Oh, for the good old days when Satanists were simpler. Growing up northern Irish evangelical in the 1980s, I was warned about rock music revealing demonic messages when played backward, Dungeons & Dragons being a portal for teenage possession, even yoga and aromatherapy as the road to hell. Of course these examples were distractions from the real brokenness at the heart of my homeland — which could be described as humans making each other into ideologies, so we could break each other. But although they were distractions, they were sincere — fear of the unknown had been handed down by a longstanding oral tradition confusing the surface with the substance. As usual, the ancient teachings could have helped us — It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit out , say the Gospels, and as Eugene Peterson has the verse traditionally translated, By their fruits you will know them: Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. The problem with the Satanists of my childhood was that no one I knew knew any of them. We saw through a black veil darkly and couldn’t tell the difference between bloodcurdling medieval imagery, individualism, and satire.
It turns out that The Church of Satan as founded by Anton LaVey was more of a hedonistic club than something to fear, and today’s The Satanic Temple (TST) an entirely distinct organization — an emerging religious community whose tenets are dedicated to compassion, making amends for mistakes, and promoting religious liberty.
And in Hail, Satan?, the new documentary by Penny Lane, TST is revealed a community of people who have made rational decisions to oppose religious and political systems that harm people. The examples range from almost humorously sad: One participant speaks of how after watching the Gandhi movie, his school teacher’s primary reaction was to lament that despite Gandhi’s kindness, wasn’t it sad that as a non-Christian, he must be in hell; to distressingly sinister: At the same moment the satanic panic was stirring up fears of mass child abuse that turned out to be nonexistent, some Christian institutions were literally hiding that very thing.
To be healthy, religious institutions need to discern the difference between in-group politics, theological narcissism, and the common good. TST, in the best light, is a group seeking the freedom to critique both superstition and the negative fruits of oppressive religion. The heart of the film is the story of how TST has sought to have a statue of Baphomet erected at the Arkansas state capitol in order to help ensure the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.
The critic Nick Pinkerton recently wrote that the U.S. struggles to tell the difference between “the discourse of a work and the discourse of its characters.” In other words, we too often interpret the meaning of a story based on the notion that it endorses what its characters say and do and think, rather than what the story thinks of what they say and do. So “explicit content” warnings are added to music that may actually be telling the truth about the world; we attribute “character” to outward “cleanliness;” and in the worst cases, as Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz says in Apocalypse Now, “We train our young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write f*** on their airplanes because it’s obscene.” And I am aware of the irony in those asterisks.
Christianist nationalism has a problem with the heart. Full of good people seeking to live good lives, it also confuses surfaces with depths, and in its worst examples exchanges service to the common good with asserting cultural imperialism, complicit in the harm of discrimination, or, when it endorses retribution and war, even physical violence. The Satanic Temple, a recently emerging community claiming a religious identity, provokes the heart with its own surfaces — having developed an ethical code that sounds a lot like love your neighbor as yourself, and seeking to use nonviolent methods to provoke a pluralist public square. This is a fascinating story, and an important one, for learning to live together amidst strongly held differences is one of the foundations of a sustainable human future.
Hail, Satan? lets its protagonists speak for themselves without lionizing or demonizing them (no pun intended). It’s honest enough to critique some troubling excesses of what can happen when rage against a machine overtakes humane work for the common good. However, it could have benefitted from more attention to the underpinnings and impacts of Christianism (it does touch on the Salem witch hunts, etc., but the filmmaking is so good it could have added a deeper exploration) and the difference between Christianism and the teachings of Jesus, not to mention examples of where Christian communities and TST may have some good things in common.
But what’s most missing is an opportunity to really grapple with the fact that we all start out believing what we believe because it was handed down to us; for those of us who never change, it’s often because we were never respectfully invited to reconsider by someone who was willing to actually listen to us.
The adherents of U.S. Christianism are just as sincere as those of TST, and surely they think they’re doing just as much good. It may be that they have not been exposed to alternative points of view in a context that would allow for deep listening. Religious nationalism needs to be transcended, of course, especially when it threatens actual harm. But we are also coming to understand that inducing fear and disgust in our opponents merely reinforces the strength of their opposition. The TST members in this film are trying to do some good in the world, even bravely. But the belief that some people should have more rights than others won’t be replaced by provocation alone.