Supporters of The Satanic Temple at the rally for religious liberty in Little Rock, Arkansas (August 2018). // Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Pluralism, bitches: Satan separates church and state in Critics’ Choice-nominated documentary

By Kristy Koehler, October 21 2019⁠—

What can Satan teach us about free expression? As it turns out, quite a bit. The documentary film Hail Satan? follows The Satanic Temple and its founding members on their quest to ensure religious plurality in the United States and to troll religious extremists at the same time by using political theatre and a hefty amount of logic. The film is a lot like The Satanic Temple itself — half hilarity, half dead-serious political activism.

The film showcases their political theatrics as well as their rise from a small group of activists to a centrally-governed religious organization with chapters across the United States.

If you’ve heard The Satanic Temple in the news cycle at all, you might be familiar with a few of their larger-scale stunts. When a monument to the Ten Commandments was set to be erected on public land at a state Capitol building, the Temple petitioned for the right to have a statue of winged-goat creature Baphomet also perched on the grounds. As you can imagine, the Christian right was not amused. And, while some may see it as excessive, the Temple viewed it as a way to curtail the influence of Christianity on society and ensure that all religions receive equal representation.

Greaves describes it as a civics lesson for the government, rather than simply the middle finger to evangelicals. 

“What we want to do is force people to evaluate their notions of the United States being a Christian nation — it’s not,” says Lucien Greaves, spokesman and co-founder of The Satanic Temple, in the film. “We’re a secular nation. We are supposed to be a democratic pluralistic nation. We are supposed to be a nation that doesn’t allow the government to dictate what is appropriate religious expression.”

Another notable bit of theatrical excess took place when the Temple attempted to troll the hate-fuelled Westboro Baptist Church, holding a “pink mass” over the grave of the founder’s deceased mother and declaring her a lesbian in the afterlife — the ceremony involved a pair of testicles on a headstone and culminated in police desperately trying to decide how to charge them.

In Orange County, they fought to distribute the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities to counterbalance a Christian group’s proffering of Bibles at schools on Religious Freedom Day. They’ve collected donations of menstrual products and distributed them to schools and women’s shelters through their Menstruatin’ with Satan program, adopted a highway and used pitchforks to pick up litter, protested anti-abortion groups and generally advocated for equal rights. 

They’re also the creators of the Protect Children Project, advocating against corporal punishment and solitary confinement in schools. They argue that the practice violates their sincerely held beliefs in the inviolability of one’s body — one of The Satanic Temple’s seven tenets.

Some might be disappointed to read that the seven tenets don’t involve animal sacrifice, blood-drinking or demon-conjuring. They instead revolve around freedom and common sense — “The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend” and “To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own,” stand out. They also espouse a belief in science, reason and in acting compassionately. Quite frankly, they don’t even really believe in Satan.

“It’s called Satanism because there’s nothing else to call it — this is a socio-political counter-myth,” says a Temple member in the film.

Why aren’t Satanists just atheists if they don’t believe in a literal Satan? Well, as the film tells us, atheism defines what you’re not, while Satanism defines what you are and what you stand for. In the Bible, Satan encourages Abraham not to kill his son and tempts Jesus with water and food when he’s starving in the desert — he’s the original rebel, the adversary, the dissenter, the opposition.

The mission of The Satanic Temple, according to their website, is to “encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.”  Sure, there’s a couple of impaled pig heads and some nudity involved, but overall, Hail Satan? does a remarkable job of providing insight into the minds of the founding members and enlivening their cause.

The Temple members featured in the film are a diverse group from all walks of life. They, like Greaves, are articulate, intelligent and looking to change the world. Greaves has a quiet authority about him, is intensely logical and has managed to remain cool under pressure from media who accuse him of being nothing but a prankster.

Nominated for Best Political Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, Hail Satan? premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The film was directed by Penny Lane and distributed by Magnolia Pictures. It was hell — pardon the pun — to track down in Canada, but was finally released for purchase on a number of streaming platforms last month. 

Hail Satan? is wildly entertaining, but amid the laughs, it’s important to remember that The Satanic Temple is doing incredible work to advance the cause of equal rights, free speech and free expression at a time when these things are being eroded by ideologues. As a supporter says when the Baphoment statue is rolled up to the state capital on the back of a flatbed truck: “Pluralism, bitches!”



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