William Blake said that in characterising Lucifer as an understandable rebel in Paradise Lost John Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Satan means as much to as many cultures as God does, and not just in the simple opposition of Evil and Good – in times of big monolithic societies, the very concept of an Adversary becomes precious. Which is one of the many valid points made by Lucian Greaves, founder and motive force of The Satanic Temple – a group initially formed to highlight the way America’s constitutionally-enshrined separation of church and state was being eroded by a particular brand of evangelical Christian encroachment in public spaces.
When a former preacher turned Senator made it a personal project to erect a big fuck-off monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Arkansas State Legislature, TST counter-agitated for a statue of goat-headed Baphomet to be put up next to it in order to maintain the concept of America as a pluralist nation. It’s the sort of serious prank that democracies need – though Penny Lane’s documentary shows a pure exercise getting out of hand, and conjuring up a doppelganger church (TST was only founded in 2013) which is in two minds about whether they really want their statue (which does get made) up or just hope that the threat of ridicule means the State sticking by its supposed secular principles and nixing the Ten Commandments too. The Baphomet statue looks more like a prop from The Devil’s Rain – one of several horror films excerpted – than public art, but one of the ironies teased out in retelling the story is that those Moses-approved chunks all round the country were originally provided by Paramount Pictures as part of the promotional campaign for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1956. Greaves admits a certain frustration with the legal process – much of the temple’s meagre funds, raised by donations and selling badges, is devoted to a far less amusing-seeming battle against the restriction of abortion rights – but also a growing sense that the Christian Right has such a lock on things that the consititution itself isn’t going to stop Rapert getting his commandments lodged in place – in fact, lodged back in place after a non-Satanist advocate of constitutional freedom trashes it with a pick-up truck.
Lane interviews a range of fairly unthreatening Satanists – or, at least, members of TST – who have a familiar range of tattoos, piercings and leather outfits and elucidate their personal path to the Fallen One. Most telling is the context about the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 80s when churches condemned Dungeons and Dragons and Metal music as gateways to Hell, with real innocent people being accused and condemned on evidence flimsier than that brought into court in Salem during the original witch trials … at the same time that several organised Christian religions were covering up extensive child abuse practiced by their own clergy. It’s a strong point, though – like Greaves – these people are all about making points rather than even the sort of charletanish occult pursuits of Anton LaVey, let alone the related and sincere beliefs and practices of a whole range of Wiccans, Hoodooists, witches, voodoo practitioners, and – even – Devil worshippers.
Late in the film, there’s a fracture in the Temple as Detroit chapter head Jex Blackmore calls for more violent forms of protest (eg: executing President Trump) and is expelled from an organistion that espouses non-violence. She wryly cites the irony of being expelled from a Satanic Temple for being too extreme, and Greaves mutters a little about being a little uncomfortable that his situationist prank has got so big it actually has to have an organisation and rules – but it’s worth remembering (as the film doesn’t) that Norwegian Satanists took their adversarial role so seriously they burned down thousand-year-old churches. The rules of TST, when stated aloud in contrast to the Ten Commandments, sound oddly reasonable and paradoxically more like the kind of thing Christ would endorse than the bullying, hectoring tone adopted by the counter-counter-protesters to the counter-protest group. But ‘do what thou wilt – that shall be the whole of the law’ is another thing entirely. Much of the Temple’s activity is trolling – especially when they espouse good causes (cleaning up litter, donating socks to the homeless) like any other church group, or even start a reasonable-seeming After School Satan Club just to tick off evangelicals who get furious when their monopoly on such access is challenged.
Greaves, with a milky glass eye, initially hired a robed actor as figurehead, but realised he’d have to step up and be the public face of the Temple on talk shows and in the media. As interesting, perhaps are the less showy Satanists who admit they’ve adopted the term because it’s more fun than being an atheist and see this path as the best way to wrestle with a tyrannical streak in American Christianity. Among Senator Rapert’s supporters are the makers of the film God’s Not Dead 2. Ironically, that film (and other evangelical productions) present a beleaguered paranoid fantasy America in which vast, well-funded, powerful forces are ranged against struggling, poor-but-honest just plain decent church folks. The litter-picking Satanists seen are exactly like the imaginary oppressed, but bedrock decent Christians of the GND pictures – which probably isn’t what LaVey, Aleister Crowley or even John Milton would have wanted.