SALT LAKE CITY — In 2013, a new organization called the Satanic Temple mounted a press conference at the Florida State Capitol with a banner reading “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” A man wearing horns and a black cape thanked the governor for signing a bill that allowed for student-led prayer in schools, which reaffirmed religious liberty and would allow America’s Satanic children to practice their faith openly.
This is the first scene in director Penny Lane’s documentary “Hail Satan?,” which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. It poses the question from the very start: what is this group really about?
Even though most people say they know what Satanism is, they’re almost always wrong, said Lane. To start, she says, most modern Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan. But that doesn't mean their religious practice is not sincere.
The question for viewers is whether their religious practice is actually the practice of getting rid of religion in the public square.
While some claim that Satanic Temple members are brave and creative champions of religious liberty, others are outraged because the group’s actions appear to be a diabolical assault on Christianity and an attempt to silence expressions of faith with media-savvy stunts.
Lane’s film chronicles the growth of the group, which was founded in 2013 and is headquartered in the witch-hunt-famous town of Salem, Massachusetts. Members are drawn to Satan as a symbolic figure who they say represents rebellion and free thought. As part of their dedication to civic engagement, they take advantage of Satanic imagery and the scandalized reaction it provokes to advocate for the public representation of diverse religious voices and the separation of church and state.
The Satanic Temple has petitioned several city councils to allow its members to offer prayers at public meetings where doing so is the practice. Last year, it filed a lawsuit against the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, after a Satanic Temple member was denied the opportunity to offer an invocation. The legal matter is still unresolved. In 2016, the group launched a program called After School Satan to provide an alternative to evangelical Christian Good News Clubs, which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of in 2001. And the group is currently involved in litigation regarding a petition to put a Satanic statue in front of the Capitol building in Arkansas, alongside a monument to the Ten Commandments.
The documentary captures the horrified reactions of community members. A man pleads with city council members not to allow evil forces to influence the city. A woman demands the After School Satan club leave innocent children alone.
Among religious liberty experts, the Satanic Temple inspires mixed reactions as well. Charles C. Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C., says the Satanic Temple is playing an important role by ensuring the government delivers on its promise to treat all religions equally. But others say the Satanists are distracting from the religious liberty cause.
“The Satanic Temple probably hurts religious liberty more than it helps because the name drives so many people away,” Douglas Laycock, religious freedom expert and law professor at the University of Virginia, told the Deseret News. “I'm sure that the vast majority of Americans who have ever heard of the Satanic Temple think they worship evil. Not even close, but they give that impression.”
The group’s seven tenets promote compassion, justice and freedom. But their controversial antics — such as performing “Black Mass,” a practice offensive to many Catholics — have attracted more attention.
According to the Satanic Temple’s co-founder, who goes by the pseudonym Lucien Greaves to protect his family from negative attention and threats, the goal of these initiatives is not to disparage religion but to fight against a situation where one religious viewpoint (Christianity) is given exclusive privilege.
It’s a live issue as the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case next month about a cross-shaped World War I memorial in Maryland that is maintained with state funds. The case will address how to interpret the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the "establishment of religion" by government.
Establishment clause cases are exactly the type of thing that interests this group. While conservatives argue the establishment clause simply means the government cannot force religious activity and things like monuments are free expression, Satanists say the government shouldn't endorse religious messages, even passively through a statue, unless they are open to making room for the representation of all faiths — including Satanism.
The documentary "Hail Satan?" brings into focus the beliefs and goals of an often misunderstood group, even as experts continue to debate whether the Satanic Temple is really a religion and whether it deserves to be a part of religious freedom debates.
Is Satanism really a religion?
According to Joseph Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University (and son of Douglas Laycock), the term “Satanism” can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation. Calling someone a Satanist was a way Christians from different factions discredited one other, Joseph Laycock told the Deseret News.
In 1966, a man named Anton LaVey founded the first organized group of Satanists called the Church of Satan in San Francisco. LaVey did not believe in God or Satan, but preached self-fulfillment and viewed Satan as a liberating figure. While enclaves of Satanists who do practice devil worship exist, they are very few in number, Joseph Laycock said.
As activity in the Church of Satan began to wane, Greaves, who had been studying Satanism academically, and a few like-minded friends saw an opportunity to reinvent modern Satanism. In 2013, they founded the Satanic Temple with an emphasis on political activism. To them, Satan represents the antithesis of mainstream culture. As such, the symbol of the devil can be used to challenge Christianity’s influence on American politics, as manifested in-laws related to abortion and transgender rights, for example, Greaves told the Deseret News.
The Satanic Temple's activities are funded by membership donations, merchandise sales and partnerships with nonprofit organizations, according to its website.
Jesper Aagaard Petersen, a religious studies scholar with a speciality in Satanism at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said the Satanic Temple “hit a nerve” by combining liberal values and activism with an outsider identity.
In just six years since the group’s founding, Greaves says the Satanic Temple has gained 100,000 members worldwide. But Petersen told the Deseret News the number of people actively involved is closer to four digits.
While the Satanic Temple is organized as a religion and qualifies for religious tax exemptions under IRS rules, critics say it is really an activist group.
"Not only do these malcontents go around wasting the courts' time with parody lawsuits, they won't even give the devil his due,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit legal firm focused on religious freedom — suggesting the group is not sincere in its beliefs.
David Frankfurter, professor of religion at Boston University, agrees the Satanic Temple is more of a “social political criticism movement” than a religion. According to Frankfurter, a religion is something that lasts over a significant period of time. It’s too soon to tell whether people will continue to identify deeply with the Satanic Temple in the long term, he told the Deseret News.
Other scholars refute the idea that a group has to be around for a long time to be considered an authentic religion.
“The Satanic Temple satisfies most substantive or functional definitions of religion, even though they don’t worship or even believe in a deity,” said Petersen. For example, the Satanic Temple has an organized community, regular meetings, symbolic rituals and a narrative construct that helps people contextualize their lives and work. Many religions, like Buddhism and Taoism, consider specific beliefs secondary and practice primary, he said.
“You might say the Satanic Temple worships humanity, rationality and equality through the figure of Satan as proposed in the seven tenets,” Petersen added.
Greaves defended the Satanic Temple’s sincerity and said the group did not organize themselves around the figure of Satan arbitrarily to provoke Christians. The film includes interviews with members who share how strongly they identify with the Satanist community.
“We have grown up in Western society. Satan resonates with us in a way that nothing else would,” said Greaves.
Do Satanists deserve to be a part of religious liberty debates?
Whether or not experts believe the Satanic Temple is a real religion, they agree members deserve to voice their opinions regarding religious freedom.
“Yes, we’re stuck with them,” Douglas Laycock said.
“They have a very real role to play,” said J. Gordon Melton, professor of American religious history at Baylor University. Christians are a supermajority in the United States, but it's important for the government to serve the needs of all people, he said.
Even atheists, or people without any religious identity, play an important part in ensuring religious liberty laws are fair, according to Jay D. Wexler, a law professor at Boston University.
“The same questions religion answers about the meaning of life are also answered by people who have belief systems that are not typically religious. Both have the same claim on potential truth and need to be treated the same by our government and political system,” Wexler said.
“Public schools cannot teach atheism any more than they can teach Christianity,” he added. “When you look at it that way, you see atheism plays the same role that typical religions do.”
Greaves said he believes some political initiatives promoted as expressions of religious liberty have in reality been veiled attempts to promote Christianity.
“Student-led prayer at school assemblies, the (Ten Commandments) monument debacle, the nativity displays or after-school programs are all promoted as general religious freedom initiatives, but in fact they first and foremost open the government sphere to Christian activities,” Petersen explained. “The Satanic Temple is using the vagueness of the proposals to argue for equality for all religions, including Satanism.”
Do Satanists help or hurt the cause of religious liberty?
In the past, Satanic Temple members have been known to engage in demonstrations that mock traditional religious practices and beliefs. Greaves says the group maintains its right to offend but is moving away from those kinds of displays.
“We find supernaturalism to be ridiculous if taken literally,” said Greaves. “But now it’s more important that people know we don’t subscribe to supernaturalism. That’s something that has changed with us now; we don’t put out those conflicting messages.”
They are not trying to make fun of religion, they just want to draw attention to the way Christianity dominates public life, according to Greaves.
Lane said that for the most part, the Satanic Temple is working with win-win scenarios. If they get their way and are allowed to put up a statue, start a club at a school or pray at a city council meeting, there’s more religious diversity. If they are denied, they sue, and the one religion that was privileged gets removed, she said.
Greaves said the majority of the Satanic Temple's cases don't make it to trial but are resolved by defendants so as to avoid trial. For example, when Satanists offered activity books in a Florida school district in 2015, the district shut down a program that allowed for the passive distribution of religious materials in order to keep the Satanists out, Greaves said.
“They are good with either outcome,” said Lane. They recognize that religion can never be totally removed from politics because it informs how individuals think about the world and how they vote. So the goal is to ensure diverse viewpoints are represented and respected rather than a singular religious perspective, she said.
Critics of the group say shutting down a program is the opposite of supporting religious liberty. If the group is “good with either outcome,” how sincere is the effort to bring a diversity of viewpoints?
“The question is: do you really want religion in public life or not?” said Wexler. “Because if you do, the Satanists have to be along with you. Either they’ll say everyone can participate or no one can participate. Either way the minority religions benefit.”62 comments on this story
Greaves hopes the Satanic Temple’s lawsuits empower and pave the way for other religious minorities to make their own equal access claims. In Oklahoma, for example, as the Satanic Temple was advocating for the addition of their statue, a Hindu group started petitioning for a Hindu icon as well, Greaves said.
“I don’t know if they were inspired by us, but it helps get the message out to more people,” said Greaves. “We are not second class citizens just because we have a different viewpoint.”