THE DEVIL YOU KNOW: INSIDE THE SATANIC TEMPLE
By: Jon Roth
It’s a Saturday night, July 2015, and across Detroit the friends and followers of The Satanic Temple prepare themselves. They powder their faces and line their eyes, smack on black lipstick and slide into corsets, robes, three-piece suits. Later they convene in an empty warehouse. It’s lit red, adorned with pentacles and an inverted cross. On stage, a woman pours wine down the throats of three naked congregants. Sadist and Wolf Eyes whip the crowd into a moshing, death metal frenzy. At the night’s fever pitch, two shirtless men pull back a tarp, and present the night’s most revered guest in all its diabolical glory: a statue of Baphomet, nine feet tall and weighing nearly a ton. Ram’s horns arc from his head, a curling beard rests on a tough, sinewy torso. He has cloven hooves. Behind him, spread wings and a pentagram. “Hail Satan!” the crowd cries. If this sounds like a particularly Goth rave, well, in a way it is. It’s also the celebration of a lawsuit brought to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. A monument to the 10 Commandments has been declared unconstitutional, which means Baphomet no longer needs to jockey for space at the state capitol. (Today’s Satanists find there’s no better way to celebrate a legal victory than writhing in the lap of a pagan deity).
It didn’t always work this way. Satanism had its first postmodern heyday when Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966 (“Year One,” he called it, as would the elderly Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, two years later). Calling themselves ‘skeptical atheists’ who nonetheless believe in lesser and greater magics, the Church of Satan prized individual autonomy above all else (sometimes with shades of Nietzsche and Rand). LaVey’s church garnered a considerable following with celebrities like Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr. and countercultural icons like Kenneth Anger during its first few decades. By the ‘70s however, schisms threatened to tear the organization apart, and soon LaVey shut down COS chapters across the US.
By the mid-80s the Satanic Panic was in full, delirious swing. Nightmares of cult devil worship and child abuse accusations took Satanism from edgy counterculture to national threat. Anton’s daughter Zeena LaVey, onetime High Priestess of COS and Taylor Swift doppelganger, made the talk show rounds trying to defend her faith. The abuse allegations were disproved, but Satanism — never an easy sell in the first place — took a serious hit. Seeing how the spotlight could burn, LaVeyan Satanists and many offshoots and competing sects practiced their religion quietly in the shadows.
But a few years ago, the Devil came back, and his new legion, The Satanic Temple, weren’t exactly shy. They first made headlines in January 2013, staging a rally in ‘support’ of Florida governor Rick Scott, who’d just advocated SB 98, a bill that would help reintroduce prayer in schools. Dressed in black, they gathered on the steps of the capitol building with a banner reading ‘Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!’ If the governor was open to prayer, then Satanists would ensure he was open to all prayers, including infernal ones. Incredulous, many news outlets called the gathering a hoax.
Six months later, America got another taste of TST’s unique form of religious expression when co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves travelled to Meridian, Mississippi and turned Fred Phelps Jr.’s dead mom gay. Wearing a horned headpiece, Greaves brought two same-sex couples to Magnolia Cemetery, whether the mother of the Westboro Baptist Church leader was buried. During the ‘Pink Mass,’ each couple kneeled over the burial plot and kissed, while Greaves burnt candles and read scripture. Afterwards, he unzipped his pants, pulled out his scrotum, and teabagged the tombstone.
In many ways, these stunts recalled contemporary instances of prankster activism— the ‘barbarian’ hordes seizing control of Michele Bachmann’s pray-the-gay-away clinic, the spate of glitter bombings that bedazzled everyone from Rick Santorum to Dan Savage — and they do share a common thread. But the Satanic Temple, which seemed at first a political diversion or fodder for a candid-camera big reveal, did something unexpected: it began taking itself seriously.
That gravity is thanks in large part to Greaves, who co-founded TST with Malcolm Jarry back in 2013. When Jarry met Greaves at Harvard, the latter was studying neuroscience. Greaves’ interest in the Satanic developed partly as a reaction to the Satanic Panic so prevalent more than two decades prior. “This witch hunt had happened, and I had witnessed it happen in the media to a certain degree, and lives were really ruined,” he said. “Later, when I began questioning the moral authority of traditional religious institutions, I was looking at what causes people to self-identify as Satanists and saw it was nothing similar to what I had understood from this kind of mainstream conspiracy theory.” That revelation, compounded by the increasing rise of the evangelical religious right, felt like a call to action.
Despite the camp appeal of black robes and horned headpieces, the faith of The Satanic Temple is no more superstitious than the Church of Satan. They don’t believe in Satan as an entity who stalks the earth, but rather as a potent symbol that defies a dogmatic status quo. “There will always be a subset of people who identify with that idea of the ultimate rebel against tyranny,” says Greaves, “people who see the God of the Bible as being a force for anti-human behavior, a force for genocide, a force for slavery, cruelty, and hatred.” This draws from a rich tradition of literary Satanism in works like Paradise Lost and Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels, where fallen angels are simply exercising free will and rationality in their disavowal of God. In positioning themselves as an atheist religion, they acknowledge the power of symbolism and ritual without burdening themselves with ancient dogma, or forceful ignorance of science.
All that, and their designation as a religion is a brilliant tactical tool. Since the Rick Scott rally and the Pink Mass, TST’s activism has grown increasingly nuanced — predicated on the belief that a government courting religion must court all religions. They’ve filed a lawsuit against the Missouri legislature for their 72-hour wait period before abortions, arguing it violates their religious beliefs in a person’s autonomy over their own body (they also raised funds for a member who couldn’t afford the travel, lodging, and lost wages it cost her to have that abortion). When Gideons began distributing Bibles in Orange County, Florida schools, the Satanic Temple circulated a Satanic coloring book until the school board voted to remove any religious content whatsoever. In June of 2015, they helped to remove a monument of the 10 Commandments from the Oklahoma capitol grounds, after lobbying to place their nine-foot statue of Baphomet beside the Judeo-Christian rulebook (today they plan to situate the statue near a different 10 Commandments landmark, over in Arkansas).
This month, they’re even taking Satan to school. In response to Good News Bible Club, an Evangelical Christian program that’s appeared in grade schools across the country, TST has founded the After School Satan Club. The Satanic club, aimed at promoting logic, self-empowerment, and reasoning, educates students with art projects, science projects, and literature readings. It also vets their instructors in each school district (there are programs in nine cities today, from Washington DC to Los Angeles) and provides a healthy snack to boot. On the Club’s FAQ page, they acknowledge religion is best kept out of schools, but “once religion invades schools, as The Good News Clubs have, The Satanic Temple will fight to ensure that plurality and true religious liberty are respected.”
Less high-profile, but just as important to Greaves is TST’s Grey Faction, aimed at exposing misinformation in the mental health world that helped foment the Satanic Panic in the first place. “Within ten years of the executions that took place in Salem, one of the presiding judges released an apology for his role in the unjust panic that happened. You had no such thing with the Satanic Panic in the US,” Greaves says. In the ‘80s, Zeena LaVey ran the talk show gauntlet, explaining on The Late Show, Entertainment Tonight, The Phil Donahue Show and The Sally Jesse Raphael Show that Satanists were in fact not encouraging children to stab corpses, or feeding babies to sharks. Zeena would later leave the church, and while other COS members have crusaded in her place, that era is often willfully forgotten. TST is determined to right that wrong, focusing specifically on mental health professionals in the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, who still believe in repressed memories and multiple personality disorder (renamed in the DSM to dissociative identity disorder). Those ideas helped propel Satanic Panic cases through courts, and have since been widely discredited by the psychiatric community. Richard Beck, whose book We Believe the Children covered the panic and contemporary abuse allegations extensively, wrote in an email “The evidence all suggests that in fact people remember traumatic incidents very well. A group like the ISSTD is way out on the fringes, which is as it should be. Many people who have been associated with it did a lot of harm in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The Faction aims to expose its proponents for their malpractice, producing petitions against practitioners like Ellen Lacter, a California-based psychologist and “ritual abuse and mind control” specialist, who counseled Gigi Jordan prior to her murder of her 8-year-old son, and Neil Brick, a licensed counsellor who holds ritual abuse conferences and believes he was brainwashed by MK-Ultra and made to commit murder. “Mentally vulnerable people are going to licensed mental health professionals and they’re being sold delusions rather than something that will help. It is the grossest irresponsibility to instill people with a trauma that wasn’t already there,” Greaves says. Even as TST pushes forth new legislation in schools and statehouses, they haven’t forgotten the one-sided smear campaigns against Satanists in decades past — this is one attempt to right it.
Today, those eager to convert can do so easily online. For the full experience, however, it’s worth a trip to their new headquarters in (where else) Salem, Massachusetts. The former funeral home was gifted to the organization from an unnamed benefactor, and today houses an art gallery — including the much-vaunted statue of Baphomet himself. “It is the Satanic Temple,” says Greaves, who keeps offices above the first-floor gallery and plans to hold classes, lectures and ordinations in the space. “The capacity isn’t very high, but we’re putting together an online platform to stream these events to the rest of TST community internationally.” They did just that this past July, when chapter members from Detroit, San Jose, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Florida streamed a live viewing of the After School Satan Club’s promotional trailer. It turns out Satan is 100% digitally native.
When he helped found TST, Greaves says he was already a Satanist, but felt “the idea of Satanism had, at that time, kind of withered into this discarded cultural relic from the 60s.” That’s no longer the case. The Satanic Temple has become au courant — alt media like Vice cover their every move with fascination; conservative outlets decry each campaign with renewed fury; some right-wing Libertarians even applaud their championing of religious plurality. In three years, the Satanic Temple has spread like hellfire from one pamphleteering rally to an organization with vibrant chapters across the country and the world. As their activism grows more incisive, so does the cultural history they’re building around the faith, shoring up symbolic artwork and literature that honors a tradition of rational rebellion. Along the way, they’ve managed to start one of the more progressive faiths in America.
Images courtesy of The Satanic Temple.