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Satanic displays have no place in government buildings

Religious freedom is no blank check for the celebration of evil

Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the Satanic Temple, stands inside the headquarters of the Satanic Temple in Salem, Mass., on Oct. 24, 2016. Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola

Satanic displays have no place in government buildings

A story out of Iowa, a state not typically known for its transgressive cultural values, is making headlines. According to local reports, under the guise of religious freedom, an organization called the Satanic Temple has installed a Satanic display in Iowa’s Capitol building. During Christmas season, no less.

To make matters even sillier, the group admits that it does not worship Satan or, wait for it, even believe in Satan. It is hard not to see the whole episode as anything other than merely a juvenile and symbolic gimmick meant to poke and provoke conservative Christians and their own defenses of religious liberty.

But it does raise an interesting thought experiment in the limits of religious freedom. If the First Amendment is there for every citizen, is it there for every view? Before I get to my answer, allow me to make a few important distinctions before I get to the substantive question.

First of all, as Christians, we should be very clear: There is zero theological right for Satanic displays because there is no theological right to worship Satan. Sure, individuals will use the faculty of their consciences how they see fit, but that does not mean staunch advocates of religious liberty (like me) defend the endpoint of where their consciences lead them. Religious liberty is not viewpoint equality; it normatively means only legal viewpoint neutrality. If religious liberty means anything at all, it is that God judges the conscience—not the government or your fellow citizen. And make no mistake—God will judge.

Moreover, in Christian considerations of “rights,” moral evil has no intrinsic rights. It is within the purview of the natural law for even the non-Christian government official to discern moral excellence from moral evil (1 Peter 2:14). A non-Christian could still understand that Satanic displays advance moral darkness. Moral evil of this type cannot claim an equal right to public acceptance as a moral good. Rights exist to protect the ability of individuals to fulfill the moral duties consistent with human flourishing. Rights do not protect moral evil for the sake of moral evil.

We allow—and do not promote—moral evil as merely a consequence of people misusing and abusing their rights. At some point, though, political communities determine that some moral evils reach a threshold of such harm that they can no longer be allowed and are restricted through criminal punishment. This is chiefly a legislative question before it is a judicial question. The people working through their government determine where those lines should be drawn so that too much liberty does not harm the community and, likewise, that a burdensome legalism does not squelch liberty.

All is fine and well on the theological front. But what about the legal argument that Satanists are citizens whose views are protected under the First Amendment, like those of Baptists?

To think that raising questions about the limits of constitutional rights is somehow scandalous and illegitimate in itself is to misunderstand constitutionalism.

Since I have written a book called Liberty for All, which argued for an expansive account of religious liberty, it may surprise you to know that I do not believe there is even a political right for Satanic displays in government buildings.

Constitutional analysis is determined through legal tests of adjudication, and no right is absolute. Even John Locke, one of the most influential philosophers who would frame American political thought, believed that atheists threatened public order and deserved no toleration. To think that raising questions about the limits of constitutional rights is somehow scandalous and illegitimate in itself is to misunderstand constitutionalism. Constitutionalism is a social pact for agreed-upon cooperation. For good or for ill, depending on the question at hand, every constitutional order is guided by some explicit or implicit limiting principles.

So, if I were on the Supreme Court and a comparable case arose, I would uphold the Constitution and ask the following questions related to relevant facts: (1) Does the religion occupy a traditional understanding of what a religion is (e.g., is it theist?)? (2) Does the religion have a history and tradition behind it germane to our nation’s history and culture? (3) Is the religion widespread in its practice within the nation? (4) Would the reasonable observer understand the religious expression to advance some notion of civic and moral good? (5) Would the same reasonable observer judge the display to advance a prurient purpose? In other words, is there any redeeming value to the religious display, or is its presence merely to offend for the sake of offense? (6) Does America have a tradition of allowing sacrilegious displays in government buildings? (7) Is this a sincerely held belief?

Given the fact that those who sponsored this display deny any sincerely held Satanic beliefs, the last question is settled. But Satanic displays would fail all the factual questions of my test above. Satanism, whether real or pretend, is an outright celebration of evil, darkness, and perversity. So, in my view, there should be no Satanic displays in government buildings. Yes, even a Baptist can say such things.

This can be argued for without concerns of compromising a broad framework for religious freedom or fears of conservative Protestants becoming Reformed Ayatollahs. Drawing critical distinctions is necessary for identifying the limits of constitutional principles. Even still, to say that Satan worship does not belong in a government building does not mean that Satan worshippers should be arrested, executed, or banished to an island. Even if one opposes Satanic displays in government buildings, that does not mean I would advocate for police busting down the doors of Satan worshippers. But if you want to make the case to me that Satanists pose a direct public threat because of how their beliefs influence their behavior, that’s fine, too.

In the end, a well-ordered society will keep Satanic nonsense out of government buildings.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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