asatru and find also racist beliefs tolerated as normal are repulsed and turned away? How many people, how many potentially intelligent and devoted resources are we losing that we never even knew existed because of this?
If you continue to hold troth with such racist Folkists, then the net effect of your actions is to bring harm upon our people. The net effect of your actions is racist. I'm not, personally, one to pay much heed to the cry "but my intentions were good!" I much prefer to let a person's inner thoughts and real motivations be what they may and judge a person on the basis of his or her actions. Racist is as racist does. There is no sitting on the fence when it comes to this issue. Whether you act or not, the repercussions of your decision affect all of us.
I admit these arguments will have no effect on most White Power Folkists, nor even on many of those who are honestly confused, with good intentions. But I am not speaking these arguments for their sake. I am speaking to my fellow Tribalists. I am speaking to all of us, no matter what you call yourself, to rise up and take a stand. Now, while it counts the most. This is the beginning age of our modern history. Now, at the beginning, is where the most effect is had from all of our actions. The most harm can be wreaked, the most good can be done. I urge you to get on the right side of history. If we are to have the best chance of surviving as a people any length of time, we must take every advantage we can. The beliefs of the first sort of Folkist must become relegated to the footnotes of our history, as one of the challenges the early modern Asatruar had to overcome. Our cultural ancestors were strong. They were brave. Look to them as inspiration, and do not flee from confronting this issue head on, now, when we can have the most effect. Hold no troth with the first sort of Folkist. Do not allow them onto our lists. Do not allow a single ignorant statement go unchallenged. You moderators, do not shut down threads where these conversations arise. Do not allow the errors of thought of the second sort of Folkist to pass unchallenged. Do not give them the veneer of respectability that silence on their weaknesses grants. Do not hold their ideas to be as valid or serious as those of other heathens. Do not allow their racism to infect our troth just because it is a hidden, seemingly irrelevant form of racism. Do not treat them as "just another way of looking at things, as valid as any other".
To those who would, no matter what, try to keep silent from fear or from a desire to be left in peace, I say "shame on you." You are not taking responsibility for your actions, for your decisions. You make us weak, now, when we most need to be strong. You are not my kinfolk.
As They Might Be Giants say in their song "You and Your Racist Friend":
"Can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding."