Advocates for causes may sometimes be surprised where their support comes from. That’s particularly true when such unexpected backing is notably vocal and passionate. So it is for the champions of several high-profile, hot-button initiatives as seen in the snicker-filled new documentary, “Hail Satan?”
Those behind such issues as separation of church and state, women’s reproductive rights, and same-sex marriage often face an uphill battle, especially in light of the zealous, well-organized efforts of right-wing religious fundamentalists. The proponents of these measures can use all of the encouragement they can muster. But who would have thought that they would receive such support from a source like The Satanic Temple.
In “Hail Satan?”, viewers are introduced to a nontheistic “religious” minority that’s nothing like how it has traditionally been portrayed. Through the mainstream media, Hollywood movies and other sources, Satanists have been depicted as evil incarnate hell-bent on engaging in all sorts of horrendous, unnatural, unspeakable acts. Yet, as director Penny Lane’s documentary reveals, these characterizations are largely juvenile exaggerations, the product of a well-orchestrated smear campaign to distort who they really are and what they’re seeking to achieve.
Members of the Temple freely acknowledge themselves as followers of “the opposition.” But this is not meant so much to be opposition to God as much as it is meant to be opposition to those who contend to authoritatively and exclusively speak for the Divine. In that vein, that would include those who intolerantly proclaim their religions to be the sole, unquestionable truth that everyone must follow to the exclusion of all other faiths, schools of theological thought that they dismissively regard as nothing more than outright heresy. These are notions primarily put forth by fundamentalist Christians, who look upon other religions with disdain and contempt (and, if they feel that way about mainstream creeds, one can only imagine what they have to say about Satanists).
Temple members, by contrast, maintain that we should all be free to follow whatever faith best suits us, be it Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or, in their view, Satanism. They believe their mission is to help preserve that right – for everyone – and to steadfastly challenge anyone who would try to take it away. This belief in religious pluralism, they insist, is essential to a society, such as ours, that claims to revere the formal separation of church and state.
In recent years, however, this principle has come under fire, especially when fundamental Christians have undertaken such initiatives as trying to erect Ten Commandments monuments on the grounds of capitol buildings in states like Oklahoma and Arkansas. Members of The Satanic Temple have countered by contending that, if states allow Christian monuments to be placed on public properties, they must also allow the erection of comparable testaments to other religions on those same grounds. To that end, then, Satanists have sought to have statues of their goat-headed god Baphomet installed alongside whatever Christian monuments might be placed on those properties. After all, in a supposedly secular state, fair is fair, they say.
“Hail Satan?” chronicles these efforts, depicting how these outspoken, left-leaning activists have taken on their sanctimonious counterparts and effectively made them look like ridiculous religious blowhards. Instead of patently malevolent deeds, viewers are shown the cleverly crafted campaigns of this band of comically sinister but basically harmless bogeymen gleefully poking holes in the dogma of the religious right. Like impish frat boys pulling pranks, this amusingly macabre contingent of nonconformists has succeeded in capturing public and media attention, deftly outwitting its opposition at virtually every turn.
According to Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves, efforts like the ones his organization are pursuing are crucial to preserve the sweeping freedoms set down in the U.S. Constitution and to prevent their hijacking by those with their own narrow agendas. Speaking from the Temple’s headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts, where a number of innocent women were wrongly put to death for their views in the witch trials of the 1690s, Greaves and his followers believe these efforts need to start with setting the record straight about America’s innate secular nature and religiously neutral legacy. They’re particularly concerned about dispelling the fallacy that the U.S. is a historically “Christian nation.” Indeed, viewers may well be surprised to learn how the promotion of this widely held myth began as a Cold War propaganda ploy to counter the overblown and supposedly insidious spread of “Godless Communism” throughout the land. And, in that regard, audiences will likely be tickled (or possibly shocked) at discovering how the campaign to get Ten Commandments monuments erected on the nation’s municipal properties actually got its start.
However, separation of church and state is but one of the Satanists’ aims. As the film shows, they have also taken on such other faith-based issues as the hypocrisy of religious institutions, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and its cover-up of the actions of pedophile priests (something one won’t find among the ranks of the leaders of The Satanic Temple, they contend). In addition, they have railed against initiatives to institute prayer in school and at government meetings (unless, of course, Satanic verses can be included as part of those programs as well). They have even sought the establishment of after-school Satanic groups in locales where Christians have actively sought to launch Bible studies.
On a more secular level, Satanists have sought to preserve women’s reproductive protections and to promote gay rights, most notably same-sex marriage. Much of the opposition in these areas also comes from religious organizations, such as the insufferably vocal, supremely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, which the Temple has unabashedly taken on publicly with devilish glee. The measures implemented by Temple members to counter such protests have been just as satirical, thought-provoking and creative as those used in their other endeavors, all designed to raise awareness about the corruption, hypocrisy and self-serving agendas behind these dubious, reactionary initiatives.
Without a doubt, Satanists have been called “dangerous” for what they do. Yet, if this film is any indication, perhaps the most seditious idea they’re calling for is to think for ourselves. And, if that is indeed a vile, distasteful notion, then perhaps it’s high time for any of us with any common sense to consider moving out of the country. But not if the Satanists have their say; they plan to hold their ground. And, because their ideas seem to speak to a broad number of people, they have become one of the fastest growing religious sects in the country today.
Of course, calling The Satanic Temple a religion may be a bit of a stretch. Most of these ideas are fundamentally social and political in nature, though, for tax purposes, the Temple has had itself legally classified as a religion, something more conventional faiths would probably rail against (even though they often do the same themselves). But this is more proof that Greaves and company can beat the others at their own game and get away with it.
From viewing this film, it would seem that much of what we’ve been taught to believe about Satanists is unfounded, that they’re misunderstood and innocent of what they’ve been accused. The Temple has even taken steps to cultivate this image by issuing guidelines to its various chapters outlining what the faith stands for, an attempt to promote consistency and continuity among its members and leaders in educating the public.
However, as often happens with religious organizations, there are those within them who invariably go rogue, deviating from the institution’s doctrines and principles, and The Satanic Temple is no exception. The documentary reveals this through the Temple’s official severance of ties with its Detroit chapter, led by overzealous advocate Jex Blackmore. She believed that progress for the Satanist agenda was coming too slowly and began advocating actions, such as violence, to speed up the process. Given this violation of the Temple’s tenets, Greaves cut off relations with this chapter, calling it a regrettable but necessary action to preserve the Temple’s image and prevent the public from getting the wrong impression. In that regard, then, it would seem that even Satanists are not immune to the administrative and philosophical problems that can hamper the missions of religious institutions.
Nevertheless, despite such issues, it would seem the Temple is doing something right to spur its impressive growth. When organizations like this experience such an expansion in a short period of time, they’re usually espousing ideas that have widespread appeal for a large pool of would-be followers. So, in light of the corrupt, hypocritical state of affairs characterizing many segments of contemporary society, as well as the growing number of individuals who are becoming increasingly intolerant of such conditions, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the ideas championed by an institution openly opposed to such circumstances would attract the backing of a number of fiercely loyal, dedicated followers.
At bottom, the success behind organizations like this is ultimately driven by the implementation of the beliefs they advocate, and that’s crucial for their growth and popularity, because those notions underlie the origin and sustained materialization of such institutions. That means of manifestation is at the core of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we realize the existence we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, considering the intense passion driving the ideology of The Satanic Temple and the fervor of its members, it’s no wonder that the organization has proliferated as it has.
The Temple’s beliefs have obviously struck a chord with many individuals looking for answers to a litany of social ills that conventional religious and secular institutions either, at best, have been unable to provide or, at worst, have directly caused themselves. Satanism has provided a mechanism through which they can channel their energies, enabling them to push through the limitations that hold them back (and, they would hope, to eradicate the ignorance that binds and blinds the majority of society at large). And, through their inspired attention-grabbing ventures, they seem to be getting some results. Indeed, the opposition has arrived.
In considering the foregoing, some might say they have come up with some novel ways of making valid points. Others, by contrast, might easily call them the latest iteration of the silver-tongued con man. But, when looking at the holier-than-thou spokespersons who definitively claim to speak for the Divine and comparing their supposedly unquestionable evangelizing with their often-questionable public and private acts, one quite legitimately has to wonder who the real charlatans are. (After all, weren’t we warned about false prophets?)
This is not to suggest that everyone should scurry out and join the ranks of the Satanists; that’s a highly personal, individual decision. However, in reading the Temple’s seven basic tenets (see below), one finds principles that are hard to take issue with. If those who lead today’s mainstream religions were to earnestly embrace even half of these notions, the world would be a much better place for it. Let’s hope this film helps to set the record straight about these concepts and those who adhere to them, regardless of whether or not one subsequently opts to become a card-carrying member.
This tongue-in-cheek but thought-provoking look at the efforts of committed but misunderstood activists battling duplicitous religious and political institutions with agendas more dangerous than anything their mischievous opponents are proposing gives us all much to ponder. Amidst the many laughs are telling truths that we should all take seriously if we hope to protect the freedoms we have so diligently sought to carve out for ourselves. Anyone who identifies with the maligned outcasts of society will no doubt relate to the Satanists’ message and realize who it is we should really be afraid of. In relating this story, “Hail Satan?” received a well-earned Sundance Film Festival Documentary Grand Jury Prize nomination.
Recent events have shown us that our rights have fallen into an increasingly precarious position, making their protection ever more important. The need for diligence, even with the backing of unlikely supporters, is crucial to preserve them. Indeed, thinking for ourselves shouldn’t be seen as an unnatural state of affairs but as a wholly mainstream concept that we all enthusiastically embrace – no matter who advocates it.
The Seven Tenets of The Satanic Temple
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
- People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.